Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer 237d

Strength of Alabama defense shifts to secondary

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's difficult to go from unbeatable to unrecognizable.

For months, Alabama's secondary was regarded as one of the best in the nation, ranking first in opposing QBR and among the top 20 in touchdowns allowed, completion percentage and interceptions during the regular season. Even Washington's Jake Browning, who led all Power 5 quarterbacks in touchdown passes, crumbled against the Tide during the first round of the College Football Playoff, throwing for a paltry 150 yards, one touchdown and two picks.

Then came Clemson and the national title game, in which Deshaun Watson carved up Alabama's defensive backs to the tune of 420 yards and three touchdowns. The final two plays of the game were an indictment on the secondary: A pass-interference penalty set up first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, where Watson rolled to his right and found a wide-open Hunter Renfrow for the game-winning score.

Star defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick was in a daze after the 35-31 loss. The sophomore looked around the locker room in Tampa, Florida, and knew he wouldn't be suiting up with many of his teammates again. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey was set to turn pro, as was safety Eddie Jackson. The next day, Fitzpatrick watched a replay of the game a couple of times.

"Then I just had to switch my mindset and focus on a new team and a new season," he said.

Some players took it harder than others, he explained.

"But everybody learned from the game, and that's the most important thing."

Fast-forward two and a half months to the start of spring practice, and the Alabama secondary appears to have turned the page. Whereas the front seven lost five of seven starters to the NFL, the secondary returns three, including Fitzpatrick, cornerback Anthony Averett and safety Ronnie Harrison.

There's a good mix of new and old throughout the depth chart as well. At corner, senior Tony Brown is back along with rising sophomore Shyheim Carter. At safety, senior Hootie Jones is vying for reps alongside redshirt sophomore Deionte Thompson.

Even 2016 four-star athlete Trevon Diggs is trying his hand at defensive back this spring after playing primarily receiver as a true freshman last season.

"We do have some experience," coach Nick Saban said, "but it's going to take a while for us to sort of see which combinations of guys in regular, nickel and dime work best for us."

The biggest question facing the unit -- where will Fitzpatrick play -- appears to be answered, though.

The New Jersey native who has played nickelback, cornerback and safety his first two seasons on campus, is starting back at his natural position of corner.

"That's what I came here to play," Fitzpatrick said. "I did star my freshman year because we had Marlon [Humphrey] and Cyrus [Jones] out there. Then last year, Eddie went down so I had to move to safety. Now this year I'm back where I feel most comfortable, really. Coach [Saban] trusts me to be out there, and if I'm doing a good job out there, I'll stay there."

In what should feel like music to Alabama fans' ears, Fitzpatrick, who is already an All-American caliber DB, said he feels more likely to intercept passes at corner than he did at safety.

Time will tell whether Fitzpatrick can add to his eight career interceptions, or whether he'll even stick at cornerback. The good news for Alabama is that with Fitzpatrick and his teammates, Saban and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt have options.

The secondary may have ended last season on a sour note, but the future looks bright.

"It's a new team, a new attitude, new leaders, everything like that," Fitzpatrick said during the first week of spring practice. "It was a lot of fun to be out there."

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