On Thursday, the Dolphins took Alabama do-everything defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick with the 11th pick in the NFL Draft. Here’s a story from August 2017 that gets to the heart of why Fitzpatrick, then the soul of Alabama’s defense, is so good. After this story was published, Fitzpatrick led Alabama’s D to a national championship. He’s now playing for the team Saban briefly coached more than a decade ago.
The end of the college football offseason is when the “best player in the country” lists start coming out. A lot of folks are giving that early mantle to Florida State safety Derwin James, who is indeed great. But James might not even be the best defensive back this year. One could argue it will be Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Nick Saban, who is not usually one for effusive public praise of his own players, said of Fitzpatrick during a press availability on Wednesday:
Saban on M. Fitzpatrick: "He's phenomenal. He does it every day. I've heard guys say they save it for the game and they aren't worth a shit"— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) August 16, 2017
Saban: Minkah Fitzpatrick does it as well as anyone I've ever coached in terms of how he works.— Marq Burnett (@Marq_Burnett) August 16, 2017
Fitzpatrick is great during practice, per Saban, and that’s not surprising, because he’s really great during games. The former five-star recruit in the class of 2015 emerged for the Tide last year, when he worked some at safety and some at cornerback.
He had six interceptions and ran back two of them for touchdowns, averaging 31 yards per runback on those balls he picked off. He hit up Arkansas for three of those interceptions in one game, which wasn’t a nice thing for him to do. Look at this:
He has four career pick-sixes, which is already the Bama record.
Technically, Fitzpatrick is a strong safety, but he’s really just an elite playmaker all around. Fitzpatrick closes on the ball like he’s Troy Polamalu or some other game-changer of that ilk, and he’s also a lockdown cornerback when he’s pressed into that role. I’d bet that if you polled every FBS defensive coordinator about which player they’d most like to drop into their defense, Fitzpatrick would get a whole lot of votes.
Saban on Minkah Fitzpatrick: "Minkah has a lot of versatility ... I think his diversity allows us a lot of different things that we can do."— Charlie Potter (@Charlie_Potter) August 16, 2017
His 66 tackles were fourth on the team and by far the most among the Tide’s defensive backs. Front players Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster got more attention, but you could argue (not absurdly) that Fitzpatrick was the best player on the best defense in the country last year. He is a superstar with a great future ahead.
Bama plays Florida State on Sept. 2 (8 p.m. ET, ABC), in what might be the biggest season opener ever. Lots of things about that game will be entertaining. One of the best is that, at pretty much all times, either Fitzpatrick or James will be on the field.
Elsewhere in Saban’s press conference on Wednesday:
why do we even practice? why do we have games?? come on guys Saban would like to know pic.twitter.com/2n0TS7109W— Grace Remington (@Grace_Remi) August 16, 2017
You see? He’s not always that upbeat.