Mailbag: Alabama Defensive Backfield

We picked up a great question earlier this week and I wanted to share the discussion.  I figure if one person has the question then perhaps others do as well.

Here’s the gist of the question and my response.  Feel free to comment below to contribute to this discussion or drop us an email if you have a question you’d like for us to address.

Thanks for following along and Roll Tide!

Question from listener Steve.

I noticed y’all have been talking about Gino a lot lately.  Both before he made the scene and after.  I am impressed that you were able to see that coming.  I especially like the insight regarding how Saban chewed him pretty hard early in the season at the end of a meaningless game being a sign that Saban had very high expectations for him.  But I was still surprised that you highlighted Gino rather that Belue as a key player.  If Gino has surpassed Belue, why isn’t he at the every down corner back slot?  Is the star position the spot for a corner with better coverage skills and weaker tackling skills requiring the more rounded player to play the true corner?  Do you expect ND to run a lot of formations that put us in the star?

Response from AFP – Dave

Lots of good questions here on the DBs, I’ll try to step through each of them.  This could easily be a topic for a longer discussion on a future podcast.  Perhaps we’ll add this one to the list for a deeper discussion during the off season.

I do not categorically think Geno has passed Belue.  Based on what I’ve seen to date, I’d give him a higher upside but I would not say one has passed the other.  As you’ve indicated, they play different positions and while I like your generalized descriptions, I think you have them reversed.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I am not an expert on Saban’s defense, but over the last couple seasons I have found that the star position is the more versitle position.  This player is typically a corner – though Vinnie has played some star – and he’ll be lined in the slot.  From here the star will take the slot, TE, or back in coverage or he’ll blitz.

The more pure cover man will play the straight corner.  Belue has manned this position very well  this year as a first year team member.  The Bama/Georgia game was probably his worst game and because its recent it stands out, but he’s played well for us this year.

Think of players that have played the star and pure corner is years past to help frame the differences.  Javy was a corner who moved to the star when we went to nickel.  He played opposite Kareem Jackson who was more pure cover corner and Marquis Johnson played his corner spot when he moved.

I’d guess that last season was an arrangement that Saban loved.  Milliner and Kirkpatrick (a pure cover corner) manned the corners and Menzie played the star.  Menzie was not quite as skilled as a cover man but he was pretty good and may have been the most athletic.  3 skilled corners with atheticism and experience in the system allowed for some creative coverages.

Our “struggles” in the secondary this year have been the result of not having enough corners.  With Milliner and Belue (again, a first year JUCO player), we don’t have much depth.  Fulton has not emerged as I expected.  He can play some cover corner – freeing up Milliner to become the star – but he’s never taken over the role.

Geno has a lot of talent and was highly recruited so when he played early in the season, even just special teams, I figured we had a plan to develop him as the season wore on.  I originally pegged him more pure cover to free up Milliner but he spent time working the star in fall camp.  Now to me, this points to a genius that Saban has.  He knows his defense is tough so he’ll break it down into bite size pieces.  Belue’s focus was on being a pure corner.  Fulton appears to have not progressed from pure corner.  Milliner started pure corner and has evoled to also learning the star.  With 3 corners versed in “pure corner”, he knew he needed another corner skill set at the star position so that’s where Geno started to get his reps.

With spotty confidence in Fulton (my assessment), we ended up playing lots of safeties.  We routinely played 3 safeties when in our nickel and I even once spotted 4 of them when we were in a dime.  Crazy.

Geno played more against A&M – when the situation pressed him into action – and coach was plain in saying he probably should have played him more earlier in the season.  Geno has played almost every snap of every game since and he’s making plays with confidence that he could not have made back in September and October.

So our recent focus on Geno is a function of him emerging.  We spoke highly of Belue in the preseason and early on.  Again, he’s performed well as a pure corner.  Geno has earned reps at star and his rapid (almost sudden) ascent has drawn our attention.

As for ND running formations to put us in the star.  No, I don’t really see them dictating that to us.  The truth is that we run a nickel defense at least 60% of the time anyway – perhaps even more.  We do that so that we can be flexible to the offense’s plan to attack.  The star is sorta the hinge point -again, my assessment.  He can play coverage or blitz to create pressure.  He can also support the run.  I think we’ll see the star a lot, but it’ll be by our design, not anything ND is forcing us into.

Now, if we see lots of Dime or our Saban Base 3-4-4, that will be more a nod to something ND is influencing.

Ok, probably a longer answer than you wanted, but it’s fun a fun one to discuss.  Lots of nuances to factor in, but I’ll say this.  If Milliner comes back next year – big if – we’ll have one of the best and most versitle secondaries in the game.  That could really be fun to watch.

Thanks again for the question Steve!

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