TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Every few snaps there's a different alignment and a different personnel package is shuffled onto the practice field. Nick Saban looks on in silence, straw hat atop his head, eyes narrowed as he looks over his defensive layout. The ball is snapped and the pieces shift like marble on a chessboard. The 61-year-old head coach of the Crimson Tide makes his hand into a fist, resting it on his chin as he thinks.
The season opener against Virginia Tech is less than two weeks away and Alabama's first-team defense is coming into view. The combinations Saban will employ are numerous, mixing and matching his way to the best group of 11 on the field in any given situation. There are a few common denominators: All-American C.J. Mosley rarely leaves the field at inside linebacker, Deion Belue and John Fulton have been regulars at cornerback, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has played the vast majority of reps at free safety, falling back like a center fielder would in baseball.
Who will start opposite him at strong safety, however, is in question. Nick Perry is the most veteran option, a senior who started four games last year and played in all 14 contests. Junior Vinnie Sunseri is making a run at the job, too. He has made big plays ever since he was a freshman in 2011. And don't forget about Landon Collins. The true sophomore and former No. 1-rated safety in his class looks to be worth every one of his five stars.
"Landon's at the top of the peak right now," Clinton-Dix said of the burgeoning youngster he has helped develop under Saban. "He's doing very well, run conflict, pass conflict, he can cover it. He's very physical. So he's doing a great job for us right now."
Collins might not begin the season a starter, but by year's end he could be right on Sunseri and Perry's heels. As Clint0n-Dix said early in fall camp, the competition has been anything but cordial.
"It's nothing friendly," he said. "It's camp. It's everybody by themselves, just trying to compete for a job. All of us are great. You just gotta find that one inch you can to pull ahead of someone else."
After three weeks of trying, there hasn't been much separation. All three have seen the field, albeit in a variety of ways. Sunseri has played the most strong safety of the bunch, but he has dropped down and played nickel, or "star" as Saban describes it, allowing either Perry or Collins to play alongside Clinton-Dix on the back end of the defense.
Depending on the situation, all four safeties can be on the field at the same time.
"The way the defense is set up we have a lot of DBs who play at one time," Clinton-Dix said. "We have seven on the field at one time, six, five, you can play with them a lot, so you just find your role on this team."
Jarrick Williams, often a forgotten man at safety thanks to a season-ending knee injury last year, has joined in on the action as well. With Geno Smith suspended, Williams has been playing with the first team some at star.
As Mosley put it, Williams has his "chance to shine."
"Jarrick Williams has had a fantastic camp so far and is going to get some opportunity to play this year," Saban said. "We’re excited about it. He really feels comfortable and confident in what he’s doing. He’s playing in nickel and dime and also in safety, so he’s got a lot of multiple roles on the team and he’s really done a good job."
If Williams becomes a regular with the first team, there's no telling how many safeties will play on defense for the Tide this season. The cornerbacks might get jealous.
But if one thing is certain, it's this: Saban will devise a way to make the most of what he has. Pawn or knight, rook or bishop, he doesn't care. If he has the pieces, he's going to play the game the way he sees fit.