Neither one of them could have expected the move.
After all, both Geno Matias-Smith and Eddie Jackson were standout cornerbacks as true freshmen at Alabama. Matias-Smith started during the 2012 SEC championship game against Georgia, while Jackson started four games in 2013, including the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.
To see the field their first season on campus seemed to be a statement at the time. When your position coach is the head coach and your head coach is Nick Saban, you don’t just waltz into town and pencil yourself into the starting lineup. You earn it.
But whatever cachet they built up as freshmen didn’t last. Matias-Smith was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence during the offseason of 2013, was suspended for the season opener and relegated to the role of a backup the rest of the year. Jackson, a year later, sustained a torn ACL during spring practice, somehow made it back for the start of the season but struggled to return to form.
At the same time, football was changing. Alabama struggled to adapt to the rise of spread, hurry-up offenses, losing shootouts to Auburn, Oklahoma and Ohio State. The secondary was getting gashed too often and the coaching staff searched for answers.
So Saban did what he couldn’t have expected years earlier: He moved two of his most talented cornerbacks to safety.
The same coach who produced NFL safeties Mark Barron, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins and Rashad Johnson, had to rethink the position. Those bigger safeties, Saban decided, were out of date. He went all-in on what was essentially an all-cornerback secondary.
And so far, the influx of speed and range has paid off. Alabama, which ranked 58th in pass defense in 2014, is currently 17th. Saban’s secondary has given up six fewer touchdown passes and has cut down on opposing quarterbacks’ completion percentage by more than 5 percent. The run defense hasn’t suffered either, ranking No. 1 nationally in rushing yards per game (74.0).
Jackson, who leads the team in interceptions, and Matias-Smith, who is third on the team in tackles, have been key to the turnaround. Without them, there’s no telling where Alabama’s defense would be.
“We kind of connect because both of us played corner,” Jackson said following the SEC championship game in Atlanta. “It gives us an advantage in covering receivers.”
But that supposed advantage wasn’t always seen that way.
See, Jackson and Matias-Smith, by virtue of their former positions, were on the smaller size range for safeties. Where Barron and Collins were around 220 pounds, neither Matias-Smith or Jackson weigh in over 200.
So naturally, there were questions about how they’d handle the physical toll of being the last line of defense.
“You know, people doubt us,” Jackson said. “They say we're the smallest safeties in the SEC. But we get the job done.”
He later added, in his defense: “You get to cover guys that most normal safeties can't cover.”
Matias-Smith, who began the move to safety as a sophomore, said he didn’t really get comfortable playing the new position until before the start of this season.
But Jackson didn’t have two years to develop the right instincts to play the back end. He had one offseason to figure it out.
When the move to safety was initially brought up by Saban, he was hesitant.
“When I first heard the decision I was like, 'Aww, this is going to be crazy,’” Jackson said.
He didn’t balk at his marching orders, though, saying how, “Coach Saban has been doing this for a long time, so if he sees you being somewhere you just have to run with it.”
“Being from corner, you just worry about your man,” he explained. “Being a safety, you have to make calls for the whole secondary, linebackers and make sure we're in formation and all the shifts and changes. We just had to focus in because you're playing a big role, like a quarterback on defense.”
Soon enough, Jackson got the motions down. In the season opener against Wisconsin, he registered the first of his five interceptions.
With Jackson pick-pocketing quarterbacks and Matias-Smith as a stabilizing force alongside him, the secondary has taken on a whole new look from a year ago.
The motto this past offseason was, according to Matias-Smith, “The ball, the ball, the ball.” And the ball is exactly what they’ve gotten after, hauling in five more interceptions than they had all of last season.
It hasn’t happened the way many people would have thought only a few years ago. It required two cornerbacks trying a new position and a coach trying a new way of thinking. But so far, it’s worked out well for everybody.