TUSCALOOSA – Alabama coach Nick Saban has referred to himself as a “well-paid G.A.”
The graduate assistant/head coach works with the Crimson Tide cornerbacks, who occupy a crucial role in Alabama’s defense. The corners play a lot of man and are often on an island. It’s a job for men only, particularly when Saban is the position coach.
But the challenge also has its rewards. Just ask Kareem Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner, who are playing cornerback in the NFL after being first-round picks in three of the past four NFL drafts.
The latest crop of corners – the touted quartet of Maurice Smith, Anthony Averett, Jonathan Cook and Eddie Jackson – were working under particularly close supervision from Saban during Friday night’s practice. Even at the veterans’ practice Friday morning, Saban was teaching, demonstrating, critiquing and encouraging after nearly every rep.
Milliner left after his junior year for the NFL. Junior college transfer Deion Belue is back for his senior season. John Fulton is another senior and Geno Smith earned increasing playing time as his true freshman season unfolded in 2012.
This is a huge year for Alabama’s corners. Next year will have even more vacancies to fill. So the newcomers – which include Cyrus Jones, who moved from offense this spring – will have opportunities to play early, and play a lot.
Saban said what he has seen from Jones is pretty much what he has seen from all Alabama players – he works hard and he’s athletic.
“ The big thing – and I told our team this afterward – we’re about two-thirds, one-third,” Saban said after Friday’s first practice. “We’ve got about two-thirds of the guys that really have the right kind of mental energy, the right kind of mental intensity, the right kind of focus, the right kind of understanding of what it takes to play at a high level all the time. And then we've got about a third of the guys who are pretty casual, kind of have a hard time with the mental intensity part of it, especially sustaining it. That’s usually the case with younger players.
“ That’s what we battle, because once you get a guy to do that, then improvement comes quickly. But we see a lot of ability there and really like the development.”
Saban said the key trait he looks for in cornerbacks is maturity, particularly when it comes to managing their frustration.
“ I’ve never coached a defensive back that didn’t get beat and give up a play,” Saban said. “The good ones just give up less plays. One of the key things about being able to play defensive back is having the mental toughness to overcome the bad plays and go play the next play. Understand what you did wrong on the play so that you can play the next play better.
“ A lot of these young guys are so result-oriented in terms of, ‘The guy caught the ball so I must have done something wrong.’ Or, ‘I gave up a big play so I’m going to get moved down on the depth chart.’ We don’t care about that. We want you to focus on what you need to get back and can you stay focused on that?
“ The young guys that have been able to do that … end up having the chance to play, especially if they have the kind of physical ability that makes them a little bit better than other folks.”
HaHa Clinton-Dix isn’t a cornerback, but the junior safety played early and started 10 games last season. He confirms moving on to the next play is crucial to play in Alabama’s secondary.
“ If you mess up, have amnesia, just forget it,” Clinton-Dix said.
Belue started in his first year in the system, with help from two years at NE Mississippi Community College. Belue said he is teaching Cyrus Jones “everything Dee Milliner taught me.”
“ You also have Coach Saban to help, so it’s a plus in every situation,” Belue said, adding Jones’ transition from offense is enhanced because of his athletic ability. “There haven't been any major adjustments. He can play offense, defense, kickoff return. He’s adjusted really easy.”
Belue said his own development is coming quicker just because he knows the defensive playbook.
“ It’s a lot easier. You get to see how things work in the playbook and how they’re supposed to go or what you’re supposed to do,” said the senior from Tuscumbia. “Now, I can help the young players because I know exactly what I’m doing. It’s great.”
Geno Smith’s development is more obvious, too, Belue said.
“ He’s getting better and better. Even practice, he’s picking it up,” Belue said. “It’s starting to become easier for him. You can see it now, he’s not thinking as much. He’s just playing.”
The entire cornerback corps is helped by the return of Fulton, who was held out of spring practice after turf toe surgery.
“ He’s great, he’s a workaholic,” Belue said of Fulton. “Like every down, you can guarantee he’s going to be there working for you, cheering you on. That’s the man to be.”
Tide players graduate:
Thirteen current or former Alabama football players – including several projected starters – joined 17 athletes from other sports after earning their degrees at the university’s summer commencement ceremonies on Saturday.
Kicker Cade Foster, running back/H-back Jalston Fowler, tight end/H-back Harrison Jones, left guard Arie Kouandjio, offensive lineman Chad Lindsay, right tackle Austin Shepherd, tight end Brian Vogler and linebacker Tana Patrick earned degrees.
Several former players or those not on the active roster also earned their degrees, including Jonathan Atchison, David Blalock, Kelly Johnson, Tyler Love and Kerry Murphy.
Fan Day Sunday:
Alabama practiced as a full squad on Saturday afternoon, a two-hour workout in helmets and shorts.
Alabama’s Fan Day, the only open practice outside of the A-Day Game, will be from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Players and coaches will be available for autographs on the field immediately after practice.
Fans can enter the stadium at 1:30 p.m. Fans not wishing to view practice who would like to start lining up early can do so beginning at 1:30 p.m. Those fans can enter through gate 44. The autograph session will last for 45 minutes. Fans will be limited to one item per person for autographs, and no posed photographs will be permitted.
Soft drinks, water and several food items will be available for a special Fan Day price of 50 percent below regular game day prices. Parking for Fan Day can be found in the West ten Hoor area of campus. There are two parking decks as well as surface lots that are available.
In case of inclement weather, the Fan Day portion of the afternoon would be moved into Coleman Coliseum.