TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Quick, can you name the player who led the University of Alabama in interceptions during the 2017 season?
Maybe the versatile Minkah Fitzpatrick or safety Ronnie Harrison? How about one of the cornerbacks, Anthony Averett or Levi Wallace?
It was linebacker Mack Wilson.
If you’re wondering if he’s the first linebacker to lead the team in that statistical category during the Nick Saban era, the answer would be yes. Despite making just two starts he was also halfway to tying for the most by any player during a single season. Robert Lester with eight in 2010.
Trying to figure out who it might be during the 2018 season is tricky as Saban and position coach Karl Scott are working with a blank slate in terms of starters. All six players in the dime package are no longer with the Crimson Tide.
Saban has had similar situations before at Alabama, but not quite this extreme. For example, in 2010, safety Mark Barron was the lone returning starter, but cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was set to step in and Dee Milliner was developing.
Do you remember Deion Belue and John Fulton in 2013? A year later the unit had to be revamped, but included safety Landon Collins.
The 2009-10 teams had the most interceptions of any during the Saban era at Alabama, while the 2013-14 seasons had the fewest.
Alabama interceptions, Nick Saban era
Year, Interceptions (picks lost)
- 2007: 19 (12)
- 2008: 15 (9)
- 2009: 24 (5)
- 2010: 22 (5)
- 2011: 13 (8)
- 2012: 18 (3)
- 2013: 11 (7)
- 2014: 11 (10)
- 2015: 19 (10)
- 2016: 16 (9)
- 2017: 19 (3)
- Total: 187 (81)
Since Saban arrived in 2007, Alabama is averaging 17.0 interceptions per season and a +9.6 ratio in its favor. His Michigan State teams (1995-99) averaged 12.4 interceptions, with a high of 15 in 1995, and his LSU teams (2000-04) averaged 15.2, with 21 in 2003.
Incidentally, the Alabama single-season record is 25 (1979), and the 19 last season led the SEC and were tied for seventh in the nation.
Two factors point to one player in particular to watch in interceptions, or at least in opportunities.
Offenses are most likely to go after either freshmen or players who haven’t played much, which in this case is everyone.
Here’s what Alabama is statistically losing from the departures of Fitzpatrick, Harrison, Averett, Wallace, Tony Brown and Hootie Jones: 241 games played, 131 starts, 670 tackles, 41 tackles for a loss, 14 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, 2 fumbles recovered, 88 passes broken up and 25 interceptions.
Based on where guys lined up during the spring — Trevon Diggs and Saivion Smith at the corners, Deionte Thompson and Xavier McKinney at safety, and Shyheim Carter as the nickel (called star) — plus Jared Mayden at dime as he has the most experience of the other players, the drop-off is as one would expect.
They’ve combined to play in 84 games, with 3 starts, 58 tackles, 3½ tackles for a loss, five passes broken up and one interception.
Those numbers do not include Smith’s time at LSU or Diggs’15 games his freshman season on offense and special teams.
Thompson has made two starts, both in the College Football Playoff, and Diggs one. Those two and Carter have played two seasons as a reserve.
Granted, everyone is going to get tested by opposing defenses, but there’s a reason Fitzpatrick saw his interceptions go from six as a sophomore to just one last season. Teams weren’t eager to challenge him.
2. The position
You look at the single-season and career lists for most interceptions by Saban-coached players over the years and they’re almost exclusively topped by safeties.
Most Interceptions by Saban–coached player, season
- Robert Lester, Alabama, 2010, 8
- Mark Barron, Alabama, 2009, 7
- Corey Webster, LSU, 2003, 7
- Corey Webster, LSU, 2002, 7
- Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama, 2016, 6
- Eddie Jackson, Alabama, 2015, 6
- Rashad Johnson, Alabama, 2007, 6
- LeRon Landry, LSU, 2003-04, 6
Most Interceptions by Saban–coached player, career
- Corey Webster, LSU, 2002-4, 16
- Robert Lester, Alabama, 2010-12, 14
- Mark Barron, Alabama, 2008-11, 12
- Rashad Johnson, Alabama, 2007-08, 11
- Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama, 2015-17, 9
- Eddie Jackson, Alabama, 2013-16, 9
- Aric Morris, Michigan State, 1996-99, 9
— SEC Country Alabama (@SECCountryBama) September 27, 2017
Granted, Alabama’s pass rush and ability to stop the run will greatly influence how many interceptions the 2018 Crimson Tide will eventually record, and no one knows how quickly they will develop, including freshmen led by Patrick Surtain Jr., Jalyn Armour-Davis and Josh Jobe might be ready to contribute.
The schedule also plays a factor as three of Alabama’s first four games are against Louisville, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, followed by Arkansas and Missouri, all of which will probably throw first and try to run second against the Crimson Tide.
Interceptions vs. annual opponents*
- Arkansas 21
- Ole Miss 17
- LSU 15
- Mississippi State 13
- Tennessee 13
- Texas A&M 9
- Auburn 7
Interceptions vs. non–division SEC opponents*
- Florida 11
- Georgia 9
- Kentucky 4
- Vanderbilt 4
- Missouri 2
- South Carolina 2
Interceptions vs. non–SEC opponents*
- Chattanooga 4
- Clemson 4
- Georgia State 4
- Penn State 4
- Texas 4
- Western Kentucky 4
- Florida State 3
- Mercer 3
- Michigan 3
- Michigan State 3
* charts reflect cumulative totals during Nick Saban era.
Combine all the data and the signs point to McKinney who will be challenged the most and have the most chances. That makes him the odds-on favorite to top the Crimson Tide in 2018.