TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and the recruiting class of 2015 first arrived on the University of Alabama campus, all the new players had to fill out a psychological profile that identified their personality types.
That wasn’t surprising, especially considering Nick Saban is known for spending a lot of time on the mental side of the game. What was to Fitzpatrick was having a score similar to his new coach.
“Almost identical,” Fitzpatrick said. “I guess you could say we think alike.”
It helps explain why Fitzpatrick hasn’t been upset about the possibility of not playing his preferred position of cornerback this season. Everyone in his situation wants to be known as a shutdown defender, but he sees the big picture.
With athletic sophomore Trevon Diggs moving from wide receiver to cornerback in the spring, Alabama has the potential to line up established veterans at every other spot in the secondary. That includes the nickel- and dime-package positions that Saban calls Star and Money, respectively.
It would keep Fitzpatrick at safety, where he played the second half of the 2016 season alongside Ronnie Harrison after Eddie Jackson suffered a season-ending leg fracture against Texas A&M.
Jackson had previously moved from corner, although it was a necessity after losing his starting job. He not only resurrected his career but was closing in on All-American consideration. Instead, Fitzpatrick was a consensus selection.
“I’m just comfortable on the field,” he said.
That might be a huge key to Alabama’s defense this season.
If he played at a set cornerback spot, he’d be much easier for quarterbacks to avoid. Opponents could do enough to keep him honest in coverage, while continually throwing the ball elsewhere.
That’s a lot harder to do if he’s playing safety, or moving around in different spots. Having also played Star, Fitzpatrick knows all the defensive back positions and could theoretically line up at cornerback on one play, move to safety on the next followed by over the slot.
Plus, Fitzpatrick’s a threat to blitz, and figures to do more this season. Asked what he ran on Alabama’s Pro Day for underclassmen in the spring, he tried to casually wave it off by saying “4.39, 4.37, something like that.” The fastest 40 time by a defensive back at the 2017 NFL Combine was 4.38 by Shaquill Griffin of Central Florida.
If one play stood out for Fitzpatrick last season it was his 100-yard interception return for a touchdown that sealed the 49-30 win at Arkansas. Razorbacks quarterback Austin Allen was 25-for-48 passing and a career-high 400 yards, but his three touchdown throws were offset by three interceptions, all by Fitzpatrick.
“From the first play to the last play, there’s not one guy on that field taking a break,” Allen said about Alabama’s defense. “Every play they’re going 100 percent and know exactly where to be and what to do. That’s what everyone strives to be, a team like that.”
While Allen has no problem calling the Crimson Tide “relentless and fast,” or saying Foster might be the best player he’s ever faced, it’s obvious that the touchdown return still gets to him.
“We’ll try and learn from it and play better this year,” he said.
Fitzpatrick has had that kind of effect on a lot of quarterbacks. His 44-yard interception for a touchdown against Florida in the SEC Championship Game was his fourth career pick-six, making him Alabama’s all-time leader.
The Crimson Tide ended up scoring 15 non-offensive touchdowns in 2016, and at point had at least one in 10 consecutive games. All were demoralizing, if not devastating, to the opposition.
“When they’re the ones who are supposed to be scoring and the other team does, it hits you hard,” Fitzpatrick said. “They’re like, ‘Man, I don’t know what to do.’
“It’s a lot of fun,” he added.
Fitzpatrick’s six interceptions led the Crimson Tide and his 186 return yards ranked near the top nationally. He also made 41 solo tackles, most in open space, which only fueled his reputation as being a top-notch player regardless of where lining up.
Although no one was a unanimous selection in the preseason All-SEC voting during last month’s media days — former Arkansas running back Darren McFadden is the lone unanimous vote-getter since 2000 — Fitzpatrick and teammate Calvin Ridley came the closest. Both were named on 232 out of 243 ballots.
No other defensive player topped 200 votes. Crimson Tide defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne was second with 196.
Leading vote getters for All-SEC (votes)
It reinforced the perception that Fitzpatrick might be Alabama’s best player regardless of position, and maybe the best defensive back in college football. Like Foster andJonathan Allen last year, he’s become a threat every opposing quarterback will have to account for before each snap.
Alabama needs him to full a leadership void as well, which doesn’t come naturally to the third-year starter.
Saban refers to Fitzpatrick as an alpha-dog personality. Being unselfish about where he plays is a perfect example.His position may not get settled for a while as coaches won’t hand Diggs a starting job until they’re certain he’s ready.
Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick is trying to be more vocal.
“It’s a challenge that [strength coach Scott] Cochran and Coach Saban have given me, to sort of step out of my comfort zone and do that a little bit more,” he said.
“It’s not the same raspy voice, but I can get loud if I want to.”