During a Monday news conference for the Sugar Bowl, Smart used the word “frustrating” when describing the Crimson Tide’s cornerback situation. Smart was asked if he’s ever been through an entire season without settling one of the cornerback spots, and like always, Smart was frank with his response.
“Well, we have not had that. We are not used to that,” he said. “We’ve kind of always had one key guy with all the first-round, second-round corners we’ve had. We’ve always had a staple guy there, then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner. Hasn’t been that way this year.”
Since Smart became Alabama's defensive coordinator in 2008, future NFL players such as Kareem Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner have developed into top cornerbacks, which has given the Tide secondary a level of consistency.
This year, Alabama has had six guys start at least one game at one of the two cornerback positions.
Senior Deion Belue has started 10 of 12 games at one cornerback spot, missing two contests with injury, with Bradley Sylve and Maurice Smith getting one start each in his place. At the other cornerback position, John Fulton has started twice, Eddie Jackson three times, Sylve twice and Cyrus Jones five times, which includes the last five games of the regular season.
This season, Belue was expected to be the “staple guy there,” but injuries have hampered his performance. A starter in all 14 games last season, Belue has battled nagging hamstring and toe injuries dating back to preseason camp. The injuries are so bad he always is limited during practice.
“Deion has given us some consistency,” Smart said. “He’s a veteran, understands the defense. With him out there, I think a lot of guys feel more comfortable, and he has fought really hard throughout the year with injuries. Had weeks where he couldn’t practice, but still was willing to go out and play in the game, which is tough to do mentally and physically.
“So anything we can get out of Deion is a bonus with his injuries and things he pushed through.”
Fulton was expected to fill the void left by Milliner’s early departure for the NFL draft, but the senior struggled and has been relegated to a reserve role.
“We have other guys play well one game, not play well the next,” Smart said. “We’ve not gotten the consistency we want out of that position. And we don’t have the depth that we’ve had in the past. So it’s been a struggle.”
The position’s struggles may be more about experience than depth. Alabama has the bodies to put at cornerback, but none of the players had enough game action before being thrown into the fire.
Jones was a receiver until this past spring. Sylve was converted from wide receiver in the spring of 2012. Jackson and Smith are true freshmen.
Both Sylve and Jackson were hurt at one point during the year, which further slowed their development.
“Deion, we feel like has been our best corner, but he’s been in and out because of injury,” Smart said. “Opposite him, it’s been musical chairs.”
But the Tide’s secondary issues extend beyond cornerback. Safety has been tough to manage because of injuries and a suspension.
Starting free safety HaHa Clinton-Dix sat out two games after a run in with the NCAA for receiving improper benefits, which forced Landon Collins to play free safety. Then, as Clinton-Dix was working his way back into the rotation, starting strong safety Vinnie Sunseri went down with a season-ending knee injury, which moved Collins back to strong safety for the final five games of the regular season.
On top of that, before the Iron Bowl, Clinton-Dix hurt his knee in practice, but played through the injury, which ultimately required minor surgery.
There is a bit of a silver lining -- these players have gained experience. They're gaining even more during bowl workouts, and Saban maps out the initial practices as camp-style workouts to help the younger players develop for the future.
“A couple of the kids have done well in bowl practice,” Smart said. “We hope they play well in the game, as they. That’s what we’re looking forward to seeing.”