Junior cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick showed up at Alabama dripping with confidence, not to mention hype.
He’s still dripping with confidence. Just ask Arkansas’ contingent of star-studded receivers that he helped to shut down last week.
And the hype?
Well, he’s a lot more substance than hype for the No. 3-ranked Crimson Tide and a key piece to a secondary that’s gone from being a liability at times a year ago to being a strength this season.
Alabama enters this weekend’s game at Florida ranked second nationally in pass efficiency defense. Opponents are completing just 43.9 percent of their passes against the Crimson Tide and averaging 3.52 yards per attempt, both of which lead the country.
The only touchdown pass Alabama allowed last week to a wide receiver in its 38-14 win over Arkansas came on a great throw by Tyler Wilson, who was cracked just as he delivered it, and a leaping catch in the back of the end zone by Cobi Hamilton. Arkansas’ first touchdown pass came on a dump-off to running back Dennis Johnson.
Otherwise, Alabama’s defensive backs blanketed Arkansas’ talented receiving corps. The longest completion to any of the wide receivers was Hamilton’s 19-yard touchdown catch. Joe Adams also had a 19-yard catch, but averaged just 6.2 yards on six catches and wasn’t a factor after the catch, where he’s so dangerous.
“The game has slowed down for us, because we’re not worried about where everybody else is,” Kirkpatrick said. “Everybody’s on the same page now. Last year, we hurt ourselves with too many mental errors. It’s still not perfect, but we’re making a lot less.”
The 6-foot-3, 192-pound Kirkpatrick has all the measurables to make a lot of money at the cornerback position in the NFL. He has great size, a huge wingspan, can turn and run and is also showing that he can be physical.
One of the questions Alabama coach Nick Saban had about Kirkpatrick coming into this season was whether or not he was tough enough.
Against Arkansas, Kirkpatrick looked like a linebacker on a couple of plays with the way he came up and finished tackles, most of those in the open field.
“He’s making some progress that way and is a lot more mature as a player,” Saban said. “He used to be real emotional, real up and down. If something bad happened in the game, he would make two or three more bad plays. Then when he made a good play, he was over the top.
“Now, he’s more focused and stays with things the way he needs to and tries to do things the right way. The other stuff doesn’t show up as much.”
That focus has also allowed Kirkpatrick to play faster this season. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has DeQuan Menzie on the other side at cornerback and Mark Barron and Robert Lester at the two safety spots.
“Coach has been on me about staying focused, because last year I kind of got caught up in the crowd and trying to get everybody amped up,” said Kirkpatrick, who leads the SEC with eight passes broken up. “This year, I’m more down to earth, trying to keep my head, do my assignments and communicate with the guys out there with me.
“I’m a little bit better. But like Coach Saban always says, ‘You’ve never arrived.’ Therefore, I always have to keep working and keep that hungry mentality.”
Even when he was busting assignments or giving up plays last season, Kirkpatrick’s confidence never waned.
He believed he was going to win every one-on-one battle then, and he still does.
“You couldn’t play corner if you didn’t,” he said.
And when a play’s over, it’s over. It’s what most cornerbacks call having a short memory.
Kirkpatrick has a different analogy for it.
“We use the term ‘Water under the bridge,’” Kirkpatrick said. “Once you drop something in the river, it’s already gone. You can’t ever get it back.”
What is back, though, is a mentality on Alabama’s defense that there are no weaknesses.
The Gators and their explosive running back tandem of Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps will provide another big test. But through four games, the Crimson Tide have been nothing short of a fortress defensively, bolstered by the coming of age of Kirkpatrick and the entire last line of that defense.
“You’ve seen a lot of improvement from all those guys back there,” Alabama junior linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “Last year, we weren’t able to call some of the plays and some of the blitzes we wanted to to be able to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. This year, that hasn’t been a problem. All those guys know the game plan and know the playbook. They don’t have to wait and get the call from the older guy. They all know what to do.”