The way college football is played today, and particularly with the extraordinary skills of quarterbacks and bigger wide receivers, a case can be made that the most difficult defensive position to play is cornerback.
At Alabama, the cornerbacks get particular practice attention in that Crimson Tide Head Coach Nick Saban is the position coach.
The Crimson Tide suffered a big loss with the graduation of Cyrus Jones, who came to Bama as a wide receiver and ended up as one of the most solid cornerbacks in the Southeastern Conference – though his defensive skills took a backseat in attention because of his exceptional work as a punt return man.
Also lost to graduation was backup corner Bradley Sylve.
The cupboard, though, is not bare.
Alabama returns basically two starters, though one of them was a nickel back last season.
Marlon Humphrey (6-1, 192) came to Alabama in 2014 with high expectations, and it was a bit of a surprise that he was redshirted in that first year. The son of former Alabama great running back Bobby Humphrey kept working, though, and he was a starter in every game as Alabama won the 2015 national championship.
That 45-40 win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff championship game will long be remembered for Saban’s gutsy call for an on-side kick and for Humphrey pulling it in, leading to a Bama touchdown.
Humphrey was named to the Freshman All-SEC team as he was in on 45 tackles (including four for lost yardage), made three interceptions, broke up eight passes, and caused two fumbles. His interceptions came at Georgia, at Mississippi State, and in the SEC Championship Game against Florida.
A true freshman starter in the Alabama secondary last year was Minkah Fitzpatrick (6-1, 195), who was the starter at nickel back. Fitzpatrick was Freshman All-America. He was in on 45 tackles (three for lost yardage) in his first season, broke up 10 passes, turned in two sacks, and had a quarterback pressure.
At Texas A&M, Fitzpatrick became the first player in Alabama history to return two interceptions for touchdowns – returns of 33 and 55 yards. At Georgia, he blocked a punt and picked it up to score a touchdown.
Fitzpatrick is expected to move to the right cornerback spot where Jones played last year, though left and right cornerback spots are somewhat fluid. Indeed, with Alabama frequently using five defensive backs and sometimes six, it is impossible to predict which defensive backs will end up as cornerbacks, which as safeties, and which of those might be used in the Star (nickel) and Money (dime) positions.
For instance, Maurice Smith (6-0, 199, senior) has seen playing time at both cornerback and safety (and at nickel) in his Alabama career, though most of his highlights have been as a solid coverage man on special teams. He tied for the lead in special teams tackles last year with eight. He had perhaps his biggest game last year at Auburn when he turned in two tackles, one of them a sack, and broke up a pass and recovered a fumble.
The Alabama secondary has a lot of fast men, and the players say the fastest may be redshirt freshman Kendall Sheffield (6-0, 185), who is expected to be in the mix for plenty of playing time this year.
There are two unknowns in the cornerback corps, the biggest being the status of Tony Brown (6-0, 195, junior). Brown was a regular last season in providing depth both in the secondary and on special teams (he tied with Fitzpatrick for most tackles on special teams with eight), but in Dallas for the Cotton Bowl game against Michigan State, Brown was sent home and has been suspended from the team.
Brown, like Humphrey, came to Alabama as a well-known football prospect, but also as an internationally-known track star. And though it’s not remembered as Humphrey’s onside kick recovery against Clemson, Brown recovered an onside kick against Ole Miss.
Brown had played in every game prior to his suspension with 16 tackles (one for a loss), two pass breakups, and a forced fumble (against Florida in the SEC Championship Game).
The other question is whether Anthony Averett (6-0, 180, junior) will be on offense or defense. He is an exceptional athlete with great speed who has worked both at wide receiver and in the secondary. His limited action last year came primarily on special teams as a coverage man.
Teams frequently have a number of walk-on defensive backs and the Tide has four who were on the roster as cornerbacks at the end of last year and who are expected to return this spring. They are Blaine Anderson (5-10, 170, senior), Bo Grant (6-2, 195, senior), Cedric Powell (5-11, 185, junior), and Levi Wallace (6-0, 172, junior).
NEXT: Our look at all positions prior to the start of spring practice on March 11 (tentative) examines the safety positions.