TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — One is from New Jersey, the other hails from Arizona. That alone makes them The Odd Couple of the University of Alabama football team.
They are also roommates, but in this case odd refers to the unlikely pairing on the football field of senior cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace.
They weren’t mega-recruits. They don’t trash talk like many cornerbacks. They even wear untypical numbers, although ones Alabama has had success with before. The best player to wear Averett’s No. 28 was probably Don McNeal (1977-79) or Javier Arenas (2006-09), while defensive end E.J. Junior (1977-80) previously sported Wallace’s No. 39. They were All-Americans.
These two get the job done and are having huge seasons. Yet most Crimson Tide fans wouldn’t recognize either on the street — some only figure it out if they’re with Minkah Fitzpatrick.
“I’ve got more Instagram followers,” Wallace said about how his life has changed this season.
He was being modest. It’s kind of odd for a cornerback, but that’s how these guys are. Meanwhile, not only are they drawing attention from NFL scouts and various evaluation services, but the term shut down cornerback is beginning to be murmured.
Opponents would probably be smart to avoid throwing near these cornerbacks the rest of 2017. pic.twitter.com/k1wDfsWGMK
— Aaron Resnick (@aaronmresnick) October 11, 2017
“I don’t know about all that,” Wallace said. “They got a couple of catches on me this season. To be a lock down corner, you have to be like Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman, where quarterbacks are afraid to even come your way.
“Like Ant. He doesn’t have too many passes thrown his way. I think he’s one of the best corners in college football.”
Statistically, both have been top-notch.
The Crimson Tide rank seventh nationally in passing efficiency defense (99.52 rating) and second in scoring defense (9.8). They’re 10th in passing yards allowed, fifth in yards per completion (9.83) and third in yards per attempt (5.41). Opponents have scored only 6 touchdowns in the air.
When you factor in that Alabama also leads all teams in rushing defense (and total defense), and the Crimson Tide have outscored opponents 107-9 in the first quarter and 190-26 in the first half (73-6 in the first quarter of SEC play and 128-6 in the first half, with no touchdowns allowed), the numbers are even more impressive.
Alabama’s been forcing teams to throw and between the strong secondary and aggressive pass rush they haven’t been able to, at least not effectively. Most opponents are down to attempting short throws over the middle or under the coverage, which helps explain why sophomore linebacker Mack Wilson is tied with Wallace for the team lead in interceptions with 3.
Meanwhile, no opposing player has had a 100-yard receiving game against Alabama.
A.J. Brown of Ole Miss, who leads the league in catches and receiving yards, had 1 catch for 6 yards. Jonathan Nance of Arkansas also had 1 one reception, against the Crimson Tide reserves. Tennessee’s longest reception was 12 yards, and that was by a tight end.
Leading receiving performances against Alabama
|Michael Gallup, Colorado State||5-81|
|Jordan Jones, Arkansas||4-72|
|DaMarkus Lodge, Ole Miss||2-72|
|Da’Maru Scott, Fresno State||7-67|
|Deon Stewart, Arkansas||6-65|
|Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M||4-60|
|Keesean Johnson, Fresno State||8-55|
|Christian Kirk, Texas A&M||4-52|
|Keith Gavin, Florida State||7-50|
Experience has played a role in the secondary. Like Averett and Wallace, the two players usually inserted in the nickel and dime packages, Tony Brown and safety Hootie Jones, are seniors. Starting safeties Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison are juniors, but were established starters.
“It makes a big difference,” Averett said about having such a veteran group after having nearly the exact opposite the previous couple of seasons. “It’s like the roles flipped with us this year.”
Nevertheless, no one imagined this.
When Averett was recruited in the Class of 2013, he carried a consensus 4-star rating, but there was more buzz about Maurice Smith, who transferred to Georgia for the 2016 season. The Crimson Tide also landed Eddie Jackson and Jonathan Cook (who transferred and is now at Memphis), and 5-star talents Brown and Marlon Humphrey a year later.
“Anthony’s like a lot of guys that didn’t really ever play the position in high school,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I think it takes a little longer for them to develop if they ever play a new position, especially if you take a guy from offense to defense. We recruited Anthony because of his athleticism, his speed.”
My goodness Anthony Averett is impressive. His ability to stay low and patient and hand fight without lunging in man2man is NFL caliber
— Justen Gammel (@gamscout) October 2, 2017
Wallace was considered more of a project as he walked on in January of his freshman year in 2014.
“I think the key to Levi’s success is the diligence he sort of goes about his work with,” Saban said. “He worked hard to improve and get bigger and stronger. He’s a real technician as a player, very smart, instinctive guy.”
When Humphrey left early for the NFL, sophomore Trevon Diggs, a converted wide receiver, was tabbed as his replacement if he could get comfortable in the role.
While Wallace kept plugging away and pushing him during fall camp, Diggs got the start in the season opener. But after a pair of long early Florida State drives, one ending with a touchdown, Saban made the switch and the defense responded.
Wallace has been a fixture since.
Levi Wallace icy today ❄️ pic.twitter.com/EZGV0djjcu
— Marq Burnett (@Marq_Burnett) October 25, 2017
He’s sixth in in the nation in passes defended (1.5 per game, 12 total), and credited with 9 passes broken up. He and Fitzpatrick were recently named semifinalists for the Thorpe Award for best defensive back, and midseason All-Americans by the Associated Press.
“To be honest, I didn’t even know midseason All-American even existed,” Wallace said.
The Florida State game was a turning point for Averett as well, because Florida State went after him with little success. He subsequently started to notice opponents challenging him less, which for a cornerback can be the ultimate compliment.
It’s a show of respect.
For example, last week Tennessee threw only twice in his direction, completing 1 for no gain. The Volunteers threw 3 times at Wallace, completing 1 under the coverage for 9 yards.
Wallace also made 6 total tackles including 4 solo stops and the first 2 sacks of his career en route to being named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for a second time.
“If it was up to me, we’d call a corner blitz every play,” he said with a grin that matched his confidence.
Levi Wallace has got to be one of the smartest college CB I've ever watched. He's sitting on routes. pic.twitter.com/LTqmlUrVGE
— Jared Stanger (@JaredStanger) October 23, 2017
Tennessee ended up with only 9 receptions for 44 yards, but both players know they probably won’t have numbers like those again in November.
Then again, LSU didn’t complete a pass to a wide receiver last week against Ole Miss, Mississippi State is more of a running team and Auburn isn’t known for its wide receivers. Alabama won’t be afraid to man up against them or anyone else with the quietest corner tandem in the league.
“I try and get them to talk,” senior wide receiver Cam Sims said. “You know what I’m saying? They’re smooth.
“If you’re just silent and a person keeps talking, the person who’s silent is doing their job it’s going to frustrate the person who’s talking more.”
— Anthony Averett Jr (@AD2LIVE_4) October 22, 2017