"They're trying to; they're trying to," he said with a laugh. "Actually, there are two things that are maybe the hardest thing to do in football. One is to play the deep pass when you've gotten spun around. And the other one is to field a punt when 21 guys are running down in your face.
"We worked on (turning to look for the ball). We worked on it all the time. But that's just one of the hardest things to do. Hopefully it will happen, but time will tell."
Cornerbacks capable of running stride-for-stride on the deep routes AND looking for the ball when the time comes would certainly answer many Bama fans' prayers. But after last season's abysmal 3-8 record, there is an entire secondary to be rebuilt. "The cornerbacks are making progress," Thurmond said. "They did a good job on the man coverages, and they are learning on the combination coverages. In the fall we still need to work on moving around and disguising our coverages, though."
For the entire 2000 season Alabama cornerbacks managed only four interceptions. And the departure of Milo Lewis means that not a single cornerback currently on the squad picked off a pass last year.
So obviously the Tide athletes have a lot to learn from Thurmond on how to play their position. "Playing corner, the thing you've got to work on is learning what to look at and what not to look at," Thurmond explained. "There are so many things going on in front of you, and offenses are trying to do so many things that get you out of your comfort zone.
"An effective corner just has to learn to let the play unfold in front of him slowly. You need to almost see the play in slow-motion instead of in fast-motion. And that just takes reps and time. It takes realizing that no matter what the offense does, there are only two things I'm looking at. Just not try to do too much."
Beyond just coverage skills, cornerbacks on a Dennis Franchione defense are expected to tackle. And unfortunately that hasn't exactly been a strong point at Alabama in recent seasons. In 2000, Gerald Dixon's 32 tackles were good enough for 12th on the squad, but of the returning athletes only Hirchel Bolden with 12 had a significant number.
Thurmond is quick to point out that both TCU's starting cornerbacks last year could bench press over 400 pounds, so it's obvious the current Tide athletes have some catching up to do. "We tried to stress not to be just good cover guys but physical tacklers, too," Thurmond said. "And they made an effort to do that. The players responded."
Spring practice was a time for the new coaches to get to know the athletes at their position. And perhaps surprisingly Thurmond found several names he thinks can contribute. "There was a lot of competition at cornerback," he said. "We've got our depth chart based on what they did in the spring, but we haven't completely zeroed in on anyone yet. Nobody has totally separated themselves. The players have accepted and responded to the competition. They're worked hard and are still learning."
Things could obviously change before kickoff versus UCLA, but returning starter Gerald Dixon is still listed No. 1 at left cornerback. And the junior suddenly finds himself thrust into a leadership position. "Smoke has done a good job accepting that role," Thurmond said. "He's our representative on the Leadership Council. (The coaches) asked him to take a leadership role, but he does that anyway. He has a personality that lends itself to that, and he's taken on that role. He's doing those things so far."
On the other side, junior Hirchel Bolden emerged from spring atop the depth chart. An offensive star in high school who at times struggled mightily at Alabama with the switch to defense, Bolden seemed to do well under the new coaching staff. "Hirchel was a quarterback in high school--a great option quarterback," Thurmond said. "But the thing that Hirchel has is great feet--and he's really athletic.
"With all defensive backs, you create situations and times where they have to be physical. And Hirchel is doing that. He made plays for us on the goal line during spring. A lot of people substitute and take (their corners) out in those situations, but we bring our corners up (to the line). We think we've got speed and tough guys out there. They've just got to go bang around and make plays. And our corners have shown that they can do that so far."
So does that mean he's satisfied with the current talent level at his position? Like most coaches taking over a new group of athletes, Thurmond prefers to wait awhile before answering that one. "We've got talent, but you can never really answer that question until you play. We didn't focus so much on the talent level in spring as we did on the work ethic, teaching the players how to practice. The talent level will answer itself as we get into the season."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Coach Thurmond also gave a scouting report on the other cornerbacks currently listed on the Tide depth chart. Check back with BamaMag.com for that story.