Testing the secondary is the most viable option for fifth-year senior Michigan State Spartans quarterback Connor Cook, winner of the 2015 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. He boasts a 34-4 record as a starter, 23-2 versus Big Ten opponents. His favorite target is 6-1, 208 pound wide receiver Aaron Burbridge. The Big Ten Quarterback and Wide Receiver of the Year are a lethal combination. Burbridge caught seven touchdown passes while leading the conference in receptions with 80 and yardage, 1,219. Both were not shy during the days leading up to the Cotton Bowl Classic matchup to express their belief about attacking the Tide secondary. They feel Alabama is vulnerable to the deep ball.
Veterans and highly talented first year players comprise a secondary unit allowing 184.2 passing yards per game, 17th nationally. Alabama junior safety Eddie Jackson, 6-1, 194 pounds, earned Second Team All-America and All-SEC honors. Two of the other starters, 5-10, 196 pound cornerback Cyrus Jones and 6-0, 196 pound safety Geno Matias-Smith are quality senior veteran performers.
Three first year players are major contributors for the Alabama Crimson Tide. The game may hinge on their performance. Marlon Humphrey was selected to the All-SEC Freshman Team. The redshirted freshman, a 6-1, 192 pound cornerback, totaled 40 tackles, 2.5 for loss (-14), three interceptions, two forced fumbles and five pass breakups.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, 6-1, 196 pounds, mans the star position. He was named a Freshmen All-American and to the Freshman All-SEC Team. Fitzpatrick recorded 41 tackles, three for a loss (-18), two interceptions both returned for touchdowns, eight pass breakups and one quarterback hurry. The true freshman blocked one punt and returned that for a score.
Reserve freshman safety Ronnie Harrison, 6-3, 218 pounds, tallied 14 tackles, two interceptions, one sack (-5), a single quarterback hurry and forced fumble along with four pass breakups.
The trio share some common traits and experiences. All came from very successful high school programs. Humphrey was an in-state product from Hoover High School (AL). Fitzpatrick ventured south to Tuscaloosa from St. Peter’s Prep (NJ). Harrison played at FSU University School (FL).
Josh Niblett, head coach of Hoover High School stated, “Marlon is very physically and mentally strong. He really understands the game. Nobody is going to work any harder than him. He takes a lot of pride in mastering his trade. He has always had a plan and high expectations for himself.” Humphrey, an outstanding track sprinter and hurdler, brings versatility to the position. “He can play any technique whether it’s press, shuffling out or off, zone pointing or playing the divider. He can do all those things plus he is good on run support. He has good ball skills, understands leverage and has great hips to play the cornerback position.” Niblett praised Humphrey for his infectious personality and great sense of humor. “People gravitate to him. No moment is too big for him.”
St. Peter’s Prep head coach Rich Hansen said of his former two-way player, “I’ve never coached a kid more driven or with a passion for his craft than Minkah. It is probably the second most important thing in his life other than family. Football is his passion. He loves it and takes a lot of pride in his performance and preparation.” Coming from outside the Southeast, Nick Saban had a pointed question for Hansen. “The first thing Coach Saban asked me was does he have what it takes to play at Alabama. I said Coach, he has what it takes to play anywhere in the country. Really, it is his unparalleled work ethic.” The morning after playing a phenomenal game and winning the state championship, Hansen called Fitzpatrick the next afternoon. His pupil was huffing and puffing on the telephone because he was training. Fitzpatrick replied to his coach about the pursuit of perfection, “It never ends.”
FSU University School head coach Jarrod Hickman said of his former quarterback and two-way player, “Ronnie’s football IQ is one thing that separates him. He is such a football savvy player. He is willing to put the work in to study film. He can get to that curve a little bit quicker than maybe most. He is very smart and intelligent.” He added, “Ronnie was so well liked by his teammates because he was part of the group. He is pretty low key off the field.”
The Cotton Bowl Classic Media Day held on Tuesday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington was a chance for ‘BamaMag.com to approach Humphrey, Fitzpatrick and Harrison along with first year assistant head coach/defensive backs coach, Mel Tucker. Listen and watch as the three newcomers address the challenges presented by the Michigan State Spartans and discuss their year competing for the Crimson Tide. Coach Tucker added his thoughts on the trio, MSU QB Connor Cook and the Spartans passing schemes.