Minkah Fitzpatrick sees the secondary as an ocean, and it’s likely that Alabama opponents see the sophomore Alabama defensive back as a shark.
Fitzpatrick, a 6-1, 200 pounds, was a Freshman All-America for Alabama’s national championship team in 2015 as the starting nickel back – Star in Bama nomenclature – as he returned two interceptions for touchdowns, blocked a punt for another TD, had 11 pass break-ups, and 45 tackles in his first year of college football.
This season Fitzpatrick had been expected to move to the cornerback spot vacated by Cyrus Jones, but because of a couple of defections (Maurice Smith to Georgia and Kendall Sheffield to junior college), Fitzpatrick is working at both Star and corner as Bama prepares for the 2016 season. Working both positions is nothing new for Fitzpatrick, who did it last year in practice, though he didn’t play cornerback in games last year.
Fitzpatrick said, “This year, Coach Saban is trying to teach me both positions so I can be more comfortable in both spots.
“They're almost similar, but on the inside, you have more ground to cover and there are more rules. Inside is more difficult to play because you have faster and shiftier receivers with more space. On the outside, you get the bigger receivers and you got the sideline right there too. That's the only challenge really.
“At Star you have to have a whole lot more mental … a whole lot more eye discipline because you’ve got a whole lot more reads on the field. On the corner you’re on an island, but it’s like you’ve got the beach right there, it’s the out of bounds. At Star, you’ve got water all around you. That’s probably the biggest difference.”
Fitzpatrick has been comfortable with the Alabama defense “since about game four last year.” Still, cornerback is different, and Fitzpatrick has been working hard at the new position.
“I came in as a corner,” he said. “I played star all of last year. I feel a lot more comfortable working all spring and offseason (on cornerback play). Last season, I didn't get to work at corner that much. That's what I worked on this offseason. I'm a lot more comfortable with the position.”
He doesn’t know where he will end up this year. “It says that he (Saban) trusts me as a player and that he trusts my ability and versatility as a player. I appreciate him giving me the opportunity to do something like that.
“We’re still trying to figure it out,” he said. “We’re trying to get some young players to learn new positions.”
Fitzpatrick said the players who transferred out of the program have not proved to be a distraction. “It's upsetting when a teammate leaves. That's about it. You can't do anything but wish them the best.”
Although he didn’t name specific players, Fitzpatrick said, “Everybody is stepping up. You got some of the younger players stepping up, and you have people like me playing multiple positions. Everybody is trying to fill in and find a role.”
Fitzpatrick is trying to tutor the younger players. All the young guys have been stepping up,” he said. “All the DBs have been in the film room just like I was last year, trying to learn the system. Some of them, they have their up days and their down days. I just try to bring them under my wing and tell them, ‘I know how hard it is. Last year was the same way for me. Just keep working and stay focused and you’re gonna see all your hard work come to fruition.’
“You're going to mess up and you're going to have ups and downs. Just stay focused and don't let the coaches or the media affect you at all. Just stay focused and remain humble if you have success.”
Fitzpatrick said when he came into Alabama last year, “I was in the film room about 24/7. I’d go from study hall to film room, practice, film room, stuff like that. Just learning with the coaches and watching other people do it, then I’d go out on the field, mess up and Coach Saban would get on me. I’d just learn like that.”
The Saban attention can be daunting. Fitzpatrick said, “You’ve just got to listen to what he says and not how he says it. He can get real loud, he can get angry, but if you just break down what he says and you listen to him you’re going to understand and get better.”
As for having a favorite position, Star or cornerback, Fitzpatrick said, “On the field. That’s all that matters to me.”