The Alabama Crimson Tide defense hasn’t faced many challenges from other teams during the 2016 season, but even after back to back dominant performances against Top-10 opponents, the Alabama defense might be faced with its greatest challenge yet: replacing senior safety Eddie Jackson.
Jackson was lost for the season when he broke his leg during a punt return in the fourth quarter of a 33-14 victory over Texas A&M. Since usurping the role as starting punt returner from sophomore wide receiver Calvin Ridley, Jackson had been electric in the return game, returning two for touchdowns.
His impact as a returner has supplemented his strong play as the Crimson Tide’s starting free safety for the past year and a half. In his first year at the position in 2015, Jackson led Alabama with six interceptions on his way to being named All-SEC. Jackson continued that strong play through the first half of his senior season and was playing his way up the draft board.
Alabama is now tasked with finding a way to compensate for Jackson’s loss on both defense and special teams. But while the loss of Jackson is heartbreaking for Alabama fans, the Crimson Tide are more equipped to handle losing an All-American player than a wide majority of teams in the country.
On defense, there are several ways the Tide can approach filling the void left by Jackson. After Jackson exited the Texas A&M game, his spot was filled by junior defensive back Tony Brown, who saw his first meaningful action since returning from a suspension that sidelined him for the first four games of the year.
Brown has worked at both safety and cornerback during his career at Alabama as well as at the Star position in Alabama’s nickel and dime packages. Perhaps the simplest solution would be to simply plug in Brown for Jackson as Alabama did in the fourth quarter against the Aggies. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Nick Saban and Jeremy Pruitt experiment with other secondary groupings.
Brown is one player in the Alabama secondary who has experience at both corner and safety. The other is sophomore cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick. For the past two seasons, Fitzpatrick has started in the Star role but was working with the safeties during the media-viewing portion of Alabama’s Tuesday practice, per Al.com’s Rainer Sabin.
Brown, however, was practicing with the cornerbacks, which suggests Alabama may consider filling in for Jackson by moving Fitzpatrick to the back end of the secondary and putting Brown in Fitzpatrick’s Star position. The versatility of both players gives Saban and Pruitt the opportunity to tinker until they find the secondary grouping they believe works best.
In the return game, Jackson’s injury leaves a lane open for Ridley to reassume the punt-returning duties he held at the beginning of the year. However, it’s more likely that the Crimson Tide would be wary of losing another star player to a special-teams injury. Next to Jackson’s 11 returns on the season, Xavian Marks has the most experience returning punts this year with 5, one of which he took for a touchdown. Given that Marks doesn’t have much of a role on the field outside of special teams, he is probably the most likely option to be the Tide’s new return man.