Our series looking at the best players at each position in the Nick Saban Era at Alabama has reached the defensive backs, and the examionation presents a some problems, not the least of which (as is true at several positons) there have been many outstanding performers in the secondary in the nine-year Saban Era.
Specifically, though, as regards Alabama defensive backs, there frequently is movement. We elected to divide the secondary players into cornerbacks (which we look at today) and safeties/nickels. There have been players who started their careers at nickel (which Alabama calls Star) and then moved to safety (Geno Matias-Smith) and others who started at nickel and moved to cornerback (Minkah Fitzpatrick is making that move this spring). And there have been players (Eddie Jackson) who began at cornerback and then moved to safety.
We made the subjective decision as to where to put these players who have been from one spot to another. If you don’t see your favorite defensive back in this look at cornerbacks, he may show up in the safeties/nickels report.
Although Alabama is nominally a 3-4 base defense, meaning four defensive backs, in most years the Tide’s normal defensive lineup has included five defensive backs.
One would expect to get the top two cornerbacks from different seasons, but in 2011 Crimson Tide opponents had no place to turn. That national championship team had three cornerbacks who would earn All-America status, and we rank two of those three – Dee Milliner and Dre Kirkpatrick – as Bama’s best of a very strong group of cornerbacks.
As it turns out, our rankings put the men in groups with Milliner and Kirkpatrick followed by DeQuan Menzie, Javier Arenas, and Kareen Jackson; next last year’s pair of Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey; the first Saban cornerbacks, Simeon Castille and Lionell Mitchell; and Deion Belue and John Fulton.
That Alabama has had such excellent cornerback play should not be a surprise. In practice the corners are coached by Saban.
Milliner started in 2010 through 2012. In his first year he had 55 tackles, an interception, and 7 passes broken up. In 2011, his first national championship team, he had 27 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 9 passes broken up. In his second national championship year he had 54 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 20 passes broken up, giving him 36 passes broken up in his career. He was taken in the first round of the NFL draft, the ninth player overall, by the New York Jets.
Kirkpatrick started in 2010 and 2011. He made 53 tackles with 3 interceptions and 7 passes broken up in 2010, and had 30 tackles and 9 passes broken up in the 2011 national championship season. He was drafted in the first round, 17th overall, by Cincinnati.
Also playing on that 2011 team was DeQuan Menzie, who made 41 tackles, an interception, and broke up a team-best 11 passes. He was a fifth round draft choice by Kansas City.
Alabama also had a great pair of cornerbacks in 2008 and in Saban’s first Alabama national chamnpionship season in 2009.
Javier Arenas, an All-America who was also known for his excellence as a punt and kickoff return man, was in on 20 tackles in 2007, then in 2008 made 63 tackles, intercepted a pass that he returned 63 yards for a touchdown, and broke up 7 passes. In 2009 he made 71 rtackles, and had 5 interceptions and 5 passes broken up. He was drafted in the second round by Kansas City.
Kareen Jackson had 66 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 6 passes broken up in 2007; in 2008 he made 44 tackles, had 1 interception, and broke up 10 passes; and in 2009 made 49 tackles, returned an interception 79 yards, and broke up 13 passes. He was drafted in the first round, 20th player overall, by Houston.
Our third great pair of cornerbacks in the Saban Era are last season’s, Cyrus Jones the senior and Marlon Humphrey the freshman.
Jones came to Alabama as a wide receiver and had four catches for 51 yards in 2012. He moved to the secondary in 2013 and had 24 tackles, 5 passes broken up, and 2 interception. In 2014 he had 36 tackles, 3 interceptions, broke up 13 passes, and forced 2 fumbles. In last season’s national championship season he had 37 tackles, two interceptions, 7 passes broken up, and caused 2 fumbles. He was also an outstanding punt return man.
Marlon Humphrey was a starter as a redshirt freshman in 2015 and was Freshman All-SEC as he was in on 45 tackles, made 3 interceptions, broke up 8 passes, and had 2 forced fumbles for the national championship team. It’s not fair of him to be ranked high yet, but he’s likely to move up the list of Saban’s all-time best cornerbacks in a few years.
Saban’s first starting cornerbacks in 2007 were Simeon Castille of the famous Alabama football family and Lionell Mitchell. Castille had been a starter in 2005 and 2006 with totals in those seasons of 99 tackles and 8 interceptions. In his one season under Saban Castille had 63 tackles and 2 interceptions. Mitchell had 33 tackles and an interception, and Arenas and Jackson were also seeing plenty of action in the secondary that season.
Deion Belue was a starter in 2012 when he had 40 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 7 passes broken up; and in 2013 when he had 20 tackles, an interception, and broke up 3 passes.
John Fulton, a starter in 2013, had 19 tackles and broke up a pass.