TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick may be one of the most important players on Alabama’s team heading into the 2016 season thanks to his versatility.
Fitzpatrick, a 5-star member of Alabama’s 2015 recruiting class, is tasked with playing both cornerback and star, Alabama’s fifth defensive back in its nickel and dime packages.
Alabama’s lack of depth in the secondary has forced the group into a bit of an awkward position of having to play one player at two positions.
Fitzpatrick practiced at both last season, but only played star in games as Alabama had Marlon Humphrey and Cyrus Jones at the cornerback spots. That might change this season with Jones graduated and only Humphrey back.
“On the corner you’re on an island, but it’s like you’ve got the beach right there, it’s the out of bounds,” Fitzpatrick said of the differences between the two positions. “At star, you’ve got water all around you. That’s probably the biggest difference.”
Fitzpatrick believes playing inside is tougher because the defender has more reads. This demands more from a player mentally. Fitzpatrick has been comfortable with Alabama’s encyclopedia-style playbook since “week 4 of last year.” There’s also the fact that lining up inside likely means the defender is going against a quicker, shiftier receiver.
Fitzpatrick would likely play cornerback in Alabama’s base defense, and slide inside to star in the nickel and dime packages which would allow a third cornerback to come on.
“I’d like for a guy not to have to do that,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I’d like to have a guy that could play corner or a guy that could play star so that guy could always sort of play in one position. I’m not sure we have the luxury to do that at this point relative to the players that we have available. So he may have to do that. He’s very versatile and he’s bright, he’s smart, he’s very conscientious and he works hard every day.
“So if there’s anybody who can do it, I think he’s certainly the right kind of guy to do it. That may be how we end up this year.”
Dee Milliner played both positions for stretches during Alabama’s 2012 national championship run. But one has to go back to Javier Arenas in 2008 to find an Alabama defensive back who spent significant time at both cornerback and star during Saban’s tenure.
Fitzpatrick feels more comfortable doing both heading into his second year on campus. Humphrey said Fitzpatrick has shown that he can be an “elite corner” in practice.
Fitzpatrick spent all offseason fine tuning his cornerback skills in anticipation of an expanded role.
“It says that he trusts me as a player and that he trusts my ability and versatility as a player,” Fitzpatrick said of Saban. “I appreciate him giving me the opportunity to do something like that.”
The transfers of redshirt freshman Kendall Sheffield (junior college) and Maurice Smith (Georgia) left Alabama without a lot of depth at cornerback. Tony Brown’s pending NCAA suspension has his status uncertain as Saban expects him to be unavailable for “several games.”
Beyond that, there is junior Anthony Averett and three freshmen — Jared Mayden, Aaron Robinson and Shyheim Carter — competing for the third cornerback spot if Fitzpatrick does move inside.
Averett appears to be the favorite to win the job at the moment, but things can change between now and the season opener vs. USC.
“All the young guys have been stepping up, Fitzpatrick said. “All the DBs have been in the film room just like I was last year, trying to learn the system. Some of them, they have their up days and their down days. I just try to bring them under my wing and tell them, ‘I know how hard it is. Last year was the same way for me. Just keep working hard and stay focused and you’re gonna see all your hard work come to fruition.'”