TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When it comes to individual college football awards, the University of Alabama’s haul during the Nick Saban years has been more than impressive.
Last year, Crimson Tide players won the Chuck Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Award for defensive player of the year, the Outland Trophy for best interior lineman, the Butkus Award for top linebacker, the Rotary Lombardi Award for the leading lineman and the Ted Hendricks Award for the best defensive end.
That came on the heels of Derrick Henry becoming the first player in Alabama history to win the national player of the year trifecta — the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award — in addition to the Doak Walker Award for best running back, and the offensive line landed both the Rimington Trophy for outstanding center and the Joe Moore Award.
That’s more hardware than most programs have ever won.
So when considering which Crimson Tide player might have the best chance to score a big-time trophy during the 2017 season, the list has to start with the lone returning All-American, Minkah Fitzpatrick and the Thorpe Award for outstanding defensive back.
Last year as a sophomore he tallied six interceptions and seven passes broken up. He returned two of his picks for touchdowns, bringing his career total up to four, already a Crimson Tide record. His 186 return yards came close to leading the nation.
Those are impressive statistics by themselves, but even more so when you factor in that Fitzpatrick played two different positions while helping lead Alabama to the national championship game.
He began the year as a starting cornerback who slid over to what Alabama calls the star position as the nickel defensive back in obvious passing and spread situations. When Eddie Jackson was lost for the season with a broken leg against Texas A&M on Oct. 22, Fitzpatrick switched and played the final seven games at strong safety.
Granted, he still was in the secondary, but this isn’t like moving a third baseman over to man first in baseball. A cornerback’s primary responsibility is coverage in pass defense, while the strong safety focuses more on stopping the run.
Fitzpatrick did that pretty well too, as his 41 solo stops were third on a defense that boasted Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson, Marlon Humphrey …
“At corner it’s more like being on your own,” Fitzpatrick said. “You don’t have to worry about anybody else, you don’t have to make any calls. But at safety you almost have to run the defense. You have to make calls, talk to the linebackers, the defensive line and talk to the corners and the star. You have to be more verbal and more of a leader out there. I did a little bit at star, but did a whole lot more at safety.”
That’s why when Alabama players and coaches talk about Fitzpatrick, one word is almost always mentioned and goes a long way in describing his success, “smart.”
- Defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne: “Minkah, he’s really smart and I think he takes on the role of being like a real student of the game. When we’re out there on the field, you can trust him, trust that he knows what he’s doing and that he’s going to execute the job.”
- Wide receiver Calvin Ridley: “He’s physical all over at every position. He’s really smart and that helps him a lot.”
- Coach Nick Saban: “It’s really unique to have a guy that’s as smart as he is, has a good understanding of the game that really can play all those positions.”
Consequently, Fitzpatrick became a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award, a trophy that an Alabama player has won only once, Antonio Langham in 1993. It was an important step in becoming one of the favorites for the honor this season.
When it comes to college football awards in general, perception can play a key part in determining the winner, just look at some of last year’s recipients.
Specifically with the Thorpe, a player’s reputation can be crucial, maybe even more important than any statistic. For example, the more respected a cornerback is the less opposing offenses will challenge him and the fewer opportunities he has to make plays.
LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White was a good example in 2016. He didn’t have a single interception the previous year, yet everyone knew he was one of the best players in college football. After making just two pickoffs he was named a finalist for the Thorpe, which was won by Adoree’ Jackson, a third-year starter for Southern Cal.
Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis was the other finalist. He too had just two interceptions, but was hailed as touching the football more than the receivers he covered.
Florida State cornerback Tarvarus McFadden wasn’t a finalist. He wasn’t even on the award’s watch list, which was released in July. Safety Derwin James was on it for FSU and didn’t make the cut to the semifinalists after suffering a season-ending torn meniscus in his left knee.
McFadden made eight interceptions to tie for the national lead, was named a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award and won the Jack Tatum Award, the nation’s top defensive back honor from the Touchdown Club of Columbus.
He was one of the defensive backs named an All-American by one of the major services the NCAA uses to determine unanimous and consensus status.
Most of the names on that list, including White, Jackson, Lewis, Washington’s Budda Baker, Ohio State’s Malik Hooker and Alabama’s Marlon Humphrey are available in the upcoming NFL draft, along with LSU’s Jamal Adams, Iowa’s Desmond King and Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley.
The only two returning All-American defensive backs are Fitzpatrick and McFadden, which makes them the front runners for the Thorpe. With Fitzpatrick, though, he’s back where he wants to be at cornerback, the position he came to Alabama to play and feels most comfortable.
“I think Minkah just period,” said Ridley when asked if Fitzpatrick was tougher to face as a corner or safety.
“He’s a really good corner.”