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Alabama's Secondary Depth: Issue or Status Quo

'Bama needs a clown car of defensive backs right now

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

They were there. Then they weren't. And it was damn fast, too.

Maurice Smith, Shawn Burgess-Becker and Kendall Sheffield, all members of the 2015 secondary, had eligibility left to use at Alabama in 2016. In the case of Burgess-Becker and Sheffield, they had three and four years, respectively. Smith? Well, we're all hip to that story.

Whether these former four and five-star recruits were primed to be contributors in 2016, that remained to be seen, but what can be said is each defensive back was, at least, in the two-deep. Smith had the inside track for the Star position when the team went into its nickel package.

In the span of only a three months, Alabama's secondary went from being one of the most talented and deepest position units in the SEC to a hardy, yet depleted group of athletes who need not get injured.

This is what we know up to this point: when the team is in its base 3-4 scheme (three down linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs), sophomores Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick are the two corners and senior Eddie Jackson and sophomore Ronnie Harrison are the safeties.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban has stated that that they're only in base 10-15 percent of the time nowadays due to constant three and four-receiver sets from opposing offenses. Here, the defense switches to its nickel or dime package which means five to six defensive backs.

Fitzpatrick, who edged out Smith for the nickel spot last year, was seen as the easy choice to replace Cyrus Jones as the edge corner in all defensive packages in 2016, but Smith's departure put a slight wrinkle in Saban and new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's plans for their five-DB set.

Now, it appears when 'Bama is in nickel, Fitzpatrick will slide over to the Star position (which covers the slot) and redshirt junior Anthony Averett will spell Fitzpatrick on the edge. After four years on campus, this would be New Jersey-native Averett's first substantial playing time at the Capstone.

Despotic personality portrayals aside, Saban is not one for putting his players in a position to take on too much responsibility too soon and the same can be said for asking Fitzpatrick to play two different roles in the secondary. Yet, Saban seems oddly comfortable in allowing him to do it. By all accounts, Fitzpatrick is a cerebral player with a nose for the football no matter his position on the field.

The real question is whether Averett will maintain his spot on the edge once Tony Brown has served his four-to-six-game suspension. Once upon a time, Brown was the most promising of all corners on the team when he came on as a true freshman in 2014. He even started a couple of games when Bradley Sylve and Eddie Jackson were struggling.

Since, Brown, himself, has struggled both on and off the field, including being sent him home prior to the Cotton Bowl. While the talent and speed is there, it is seemingly Brown's lack of discipline that is getting in the way of his starting for the Tide.

The Tide were fortunate last year. Not only did they have the depth, but the first string nickel and dime players only suffered minor injuries throughout the season. Eddie Jackson went out for a half against Tennessee with a knee injury and precocious true freshman Harrison fluidly stepped in. When Fitzpatrick went out halfway through the Mississippi State game, Brown filled in for him.

These have been described as "Bama Problems": seeing one former blue-chipper leave a game and plugging in another, just because they can. Now, that luxury has become a possible hindrance in the wake of this exodus of talent.

Minkah Fitzpatrick absolutely cannot get injured. He's arguably the least expendable player in that position group. Certainly, Jackson would be missed this time with no seasoned option behind him. Between them they had nine interceptions last year, four of them pick sixes.

If something were to happen to Marlon Humphrey, you can ask Fitzpatrick to cover his spot, but who then takes Star? If Averett covers the edge full-time and Tony Brown is still not back from suspension, then you will have yet another true freshman in Shyheim Carter most likely manning a pivotal section of that defense.

After Bama's second scrimmage yesterday, Saban said that he has no issues starting a true freshman. If a player shows a maturity in learning his position, then age is not a factor. One does have to wonder, though, if a more mature redshirt freshman in Kendall Sheffield or sophomore in Shawn Burgess-Becker would not give Saban a little more sense of security.

Time will, of course, tell. With the three transfers and Brown's suspension in place, the current secondary is in a good position. They have three safeties in Hootie Jones, Deionte Thompson and true freshman Trevon Diggs who have recently impressed their coach. And if any coach knows how to figure out an issue in the secondary, it's Saban.

However, Juju Smith-Schuster, a Western Kentucky offense that can torch any defense it wants and Alabama's kryptonite Ole Miss all are in the first three weeks. Surely, a secondary this talented can handle it.

Still, for insurance purposes, let's hope a front seven that includes five former five-star recruits can make life just a little bit easier.