Alabama Coach Nick Saban has been the head man for a number of years, but he wears two hats at practice. One of them is tutoring the cornerbacks. This year, Mel Tucker has come in from the NFL to coach Crimson Tide safeties.
Saban said, “To be a good defensive back, you’ve got to be able to tackle, you’ve got to be able to play man-to-man, you’ve got to be able to play the long deep part of the field. Those are three critical factors, I don’t care which position you’re playing.
“But a corner is going to be in a lot more one-on-one situations than a safety. Play his guy. Play the ball in the deep part of the field. Not have to run support quite as much, but he's going to get put in more isolated situations probably five or six times a game where those are the plays the good corners make.
“A safety probably is going to be in more situations where he has to fit the run and be a good tackler, be a more physical player, be a little more durable. And probably—even though he's not going to be in as many one-on-one situations—his range at the position to break on the ball is probably more critical.
So safeties are a little bigger, they don't have to be quite as fast.”
One thing that brought up the discussion is that Eddie Jackson, who made his comeback from last spring’s knee surgery with a first team assignment at cornerback last fall, is getting a look at safety in this last week of spring practice.
Alabama has only three of 15 spring practice dates remaining, workouts on Tuesday and Thursday and the A-Day Game Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Saban added a quality for defensive backs. “Instincts really help,” he said, “and that’s one thing that Eddie’s always had – really good football instincts and awareness.”
He said the move “worked out really well for us,” although adding the evaluation of that experiment will continue.
“In the long run,” Saban said, “we want to get our best players on the field in the secondary, and make sure they fit the roles that they need to play. In this day and age, we end up playing a lot of five DBs, we end up playing six DBs in some cases on third down. When we play multiple wideout teams with four wideouts or more. So, (you have) to have the right components to fit the parts.
“What happens with Eddie is it’s just not all about Eddie, it’s how the other corners develop. The experiment was to see how he’d adapt to playing safety, and that’s going very well. So now we have the option of playing him at corner or safety. I don’t think we need to make that decision right now, but I think it is affected by how everybody else progresses.”
Saban followed at up discussion of the Jackson experiment with a bit of a surprise, noting that Jackson is working alongside Geno Smith. Smith had been suspended earlier during spring practice after having been arrested for driving under the influence.
“Having Eddie and Geno back there for us gave us two guys that have played some, have experience, understand the system a little bit.”
Saban elaborated on the return of Smith.
“Geno has done the things that he's supposed to do to this point,” Saban said. “He has more things to do when the semester is over. He was out for seven days, (did) what he needed to do, did it all correctly, did it the way we wanted him to do it. We test him every day. So if he continues to do the right things, he can continue to perform. Geno has not been a problem on the field in terms of his performance. So we're encouraged to have him back and hopefully he'll continue to improve and make good choices and decisions about what he does.”
Another experiment involving safety has been the move of true freshman Deionte Thompson from safety to wide receiver.
That leaves sophomore Hootie Jones and true freshman Ronnie Harrison working with Jackson and Smith at the two safety spots. In the spring, Alabama doesn’t practice the safeties at strongside and weakside (or free) spots. They play left and right so they are prepared to play regardless if the offensive formation to their side is strong or weak.
As for the cornerbacks, it is important to remember that Cyrus Jones, who had post-season hip surgery, is not participating in spring practice. Jones had a rocky transition from wide receiver to cornerback a couple of seasons ago, but he has become an accomplished cornerback. The goal this spring is to find others.
Saban said, “Tony Brown has done a good job, but needs to work on his consistency, doing things the right way all the time, but he’s had a really good spring. Maurice Smith has had a really good spring. Marlon Humphrey has made progress. Anthony Averett (who moved from wide receiver) has done a good job this spring at corner. So those four guys have really done well.” Although he didn’t mention Bradley Sylve, the senior appears to be working with the first group at cornerback, as he has in the past.
Saban said with Cyrus Jones being out this spring, “it’s great from the standpoint that there’s somebody else getting a lot of playng time, a lot of reps, a lot of experience, which is going to add to the depth of our team. But it also affects the continuity and the quality of the players you have out there.
“But we’d rather have those guys back and ready and healthy for fall camp, because really the whole goal is to be ready for the first game.”