Football Fight: Strong Safety

A rule of thumb in projecting the depth chart at a football position is to start with the returning starter. Jeffrey Dukes started Alabama's last game, the Cotton Bowl victory over Texas Tech. But it would be a stretch to say the senior strong safety is a returning starter. Alabama finished the 2005 season with a 10-2 record as the Tide closed out play with a 13-10 win in the Cotton Bowl.

Alabama shut down the powerful Red Raiders' offense with a defense that employed at least five defensive backs on every play.

Jeffrey Dukes got the start for Bama against Texas Tech as the nickel back, a first team position he "inherited" when Simeon Castille was academically ineligible for the Cotton Bowl. The Red Raiders had one of the nation's most prolific offensive teams, but the Crimson Tide was able to shut down that attack for most of the day. It was the plan of Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines to show Texas Tech different schemes, but all of those included at least five defensive backs. Sometimes it would be with four linemen and two linebackers, but more often three linemen and three linebackers. Occasionally there was a sixth defensive back, the so-called "dime package."

Dukes didn't become the first team strong safety in the spring because he had started in the Cotton Bowl. That start as the nickel back was more an indication of how Dukes had progressed, and that improvement was the reason he started the spring as the number one man replacing Charlie Peprah at strong safety.

Like strongtside linebacker, the strong safety plays on the strong side of the offense, usually the side where the tight end lines up, but not always. Alabama's safeties are considered interchangeable to great extent, much like flankers and split ends on offense. In some schemes, the strong safety plays like a fourth linebacker.

Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula frequently talks about the need to have competition at each position. Bama had pretty good competition at strong safety in the spring, although Dukes was number one from start to finish. During the spring when Shula spoke of the strong safety position he usually talked about the need to have improved play.

Dukes, a 6-2, 206-pound senior from Oxford, Mississippi, is in his third season at Alabama. He played one year at Northwest Junior College before transferring to Bama. He was primarily a special teams player as a sophomore in 2004, then played in every game last year, finishing the season with 13 tackles and one interception. He had four tackles against Florida.

The number two man at strong safety in the spring has made his mark on special teams. Sophomore Rashad Johnson, 5-11, 178, from Sulligent, came to Alabama as a walk-on running back. However, his aggressive play on Bama coverage teams prompted Crimson Tide coaches to move him to defense in the spring, and Johnson didn't disappoint. He had eight tackles and forced a fumble in the Auburn game last year. In the spring he was winner of the Paul "Bear" Bryant Best Non-Scholarshipped Player Award.

Travis Sikes, a grayshirt last year, was able to participate in bowl preparation work last December. He entered The University in January and went through spring practice and drew praise as a big play-type performer. Sikes is a 6-4, 195-pound freshman from Nashville.

Last fall one of the more impressive freshmen was Cory Reamer, a 6-3, 198-pound strong safety from Hoover. He was a valuable contributor on special teams before being lost for the season with a knee injury. Although he was not expected back in the spring, he was able to participate in some work late in the spring. He is expected to be completely recovered by August.

Alabama signed a large number of defensive backs in the signing class of 2006 and it's a bit of guesswork to determine which of the secondary newcomers might end up at a certain position. We have projected Justin Woodall, 6-1, 200, at srong safety. It is a bit of a curiousity that Alabama's two players from Oxford, Mississippi, would both be strong safety candidates. Woodall is an excellent all-around athlete and there have been suggestions he might pass up college football to play professional baseball.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a series of summer articles on the projected depth chart battles at each Alabama football position for the 2006 season.


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