Tide secondary faces unusual competition this spring

Kevin Connell

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Offseason competition among teammates is normal to have on any team, but it’s hard to say that when talking about the Alabama secondary this spring.

The Crimson Tide opened up spring practice with three offensive players – running back Dee Hart and wide receivers Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones – practicing at cornerback.

With veteran standout Dee Milliner departing this offseason for the NFL Draft and likely starting cornerback John Fulton having missed all of spring with a toe injury, head coach Nick Saban was forced to dig around on his roster to add depth to a position normally filled with it.

“Even though we have a lot of guys back at safety, we don’t have the depth or quality corners and experience at corner that we’ve had in the past,” head coach Nick Saban told ESPN’s College GameDay spring tour. “So that’s the challenge.”

Leading up to A-Day, only Cyrus Jones remains primarily at cornerback, where a move to the position is all but official.

“The first couple weeks we did out there, it felt weird because he used to be out there next to me running routes with me,” wide receiver Kenny Bell said. “But he took ownership of the position he’s in and learned it and has come out there and competed every day.”

Christion Jones continues to split time at both corner and wideout, along with duties held as a returner on special teams. Hart has since returned to running back, but the move back does not indicate that his time playing on defense was a failed experiment.

“Dee Hart knows enough about playing Star [nickelback] that if we needed him to play it next year, we could develop him and he could do it,” Saban said.

Cornerback Deion Belue said Saban, who always works primarily with the secondary at practices, only seeks the best out of all his defensive backs, no matter their status on the team.

“He has the same level of improvement for every DB,” said Belue, a returning starter in the secondary. “It’s not just me, it’s every player that steps out onto the field, including the walk-ons. Everybody’s getting the same treatment.”

That includes 28-year-old freshman safety Jai Miller, who returns to football after 10 years of playing Major League Baseball.

“He’s smart, he’s athletic, he’s gone into the defense, dove in headfirst,” safety Vinnie Sunseri said when describing Miller. “He’s really just been able to grasp every single concept that we’ve put in so far and this defense is very complex and for someone to come in right away and understand it, it’s really impressive.”

Although long-time starter Robert Lester left the team to enter his name into the NFL Draft this offseason, Miller will have a tough time competing in a crowded safety group that is headlined by veterans Sunseri and HaHa Clinton-Dix and rising sophomore Landon Collins.

But that doesn’t mean the returning players aren’t keeping one eye over their shoulder, looking back at the competition working behind them.

“It’s hard,” said Clinton-Dix, who, along with Sunseri, will be a junior in the fall. “When you know someone is trying to outplay you, it helps you go even better, even harder, even faster, when you know you have someone else as good as you next to you.”

Despite the position battles, the secondary remains a tight-knit group, Sunseri said.

“This secondary is special and we’re really close,” Sunseri said. “It’s almost like we got a little family back there because whenever one person goes down, someone else is able to step up. We can relate to each other and it’s almost like second nature talking to each other.”

At the end of the day though, the players that come out on top as starters will be determined by the survival of the fittest.

“It’s The University of Alabama,” Belue said. “All we do is compete all year round. In the summer, spring, it doesn’t matter. If the spot is there, just put your best foot forward, and we’ll see who comes out with it.”