In Alabama spring training in 1977, Crimson Tide Coach Paul Bryant moved a potential all-star center, Terry Jones, to nose tackle, and shifted a sophomore defensive end to center.
How did that work out? Jones became an outstanding defensive lineman who spent eight years with the Green Bay Packers.
And the erstwhile defensive end turned out all right, too. Dwight Stephenson was Alabama’s starting center for three years, including national championship teams in 1978 and 1979, earned first team All-America, and was drafted by the Miami Dolphins, where he started for seven years until injury ended his career. He was considered by many the best center in NFL history and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And that’s part of what spring football practice is about. On Alabama’s first day on the field this spring, there were a handful of changes. Keep in mind, as Coach Nick Saban frequently reminds us, that experiments are just that, and they may not be permanent changes.
Among those noticed on that first day were right tackle Jonah Williams working at left tackle, inside linebacker Ben Davis with the outside linebackers, running back Ronnie Clark with the slot tight ends, wide receiver Trevon Diggs at cornerback, and safety — make that All-America safety — Minkah Fitzpatrick at left cornerback.
Fitzpatrick was a Freshman All-America at Star (Bama’s name for nickel back) in 2015 and moved to safety last season after the injury to Eddie Jackson. Fitzpatrick was the Crimson Tide’s fourth-leading tackler last year with 66, including a sack and five tackles for losses, intercepted six passes which he returned for 186 yards (including two for touchdowns, a 100-yard return against Arkansas and a 44-yard runback in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game against Florida), seven pass break-ups, and a forced fumble.
Fitzpatrick’s eight career interceptions have come from either the Star or safety positions, and they include an Alabama record four interceptions returned for touchdowns.
So what does he think about the move to cornerback?
“That’s what I came here to play, cornerback,” he said. “I did Star my freshman year because we had Marlon and Cyrus out there. Then last year Eddie went down so I had to move to safety.
“Now this year I’m back where I feel most comfortable, really. Coach trusts me to be out there and if I’m doing a good job out there I’ll stay there.”
The move last year came in the eighth game of the season when Jackson suffered a season-ending injury on a punt return against Texas A&M.
That move, said Fitzpatrick, “was pretty difficult, especially since it was in the middle of the season. But Coach Saban, Coach (Derrick) Ansley and everybody else helped me out every single day. I was watching film with them, learning and making the calls in the film room. I kind of had no choice but to do it the right way, and to get it done. It was difficult, but it was good to have a little challenge.”
Moving to cornerback is a different challenge. “At corner it’s more like being on your own,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about anybody else, you don’t have to make any calls. But at safety you almost have to run the defense. You have to make calls, talk to the linebackers, the defensive line and talk to the corners and the Star. You have to be more verbal and more of a leader out there. I did a little bit at Star, but did a whole lot more at safety.”
Asked what the conversation was like regarding the latest move, Fitzpatrick reminded us of the conversation between Saban and former Offensive Coordinator Lane Tiffin.
“There was not conversation,” Fitzpatrick said. “There was the depth chart in our film room and it was 2-9 was at corner. That was it.”
He later amended “depth chart.”
“Coach Saban calls it a rep chart, not a depth chart. That was my mistake.”
While Fitzpatrick has been outstanding making interceptions at Star and safety, he doesn’t think the move to cornerback will diminish that opportunity. He thinks Star and cornerback are more likely spots for interceptions than safety, which he said is more about run support and making tackles.
Fitzpatrick (6-1, 201) said it was good to be back on the practice field. “It felt good,” he said. “It’s a new team, a new attitude, new leaders, everything like that. So it was a lot of fun to be out there.”
As for the new leaders, he said, “Definitely defensive-wise I’m one of the leaders. I kind of have to establish myself as a leader, just setting an example for the younger guys and showing them how it’s supposed to be done. Even some of the older guys don’t know how to do it yet, just going out there and showing them how it’s supposed to be done.”