Alabama first-year Defensive Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has plenty of tools in his 2016 tool box to work with. There is a question about depth at several positions, but the players who are available are all part of five straight top-ranked recruiting classes.
A key returning starter at corner (and maybe nickel), sophomore Minkah Fitzpatrick said his head is clearer than it was a year ago “Last year at this time, I was so all over the place,” he said. “I was still trying to learn the playbook and get comfortable with the techniques. This season, I’m completely comfortable with all that. Now, I’m trying to master my craft and become the best player I can be.”
Fitzpatrick was asked about true freshman Shyheim Carter, who may be in contention for time at nickel and/or dime with the departure of veteran Maurice Smith. “Shyheim has come in and been real focused. That’s what really stands out about him,” Fitzpatrick noted. Carter was mentioned by teammates at SEC Media Days as a summer skeleton drill standout.
On Sunday, Crimson Tide players talked to reporters at Alabama Media Day in Bryant-Denny Stadium prior to an open practice.
Fitzpatrick may start at corner opposite Marlon Humphrey, but he may stay at nickel if Anthony Averett seems ready to start in the Tide’s five defensive back set. “We’re still trying to figure all that out right now,” Fitzpatrick said. “Last year, I played mainly just nickel. This year, they have me working at both corner and nickel so it’s all going to be figured out at camp. It’s camp season.”
Fitzpatrick says Humphrey has been a big help to him. “He’s a great cornerback, and he’s a great upperclassman leader -ion the secondary. We’re just all trying to work together and become the best defensive back group in the country.”
Pruitt is considered a guru vs. the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, and pass rush is a big thing towards being successful at that. One man who will help (again) in that area is junior linebacker Rashaan Evans, now playing inside in Pruitt’s nickel.
“Right now, Coach Saban’s got me playing inside, and I’m actually enjoying the (Will) position,” said Evans. “I’m having to get used to reading my keys and using my eyes, and playing sideline to sideline instead of North-South like I did at outside linebacker.
“I’ll still be getting after the quarterback. That’s part of the reason Coach Saban moved me. I’m just playing my role, and whatever it is, I’m going to do my best at it.”
Meanwhile, Evans’s high school pal Reuben Foster heads into his senior year with a sense of last-chance urgency. With Reggie Ragland gone to the NFL, Pruitt will be looking to Foster to be an on-field coach and leader for the defense.
“I’ve had to slow it down, be smarter, and take a big role on leadership,” Reuben Foster said, “I try to help guys out more than just helping myself out. Coach Saban has put a big bug in my ear about that.”
Foster is happy to not be asked any more about his tackling technique, which he refined to help avoid head injuries. “I really put an emphasis on that, because my tackling technique had gotten really sloppy, and my coaches and teammates were getting on me about that,” he said.
Speaking of Evans, Foster had high praise for his former Auburn High School teammate. “Oh man, big improvement,” Foster said. “When Rashaan first got here, he was so anxious. Now, his mentality is strong, and his will is strong, too. He’s a hard hitter who listens very well, and is very coachable.”
Foster also had high praise for backup outside linebackers Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings. “Oh, man,” he said. “I see power, speed and quickness from those guys. They have the same agility as Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, and Rashaan Evans. They’ve got the same capabilities.”
Foster said he’s worked especially hard on his pass coverage techniques, because he’s always been able to stop the run. “I’ve made sure I know all our coverages, and my fits,” he said, “and I’ve worked especially hard on my footwork.”
Foster said he was particularly happy to see Pruitt back with the Tide. “Oh, yeah. That’s my boy. That’s my guy. That’s my homie,” Foster grinned.
The advent of the hurry-up offense changed recruiting, conditioning, and nutrition methods. “I had to cut back some on my weight, and get in a little better shape, so I could sustain and play more plays and play at a high level,” said senior outside linebacker Ryan Anderson. “That was definitely a change.” Anderson is 6-2 and 253 pounds.
Anderson had a humorous response when asked what goes through his mind when he makes a big sack. “Shoot, we’re off the field,” he grinned. “It’s time to go get some water, now.”
Senior defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson said he’s adjusting to a new role as a team leader. “I’m willing to take that step, because without leaders, we can’t be a great team in college football,” he said.
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Tomlinson said fans shouldn’t be terribly concerned about Alabama’s lack of depth and experience on the d-line this season. “I think all our defensive linemen are going to make an impact this year, because they’re all level-headed, and they come to work every day,” he said. “Our younger guys try to grind and keep their heads in the playbook, just like everyone else.”