Could This be the Best Alabama Secondary Under Nick Saban
Much of the focus on Alabama’s defense will be on Will Anderson and Dallas Turner and rightfully so, you won’t find a better pass rushing duo in the country. The defense has lofty expectations heading into this season and the secondary could be the best it's ever been under Nick Saban.
They resemble the 2016 unit that featured a number of future All-Pro players, including Minkah Fitzpatrick, Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson. The Crimson Tide return experience, depth and production in the secondary from a year ago. Many players bring the ability to play multiple positions and a mentality that can rub off on the entire team.
At cornerback, Alabama has incredible size and length. Eli Ricks, Kool-Aid McKinstry, Khyree Jackson, Terrion Arnold and Jahquez Robinson are all listed above 6’0”, with Jackson being the tallest at 6’3”.
Ricks intercepted five passes, returning two of them for a touchdown in 16 career games for LSU. He is excellent in man coverage with his ability to get physical with wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. Ricks has elite ball skills, but the former five-star recruit has only scratched the surface of what he can become. Now under the tutelage of Nick Saban, Ricks will learn from the guru himself. A potential top-10 pick in next year’s NFL draft, the junior can join a long list of Alabama defensive backs to hear their name called on day one.
McKinstry is the favorite to start alongside Ricks in the fall. The Alabama native appeared in all 15 games, including six starts as a true freshman. He registered 25 tackles, one pass breakup and one interception, which earned him All-SEC Freshman honors. Seeing extended playing time late in the year will prove to be vital for McKinstry’s development heading into his sophomore campaign. A year of lining up against some of the best wide receivers in the country not only in games, but in practice give him the necessary experience to excel at the highest level.
Ricks and McKinstry’s starting spots are far from solidified with Jackson also in the mix. Jackson played primarily on special teams until he was thrusted into action in the College Football Playoff. He was excellent in Alabama’s semifinal matchup but struggled in the National Championship. Jackson looked more comfortable out in coverage on A-Day, showcasing the talent that made him the nation's top junior college recruit in 2021. He’s a long, lengthy cornerback who isn’t shy about showing up in run support.
A strength of the cornerback unit is its depth. Arnold, a five-star prospect in the 2021 recruiting class has the ability to play cornerback and safety.
The nickel spot has been a revolving door between Brian Branch and Malachi Moore. Two guys will similar skill sets that happen to be the same year on the field.
Branch is one of college football’s most underappreciated players. The Georgia native has played his best football in the biggest games for Alabama in two seasons. He earned the start in the National Championship game against Ohio State in 2020 — recording four tackles and three pass breakups while guarding first-round wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. This past season, Branch totaled 55 tackles, including five for loss and a team-high nine pass breakups.
The junior defensive back once again shined in the College Football Playoff. In the Cotton Bowl against Cincinnati, Branch was flying all over the field, finishing the game with a team-high eight tackles, half a sack and two pass breakups. He is a physical player that can play every position in the secondary.
Moore, a Freshman All-American and second-team All-SEC selection in 2020 might not even crack the starting rotation because of Branch. The two will continue to battle it out in fall camp, but Moore can earn extended playing time at the money spot (sixth defensive back) in dime packages and has the ability to play safety as well. Moore has forced five turnovers in two seasons.
He has a high football IQ and like his counterpart Branch, plays the game with a ton of energy on the field. Moore shows great patience and discipline in coverage.
Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams will occupy the two safety spots for the Crimson Tide. The former four-star recruits in the 2019 recruiting class have appeared in 41 games wearing the Crimson and White. Battle has 32 career starts under his belt as he enters his third season as a full-time starter. This past year, he totaled 86 tackles and three interceptions, returning two of them for a touchdown, which earned him first-team All-SEC and third-team All-American recognition.
Battle has an excellent understanding of route concepts and plays with great range in the backend. He is aggressive in run support and attacking downhill. Battle is the unquestioned leader of the Alabama secondary.
Hellams has started 14 games in his career. He’s a hard-hitting safety that continued to improve in coverage as the season went along. Hellams finished last season with 87 tackles, which ranked third on the team, including 2.5 for loss and three interceptions. He and Battle elected to bypass the NFL draft and return for their senior season.
“When I chose to come to the University of Alabama, I had three goals – get my degree, be a leader for my teammates and win multiple championships,” Hellams said. “I still need time to take care of all three, and I can only do so by staying one more year. I can't leave now, knowing that I didn't stay true to my goals. I realize that staying for my senior season provides me with the best opportunity to grow as a player, as a student and as a man. This season did not finish how we would have liked. We have unfinished business to take care of in 2022.”
Redshirt sophomore Kristian Story appeared in 12 games last season, primarily on special teams and sophomore DeVonta Smith appeared in nine games in his first season on campus.