Why Alabama Is a Sweet Home for Defensive Backs
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if your team needs a safety in this week’s draft, look here.
By Jeff Fedotin
As a two-time captain under University of Alabama coach Nick Saban, Rashad Johnson had orchestrated every kind of defensive scheme — quarters, cover 2, fire zone blitz, etc. — imaginable. So, when the Arizona Cardinals drafted him in 2009, the rookie’s NFL playbook resembled his college one … almost. “It was actually easier,” says Johnson. “It definitely was a lot simpler, a little bit more straightforward.”
Armed with football tutelage, safeties from Alabama are charting out a unique trajectory straight to the NFL. During Saban’s tenure at Alabama, which has included five national titles, six safeties have been drafted into the NFL. Since 2014 only Louisville has had as many safeties drafted as Alabama, and no school can match its success once they get there.
In the past two years, safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins combined for three Pro Bowl nods, 63 starts, 15 interceptions and 300 tackles. As a rookie last year, Bears safety Eddie Jackson started all 16 games and returned two turnovers for touchdowns.
No one is as prepared to enter the NFL and play at a high level more than the guys that come from Alabama.
Rashad Johnson, former NFL safety
Alabama will almost certainly have two more safeties — Minkah Fitzpatrick, a lock to go in the first 10 picks, and Ronnie Harrison, expected to go no later than the second round — selected early in the NFL draft this week.
“I referred to the talent coming out of there as ‘U-Haul U.’ They basically have a lineage at every position,” says Alabama color analyst Phil Savage, who is also executive director of the Senior Bowl. “The safeties have been particularly impressive in terms of the guys that come into the NFL.”
That safety pipeline to the NFL is a direct result of Alabama’s talent and coaching. From 2010 to 2017, Alabama has brought in the top-ranked recruiting class every year, according to recruiting site Rivals.com, except 2010 (when it ranked fifth) and 2015 (when it ranked second). Once at Alabama, those recruits receive detailed instruction from Saban, a guru of the position after playing safety from 1970–72 at Kent State — before suffering a career-ending knee injury — and serving as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns from 1991–94. Longtime NFL assistant coach Rick Venturi told Savage that he thought Saban was the “greatest defensive back coach to ever walk the face of the planet.”
Alabama’s all-world safeties play in a system with pro terminology and variable assignments that adjust to opponents on the fly, making for a seamless transition to the next level. The emphasis is on sound tackling, taking good angles, understanding offensive alignment and then communicating that to the rest of the team. “Their defense is an NFL defense,” says ESPN Insider’s Matt Bowen, who played 77 games as an NFL safety from 2000–06.
And Saban provides firsthand tutelage. During the individual period, which is early in practice, he goes through the drills with the safeties, throwing them balls or giving detailed suggestions about technique — like explaining at what half-yard a player needs to move his inside foot. When they split into 7-on-7 or team drills, most of Saban’s focus is still on defense. “He’s very, very hands-on,” says Johnson. “He loves spending time over there with the safeties.”
Like he does with all of his safeties, Saban taught Johnson how to study film and diagnose what offenses will do from certain formations. “He makes you dive in and become a smarter player, so you can be that dominant general on the field,” says Johnson. “No one is as prepared to enter the NFL and play at a high level more than the guys that come from Alabama.”
The elite Alabama safeties are different in style, but they’re all “smart and physical,” says Bowen. “Those are the two things that always jump [out] to me about Bama safeties.”
The first of the current starting NFL safeties, Clinton-Dix was selected in the first round in 2014 by the Packers. The 6-foot-1, 208-pounder has great range, and his ball skills and fluid hips allow him to play fast. The Giants drafted Clinton-Dix’s college defensive backfield mate, the 6-foot, 218-pound Collins, in the second round in 2015. For an ESPN the Magazine feature, Bowen watched film with Collins. A versatile player and lethal blitzer, Collins quickly diagnosed pre-snap adjustments and identified opponent weaknesses. “A brilliant football player, that’s what Landon Collins is,” Bowen says. “He’s a star.”
Drafted in the fourth round of 2017, Eddie Jackson, 6 feet tall and 202 pounds, would’ve been selected earlier if not for a history of injuries. Jackson started out as a cornerback but lost a step after tearing his ACL, so Alabama moved the junior to safety, where he showcased his ability as a ball magnet. “Overthrows, tipped balls,” says Savage, the Browns’ general manager from 2005–08, “they found him, and he found them. There was an instinctive nature about Eddie’s game.”
After Jackson broke his leg during his senior season, Saban moved the 6-foot-1, 202-pound Fitzpatrick, a day one starter at cornerback, to free safety as Jackson’s replacement. Savage calls him a “modern-day Jim Thorpe.” One of the best defensive players in the draft, he can blitz off the edge, tackle in space or cover slot receivers. On last year’s national championship squad, Fitzpatrick played with the 6-foot-3, 214-pound Harrison, a mammoth safety who is physical against the run but can lock down tight ends in man-to-man coverage.
Now, with a slew of defensive backs set for selection in the 2018 NFL draft, Alabama needs to reload at the position. Sophomore Xavier McKinney and redshirt junior Deionte Thompson are likely candidates. “It’s a full-fledged makeover in the back end of their defense for this next year,” Savage says.
But Alabama may be ready. When Bowen was watching last year’s college football playoff, he wrote down Thompson’s name in his notes. Thompson earned his first career start in that game, recording four tackles and a near interception, and his potential as Alabama’s next star safety jumped out at Bowen.
At stake are more than wins and losses. There’s a growing legacy to protect. At Alabama, says Johnson, “we definitely pride ourselves at that position.”
- Jeff Fedotin, OZY Author Contact Jeff Fedotin