Our series looking at the best Alabama football players at every position in the nine years that Nick Saban has been the Crimson Tide coach winds up the defense with this look at the best safeties (including those who played nickel). We previously had looked at the offense and will examine kicking team specialists next.
When Saban arrived at Alabama prior to the 2007 season, he was fortunate to find a former walk-on running back, Rashad Johnson, who had found a home in the secondary. Johnson led Alabama in tackles in that first Saban season with 57 and in interceptions with 6, and also had 8 passes broken up. In 2008, Johnson was second in tackles with 89, again led Bama with 5 interceptions, and broke up 11 passes. He was an All-America and was selected in the third round of the NFL draft by Arizona.
Johnson has not been the only Alabama safety to earn All-America. Some 16 men have played one of the two safety spots and/or nickel back (Star in Crimson Tide nomenclature) in the Saban Era.
Mark Barron was a three-year starter (2009-11) and two-time All-America as he played on two national championship teams. In the 2009 national championship season he had 76 tackles and a team-leading 7 interceptions (which he returned for 125 yards and a touchdown) and broke up 11 passes. He followed in 2010 with a team-leading 75 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 6 passes broken up. In the 2011 national championship year he had 68 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 passes broken up. He was drafted in the first round, seventh overall, by Tampa Bay.
HaHa Clinton Dix was an All-America after starting in the 2012 national championship season and in 2013. He had 37 tackles and a team leading 5 interceptions, along with 4 pass break-ups in 2012 and followed that in 2013 with 52 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 4 broken up passes in 2013. He was drafted in the first round, 21st overall, by Green Bay.
Landon Collins is likely best-remembered for his 89-yard interception return for a touchdown against Tennessee in 2013. The two-year starter in 2013-14 had 70 tackles, 2 interceptions, and broke up 6 passes in 2013 and followed that with a season in which he led Bama in tackles with 103, tied for the team lead in interceptions with 3, and broke up 7 passes. He was drafted in the second round by the New York Giants.
Other safeties in the All-America conversation have included two members of last year’s national championship team – a safety who had been converted from cornerback and a freshman who started at nickel. Both safety Eddie Jackson and nickel Minkah Fitzpatrick were particularly effective in a 41-23 win at Texas A&M.
Jackson, an upcoming senior, spent his first two years at cornerback, but made his biggest impact last year at safety, where he was second team All-America and Defensive Most Valuable Player of the national championship game win over Clemson. Jackson picked off his sixth interception of the season in that title game. He returned his interceptions for 230 yards, including two for touchdowns, in a road win at Georgia and another at Texas A&M. His two interceptions at Texas A&M were returned for a Tide record 119 yards, including the TD runback of 93 yards. He also had 46 tackles on the year. In two years at cornerback, Jackson had 60 tackles, 2 interceptions, and broke up 10 passes.
Fitzpatrick also had big games in the road wins at Georgia and Texas A&M and he was a Freshman All-America for the national champions. In Athens, Fitzpatrick blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown. In College Station, he became the first Alabama player in history to return two interceptions for TDs in the same game – returns of 33 and 55 yards. For the year he had 45 tackles and a team-leading 11 pass break-ups. He is ticketed to move to cornerback this season.
Speaking of Texas A&M, two years before Jackson and Fitzpatrick had big interceptions, Vinnie Sunseri picked off Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, and the most prominent missed tackle on that 73-yard return for a touchdown was by Johnny Football. Sunseri had 54 tackles, 2 interceptions, and broke up 3 passes as a sophomore in 2012. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2013 and in seven games had 20 tackles, 2 interceptions returned for 111 yards and 2 TDs, and 4 pass break-ups. Most expected Sunseri to return for his senior season, but he elected to turn pro and was taken in the fifth round by New Orleans.
Robert Lester was a three-year starter for Alabama (2010-12), which included two national championship teams. In 2010 he had 52 tackles and a team-leading 8 interceptions and 4 pass break-ups. He had 39 tackles, 2 interceptions, and broke up 3 passes in 2011. In his final season, 2012, he had 48 tackles with 4 interceptions and 3 pass break-ups. He was not drafted, but played for the Carolina Panthers.
Last year’s national championship squad included safety Geno Matias-Smith, who had been a nickel and cornerback in his first two years and moved to safety for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. His 2012-13 stats were 19 tackles and 6 passes broken up. After the move to safety, Matias-Smith turned in 56 tackles in 2014 and last season had 72 tackles and an interception.
Other safeties in the Nick Saban Era have included:
Marcus Carter (2007) – 49 tackles
Justin Woodall (2008-09) – 47 tackles in 2008 with 8 PBUs and 4 INTs; 2009, 45 tackles, 3 INTs
Marquis Johnson (2008-09) 2008, 49 tackles, 2 INTs, 5 PBUs; 2009, 29 tackles, 1 INT, 17 PBUs. Drafted 7th round by St. Louis.
Will Lowery (2010) – 2010, 33 tackles, 2 INTs, 2 PBUs.
Jarrick Williams (2013) – 40 tackles, 2 PBU.
Nick Perry (2014) – 80 tackles, 2 INTs, 6 PBU.
In a very difficult ranking, we would make HaHa Clinton-Dix and Mark Barron our top two, followed by Landon Collins and Rashad Johnson, and then Vinnie Sunseri and Eddie Jackson.