TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It could almost be called Alabama’s phoenix position group.
More the once during the Nick Saban era has the secondary burned out in spectacular fashion, with the Crimson Tide losing just about everyone at the same time due to graduation and early departures for the National Football League.
Yet each time, after some growing pains, it’s always come back renewed, just as good as before — maybe even better.
A year ago Alabama didn’t have any returning starters among the defensive backs, where having veterans may be most essential. All four stalwarts in the base defense, plus the two it relied upon when needing extra help in pass coverage, had to be replaced.
However, now the opposite is true. Almost.
During the spring the Crimson Tide only had one new player in the base formation, stepping in for an early departure for the NFL draft. Even the nickel and dime packages had players who had been used in that role last season, including one with 37 games of experience.
Consequently, the secondary has gone from being the most inexperienced to one of Alabama’s most accomplished position groups.
Moreover, Saban, who works with the defensive backs during practices, added an extra assistant coach in the secondary with Charles Kelly, the former defensive coordinator at Florida State who might be in line for the same job at Alabama should Pete Golding not stick around long (the staff turnover has become so extreme that Saban’s had to add built-in contingencies). While he’s handling the safeties, Karl Scott is focused on the cornerbacks.
So there’s a lot to like with the group.
“Yeah, there’s definitely a lot more experience with the guys we have now since we have game experience and a lot of us have played,” said safety Xavier McKinney, a junior. “I think that’s a big thing. It helps us with our chemistry.”
Keying the unit are two cornerbacks who are worthy of wearing the shutdown label.
Trevon Diggs was having a breakout season last season when he suffered a fractured foot at Arkansas on Oct. 6. Prior to the injury he was tied for fourth in the SEC in passes defensed at seven during the first five games.
It’s the kind of injury one’s never quite sure how a player will come back from, but he didn’t appear to have any issues during the spring.
Even before Diggs’ setback, Patrick Surtain Jr. had already worked his way into the starting lineup despite being a true freshman last season. He was inserted on the second defensive play at Ole Miss on Week 3 after the Rebels scored on their first snap. He went on to earn SEC All-Freshman Team honors from the league coaches.
“He’s always been, I think, really good,” Diggs said about Surtain.
Both are tall, lanky and fast, exactly what’s considered ideal by coaches at the position. They’re the kind of corners you can build a defense around because they can man up, potentially nullifying an offense’s two best options in the passing game, allowing it to zero in on everything else.
Their names should look familiar to even non-Crimson Tide fans. Diggs is the younger brother of Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs, and Surtain’s father was an All-Pro with the Miami Dolphins. One of his coaches was Saban.
“Those guys are both good players, I think they played well last year when they played,” Saban said. “I think they can improve.
“Paying attention to detail, using the knowledge and experience of some of the things they can learn from a year ago can really help them – and I think the fact that we have really good receivers out there that require you to do things the right way is going to help those guys because they’re going to get challenged every day. That will be helpful to them as well.”
However, Alabama had a third cornerback step up during the offseason, Josh Jobe. He progressed to the point that coaches know that they could plug him in and and slide someone else to the nickel spot, called star in Saban’s scheme – which always benefits from versatility and coaches having more options.
“He's a physical dude, tough, good speed, can run with pretty much anybody,” McKinney said about Jobe. “I think his technique is good.”
Meanwhile, at safety McKinney emerged as a defensive leader last season. He was third in tackles with 73, including six for a loss and three sacks, with two interceptions and 10 pass breakups. Plus, he was named the defensive MVP of the Orange Bowl in the College Football Playoff.
As for filling the void left by Deionte Thompson, senior Jared Mayden had a solid spring and ended a lot of the angst fans had about the position.
“That’s my boy,” McKinney said. “He’s an older guy so he already knows how things work around here. He knows the plays. So there’s not really much you can’t do with him. He knows everything. He’s just out there just playing ball.”
Added to the mix is Shyheim Carter, a senior who was the star last season, but could play anywhere in the secondary. While he was limited during the spring after having surgery for a sports hernia, coaches gave other players snaps to provide depth, including both Diggs and Surtain.
Alabama also has a strong collection of reserves including Nigel Knott, Jalyn Armour-Davis, Daniel Wright and Eddie Smith, who will help fill out the depth chart and aim to move up next year. Plus, the Crimson Tide added five highly rated defensive backs in the recruiting Class of 2019.
There’s a lot to like about Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams, Jeffery Carter, Brandon Turnage and Marcus Banks, who were all rated as upper-end 4-star prospects and are all 6-foot or taller.
Battle will arrive with the most hype as he was touted as being one of the best safeties in the nation, while Carter was the only early enrollee.
As a result, it may be a long time before Alabama has serious concerns about the secondary again.
This is the seventh story in a summer series previewing the 2019 Crimson Tide: