Once upon a time, safeties were something along the lines of center fielders, usually away from the defensive action. That’s not the way it is in a Nick Saban defense, though. Safeties have last-line-of-defense pass responsibility, but Alabama safeties also rank among the leaders in tackles in most seasons.
Alabama uses two safeties in its normal defense (along with two cornerbacks and a nickel back), and is the case with most defenses, the Crimson Tide has a strong safety (playing against the tight end side) and a weakside safety, usually known simply as safety (and in the past “free safety”).
The safety positions are somewhat interchangeable, in part because of the way Alabama practices up until the end of fall camp and the beginning of game preparation. In the spring and in fall camp, the safeties work as left and right so that they can play either strongside or weakside. The final designations are made when games begin.
Bama lost two safeties from its roster following the 2015 national championship season, but the Crimson Tide also returns some experienced players.
Geno Matias-Smith finished his final season with the Tide as Bama’s starting free safety, and he was third on the team in total tackles with 72 and second in primary tackles (to All-America linebacker Reggie Ragland) with 51. He also had an interception, broke up a pass, caused a fumble, and recovered a fumble. Also finishing his eligibility was Jabriel Washington, who missed the first one-third of the season with a knee injury, but was able to contribute both on special teams and as a back-up safety.
Bama’s top returning safety is senior Eddie Jackson (6-0, 194), who was second team All-America and selected Defensive Player of the Game in Alabama’s 45-40 win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff national championship game. Jackson, listed as the strong safety, was Alabama’s fifth-leading tackler last year with 46 (34 primary) and caused and recovered a fumble, but is best known for his performance in intercepting and returning passes. Jackson intercepted six passes and returned them for 230 yards and two touchdowns.
Only five Alabama receivers had more yardage with caught passes, and they were having the football thrown to them.
Against Texas A&M Jackson intercepted two passes and returned them for an Alabama single game record 119 yards. He returned one pick 93 yards for a touchdown. He also had an interception and 50-yard return for a TD at Georgia. His interception against Clemson was one of the biggest defensive plays in that shootout.
Also seeing duty at safety last year was Ronnie Harrison (6-3, 218). As a true freshman he played in every game, including seeing duty on special teams (and blocking a punt for a safety). He was in on 17 tackles, including one sack, and had a quarterback pressure and caused a fumble. In pass coverage, he turned in two interceptions and returned them for 41 yards and he broke up six passes, none more important than a late Clemson throw into the end zone.
Laurence “Hootie” Jones (6-2, 219, junior) is loaded with potential, but thus far has seen only limited duty on special teams and in the secondary. He has played in 16 games in his first two seasons. Some top safeties who were ahead of Jones on the depth chart his first two seasons have departed, which could mean he makes a move this year.
Shawn Burgess-Becker (6-1, 205, sophomore) is one of two players Bama brought in last year from Monarch High in Coconut Creek, Fla., the other being wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Burgess-Becker saw playing time in 13 games last year, primarily on special teams, but should figure into the rotation.
There are two men who have been worked both on offense and defense for the Tide, and either or both of them could end up in the competition at safety. They are Deonte Thompson (6-2, 183, redshirt freshman), who has also participated at wide receiver, and Ronnie Clark (6-2, 228, sophomore), who has playing time at running back.
A true freshman entered The University for the spring semester and has been tentatively listed as an outside linebacker, but Shawn Jennings (6-2, 218 and brother of redshirt freshman defensive end Anfernee Jennings) could be at safety, his high school position and where Scout ranked him 48th in the nation.
Alabama has one man who was listed on the roster last year and who has eligibility remaining in safety Nate Staskelunas (6-3, 210, senior).