BATON ROUGE, La. — The meeting didn’t last long, and there was no other option than to say yes to the challenge.
Alabama coach Nick Saban called defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick into his office the Monday of the Crimson Tide’s bye week. Saban informed Fitzpatrick that the team would be moving him from cornerback and star (fifth defensive back) to safety in place of Eddie Jackson, who was lost for the season to a fractured leg.
“After I saw Eddie go down, I kind of knew they were probably going to move me back to safety,” Fitzpatrick said. “Coach Saban called me into his office that Monday and told me I needed a challenge. I had to accept the challenge. I couldn’t say no.”
Saban told Fitzpatrick the move wouldn’t be easy, but that he’d have some fun at his new position as long as he worked hard and remained disciplined.
Given two weeks to prepare, Fitzpatrick earned his first career start on Saturday in Alabama’s 10-0 victory over LSU.
Saban said the bye week was critical in helping Fitzpatrick learn the position.
“He did a good job. He’s a very instinctive player,” Saban said. “That was a critical move for us that worked.”
Fitzpatrick ended up making one of the biggest plays of the game on Saturday. Alabama’s offense marched down the field on a 12-play, 90-yard drive capped by a 21-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jalen Hurts to take a 7-0 lead.
Less than a minute later, Fitzpatrick intercepted a pass from LSU quarterback Danny Etling. It was Fitzpatrick’s fourth interception of the season.
That takeaway led to a 25-yard field goal from Alabama kicker Adam Griffith to ice the game.
“I knew I had bobbled it a little bit, but I knew I had my arm underneath the ball so I knew it was going to be a complete pass,” Fitzpatrick said of the play being reviewed. “I was a little nervous at first, but I knew it would be a complete pass.”
Ryan Anderson's big hit on Danny Etling leads to an interception from Minkah Fitzpatrick pic.twitter.com/EieqEEXnUx
— Chris Kirschner (@ChrisKirschner) November 6, 2016
Jackson made the trip to Tiger Stadium, and served as a leader from the sideline and an emotional spark plug for the team.
Fitzpatrick and the team are dedicating the rest of the season to Jackson. Fitzpatrick and some of the other players wrote “Do it for 4” or “4 for 4” on their wristbands to honor their teammate.
It was Fitzpatrick’s idea to do the “4 for 4.” Fitzpatrick spoke with Jackson prior to the game.
“He was telling me ‘If you mess up, keep your head up and go on to the next play. If you’re doing well, keep staying focused and disciplined,'” Fitzpatrick said of the conversation.
Fitzpatrick said it was challenging at first getting comfortable at his new position, but he settled in as the game went on.
Fitzpatrick said playing safety forces a defensive back to be more disciplined with their eyes. He added that playing star is more difficult because there’s “a little bit more action.”
Fitzpatrick also took on the responsibility of making the on-field adjustments, a job Jackson did so well.
“At safety, you have to make most of the calls,” Fitzpatrick said. “At star, you can make some because you see different things, but at safety you have to make almost every single call.”
Fitzpatrick made the position change look a lot easier than it actually is. Senior defensive lineman Jonathan Allen said Fitzpatrick is “very versatile” and “a helluva athlete.”
Senior defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said Fitzpatrick was locked in all week during meetings.
“It shows that he’s got his head on straight,” Tomlinson said. “He came in focused in all of the meetings, doing everything he was supposed to do and executed just like he was supposed to in practice. He plays it just like he would any other position. He’s a great football player.”
Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage had some high praise for Fitzpatrick. Savage is a former NFL general manager and current color analyst for the Crimson Tide Sports Network.
“He’s really my favorite player on the team, to be honest,” Savage told SEC Country. “He’s so instinctive. He’s a quick study. He’s like a coach on the field. He made a seamless transition from corner to safety, and made it look easy. Ended up making a huge play. He can play corner, he can play safety and he can play nickel.
“To me, he’s a pro defensive back playing college football. He’s that good. Defends the run and the pass. Has great vision. He’s just a great football player.”
Fitzpatrick is only a true sophomore so Alabama fans get to enjoy him for the rest of this season, and at least one more year.