TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — On his list of personal goals, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick hoped to lead the NCAA in interceptions this season.
It didn’t quite happen.
He ended up with just one, seven behind the leader, in part due to the positions he played and opponents being aware of where No. 29 lined up on each play. They were steadfast in making sure he didn’t have the opportunity.
It’s one of the few things he wasn’t able to accomplish during his illustrious University of Alabama career.
Thursday afternoon, Fitzpatrick made the decision that everyone fully expected and announced his intention to enter the NFL draft. Of all the Crimson Tide underclassmen who have had to make that choice during the Nick Saban era — and there have been a lot of them — his might have been the easiest.
“It wasn’t a very difficult one,” he said. “It was a little bittersweet.”
Fitzpatrick, who for a while in high school worked to help his family make ends meet after Hurricane Irene destroyed their home, has a chance to be a top-five selection. Last year, the top defensive back selected was safety Jamal Adams, who as the sixth-overall pick landed a deal from the New York Jets worth $22.3 million.
Fitzpatrick is one of five Alabama juniors to have made his departure for the pros official, joining running back Bo Scarbrough, safety Ronnie Harrison, wide receiver Calvin Ridley and defensive linebacker Da’Ron Payne.
During their three years, Alabama played for the national championship in each season, winning two. Fitzpatrick started in all of those games.
That was after Saban had to be talked into recruiting the talented prospect from New Jersey. Once he got on campus the coaching staff knew it had a potential star. He played in 42 games, missing just two. Fitzpatrick was held out of the Mercer game this season as an injury precaution, and against Charleston Southern his freshman year.
While we learned a lot about Fitzpatrick over the years, including that he lists “Sabrina Claudio, Jennifer Lawrence and gotta go with JLo” as his biggest celebrity crushes, his toughness is what stood out at the end, during the recent College Football Playoff.
“A lot of people don’t realize a lot of those guys have actually been banged up all year, especially Minkah,” former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said. “Minkah’s had a lot of things going on early in the year.”
Prutt didn’t go into details, but being banged up was in addition to the hamstring injury at LSU, plus the bruised kidney that sent him to the hospital after the Clemson victory in New Orleans. Fitzpatrick played his final game wearing a flak jacket for extra protection, yet didn’t complain. He also never denied the rumor that he had been urinating blood.
“I’m good, I was fine,” was all he would offer Thursday, even though he won’t have another game until next fall. “I had to wear some extra protection, but I was good.”
That’s leading by example, something at which he was terrific.
Hey @minkfitz_21 what kind of hairstyle is that?
— Southeastern Conference (@SEC) January 6, 2018
According to sports-reference.com, Fitzpatrick finished his career with 171 tackles, including 16.5 for a loss and 5 sacks, plus 9 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles. His four pick-6s set an Alabama record, as did his 100-yard interception return against Arkansas. The 186 return yards in a single season stand second in the record book behind Eddie Jackson’s 230 in 2015.
It was after Jackson got hurt that Fitzpatrick slid over to strong safety in the base defense near the end of the 2016 season. Again, he didn’t complain, even though Fitzpatrick came to Alabama with the hope of playing cornerback in preparation for the next level.
Instead, he leaves as maybe having been the best defensive back to ever play for the Crimson Tide.
When it comes to naming all-time Alabama teams, there are only two players on the 2017 national championship team who will be easy additions — Fitzpatrick and punter JK Scott.
Fitzpatrick leaves as a two-time All-American (unanimous this season), and the second Alabama winner of the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s best defensive player in as many years, joining Jonathan Allen. He’s also Saban’s first winner of the Thorpe Award for best defensive back, which is amazing considering the players Saban has coached at a position that is considered his specialty.
“Minkah has just got all the right stuff,” Saban said. “He’s got a lot of ability, but he’s really driven in terms of work ethic, preparation, wanting to be successful. Just really great character and attitude, doesn’t get affected by a lot of other external factors, and just has a really high standard for what he expects of himself.”
Moreover, for doing a lot of things that he didn’t brag about, such as his mission trip to Costa Rica, Fitzpatrick was named to the Allstate American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Good Works Team, and is a finalist for the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year, which won’t be announced until Feb. 22.
“As good a player Minkah Fitzpatrick is on the field, he’s a better person off the field,” Pruitt said. “That tells you what kind of person he is.”
29 for Alabama, Minkah Fitzpatrick, is the best defender in the draft class. Elite athlete, elite IQ, elite person
— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 9, 2018
Based on the accolades alone, Fitzpatrick has to be mentioned among the all-time great defensive backs with Tommy Wilcox, Don McNeal and Antonio Langham, and then with his predecessors during the Saban era, including Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins and Mark Barron.
But no one was as versatile, and over such a long period of time.
Detail oriented and a team captain, he could play every position in the secondary. Fitzpatrick went from earning regular playing time during his first season and being named a Freshman All-American to being named by his peers the MVP of the 2017 national championship team that overcame mass injuries.
Fitzpatrick definitely made the most of his time on the Capstone.
“The best three years of my life,” Fitzpatrick said during his exit news conference. “It was an honor and a blessing to be part of this university. I’m forever grateful.”