Alabama’s vaunted safety unit came apart down the stretch last year, looking shaky against Georgia and Oklahoma and then imploding against Clemson. Deionte Thompson made the decision to split for the NFL, leaving Bama fans to ask just how good the returning players are – and how Alabama will manage the rotation.
Thompson’s departure makes Xavier McKinney the unquestioned leader of the safeties. If anyone managed to hold his own down the stretch last year, it was McKinney, although Star safety Shyheim Carter made several key plays, especially against Georgia. The real question here is whether Bama’s coaches will move Carter to free safety or leave him at Star, where he showed value.
Either way, Alabama got a somewhat unexpected boost in talent when Daniel Wright returned to the team following a suspension. His status with the team had been in doubt for most of 2018; prior to his suspension, he was in the mix for the dime safety job that eventually ended up in Jared Mayden’s hands. Mayden is also back, and if he continues to improve as much heading into 2019 as he did the second half of 2018, he’ll push Carter for a starting job. Eddie Smith and Chadarius Townsend round out the list of likely contributors, although Jeffery “Scooby” Carter is with the team for spring ball and will certainly compete.
Charles Kelly was added to the coaching staff to specifically concentrate on coaching safeties, meaning last year’s defensive backs coach, Karl Scott, will work solely with the cornerbacks. Splitting the secondary into two coaching groups would seem to suggest a renewed (and increased) focus on this group. We’ll see what happens as spring moves along.
Summary: McKinney’s hitting ability is welcomed, but Alabama needs to cover better here. Thompson could cover just about anyone, when his head was in the game. Replacing Thompson with Mayden would make Alabama more physical up front; using Carter as the primary replacement would probably prioritize direct coverage ability. Alabama needs to figure out quickly who will be the fifth and sixth defensive backs, and whether Wright – who was injured on top of being suspended in 2018 – is ready to take the next step forward. This group is like a race car on bald tires at the moment: tons of potential, but needs fixing.
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