Nick Saban doing something right on the recruiting trail isn’t breaking news.
It may not even be news in any must-see category at this point.
His prowess on the trail, equipped with an elite staff who can resonate with kids coast to coast, has been well-documented, analyzed and probably over-analyzed over the years.
But the 2015 season, with UA’s secondary in particular, has brought to light a pair of major constants within his rarely-changing plan most around him call “the process.” A standard of skill at the position he works with most and finding elites who are willing to buy into multiple spots, like a long-standing television series that requires auditions every year.
The traits were ever-present in a five-star like freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has become Alabama’s version of the Honey Badger (the ‘Bama Badger?) with his ball skill, timely turnovers and ability to convert those turnovers into points simultaneously.
It works the other way, too, like with late-emerging three-star prospect Eddie Jackson in the class of 2013. It doesn’t matter when the Crimson Tide decides prospect X is a major target, it’s about sealing the deal and getting him to Tuscaloosa from just outside of New York City or from down in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, respectively.
It’s about the traits. Yes, each satisfies the skeleton desire for most Saban defensive backs -- be around 6-foot tall, in the 180-plus pound range. Fitz and EJ had the other elements of the plan locked down as well, mainly position versatility and the ability to play offense at a high level. Neither would likely see any time on the other side of the ball while donning crimson and white, but starring there at the prep level helped set the precedent for game-changing plays not only Saturday on the road at Texas A&M, but all season long.
Each was fostered by a big position switch.
Fitzpatrick did it last fall, in 2014, as he looked to get more involved for New Jersey powerhouse St. Peter’s Prep after seeing teams avoid the cornerback earlier in his accolade-heavy career. He was still the go-to guy for now Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush on offense, either at wide receiver or running back, but something needed to be different on D during his senior season.
It’s almost as if Saban knew he’d be an interior secondary-man, at least early in his Alabama career, creating a win-win situation for the budding star.
“The switch to safety made complete sense because it allowed him to play all over the field instead of being isolated at cornerback, where nobody would test him,” Scout National Recruiting Analyst Brian Dohn said. “It allowed him to gain valuable experience and not only see things in the passing game right in front of him, but also how to read the run.
“His big impact at Alabama so far has been in the passing game, skills he started to hone at St. Peter’s Prep because of his ability to break quickly on the ball and his understanding of how to read receivers and their routes. He was also a very good running back and receiver there and that shows in his ball tracking skills at Alabama.”
There’s buying in with a reliance, like many high school elites can do because they are simply bigger and better than most all of their competition. But Dohn, who was as close to the program and to Fitzpatrick as anyone in the industry, says the former No. 1 player in New Jersey did it with college in mind, not simply for Friday nights. He had to take the transition to the next level.
“One thing that got overlooked with him in high school was his off the field work,” he said. “He put in a ton of time in the film room and in the weight room. In the film room he needed to learn how to play the safety position and how to keep his eyes in the backfield and also track receivers.
“If he did not have that year of experience at St. Peter’s Prep, I don’t think he’d have the success he’s having right now at Alabama.”
Jackson's well-documented move came halfway through his college career, after starting for large parts of his freshman season as a cornerback and showing plenty of flashes in the process. He battled guys like LaQuon Treadwell in addition to injuries over the last two years before the young haul of guys like Fitzpatrick, Marlon Humphrey, Tony Brown and others combined with a true need for savvy and experience behind them -- at safety.
No matter how apprehensive he was, Jackson made the move and hasn’t looked back as he leads UA in interceptions with five.
“Instincts really help,” Saban said in the Spring of Jackson’s position change. “And that’s one thing Eddie’s always had -- really good football instincts and awareness. In the long run, 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…
“What happens with Eddie is just not about Eddie, it’s how the other corners develop. The (then) experiment was to see how he’d adapt to playing safety, and it’s going very well.”
It’s almost like Saban knows what he’s doing on the recruiting trail with defensive backs. Length, ball skill, position versatility and most importantly, finding elites who are willing to help Alabama win games today, no matter the position. The process continues to work in many ways, perhaps none more evident in Alabama’s secondary. Jackson may be an NFL cornerback in the end and Fitzpatrick could be the same, but each adjusting to playing inside shortly after a transition is a big win for Saban’s theory on recruiting defensive backs and a bigger win for Alabama’s dominant defense in 2015.
The duo has a combined seven interceptions, including four returned for touchdowns. Fitzpatrick also has a blocked punt he returned for a score at Georgia and has a pair of sacks to his name as well. Both he and Jackson sit with 24 tackles, good for fifth on the team, while sitting first and second on the roster in passes defended.