Starters: Trevon Diggs, Saivion Smith
Backups: Shyheim Carter, Nigel Knott
New arrivals: Patrick Surtain Jr., Jalyn Armour-Davis, Josh Jobe,Eddie Smith
Starters: Deionte Thompson, Xavier McKinney
Backups: Jared Mayden, Daniel Wright, Kyriq McDonald, Keaton Anderson
When it comes to returning players in the secondary, Alabama has the equivalent of seeing a tumbleweed rolling down main street of an abandoned town.
In other words, there’s no one. All of the front-end players, all six regulars in the dime package, have moved on and are trying to make in the National Football League.
Depth is a question mark as well.
Nevertheless, the group played well enough during the final scrimmage of spring, A-Day, to make most onlookers forget that it was a completely revamped unit.
“I think that everyone improved,” Nick Saban said about the development his defensive backs since the end of last season, but not even he knows how well the unit will gel.
Its new leader appears to be junior safety Deionte Thompson, who has played in 28 games over the last two seasons as a reserve and special-teams player. Filling in for an injured teammate he made two starts in 2017, both games in the College Football Playoff.
He’s the “veteran” of the group.
“He did a really, really good job,” Saban said about Thompson’s showing against Clemson and Georgia. “I think it helped his confidence a lot. I think he’s a lot more confident in what he’s supposed to do, he has a better understanding. Certainly has lot of confidence that he can do it because he did play very well for us in those two games. We’re excited about that.
“We don’t have a lot of experience in the secondary right now. But I think those games that he played certainly gave him a level of confidence and experience that will be very helpful, even helping the other guys play better.”
The only other defensive back to have a start is junior cornerback Trevon Diggs, the converted wide receiver who was in the lineup for the 2017 opener against Florida State.
Diggs’ career stats are just six tackles and three pass breakups on defense, but he’s already played in 28 games for Alabama, mostly on special teams. Last season he returned 18 punts for 154 yards with a long of 21 while bringing back two kickoffs for 74 yards.
Just like his status has grown in that part of his game, so has it at cornerback. Linebacker Dylan Moses was the only player to have more tackles on A-Day, and Diggs essentially closed out the scrimmage with an interception.
“Everyone has been getting more comfortable,” Diggs said.
Alabama will go into the fall with Diggs paired with junior-college transfer and former LSU player Savion Smith at the other corner sport, and junior Shyheim Carter at the nickel spot called “star” in Saban’s defensive system.
Diggs and Smith knew one another before playing at Alabama, which has helped with the transition and turnover.
“We recruited him in high school, and we thought he was a really good player,” Saban said about Smith. “He’s a bright guy, he understands football. He is picking the stuff up pretty well. Fundamentally, we’re working on some of his techniques that are a little different than maybe what he’s played in the past. But I’m pleased with the progress that he’s made so far.”
Sophomore Nigel Knott and junior Jared Mayden were with second unit in the base defense, but Alabama was so short-handed in the spring that it planned to experiment with wide receiver DeVonta Smith at cornerback to be available on an emergency basis in the fall. Those plans were partially scrapped when two other wide receivers suffered injuries and he was needed more on offense.
Entering the mix over the summer were numerous prized prospects including Patrick Surtain Jr., the son of a former NFL standout. Alabama’s been known to play top-notch freshmen before, but more than one could see game action in the opener against Louisville in Orlando as coaches aim to get them acclimated and up to speed as soon as possible.
At safety, sophomore Xavier McKinney worked with the first unit in the spring, while Daniel Wright and Kyriq McDonald were the primary backups. Junior Keaton Anderson was out following shoulder surgery.
Mayden is a candidate to be in the dime package, but the depth chart will likely remain fluid through fall camp. The Crimson Tide didn’t have any incoming safeties over the summer, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see a cornerback switch over if necessary. Early enrollee Slade Bolden did for the spring, but will enter the fall as a wide receiver.
At minimum there figures to be some growing pains, especially when Alabama begins to face opponents who will attack the back end, including Louisville in the opener in Orlando, Ole Miss in the Crimson Tide’s SEC opener.
“Trevon had a really good spring,” Saban said. “Xavier McKinney had a really good spring. Deionte was solid in the two games that he played [last season] and he was solid this spring. Saivion made a lot of improvement. I still think he’s not quite sure on what he’s doing all the time, but the fact that he was here this semester and this spring probably was a really good thing for him. Shyheim Carter made a lot of progress.
“So, these guys made a lot of progress. Jared Mayden made a lot of progress and did a nice job. Now, he played with the twos [on A-Day], but he’s played with the ones some.”
This is the final story in a series previewing every Alabama position group for the 2018 season: