Update: The Ravens took Anthony Averett with the 118th overall pick in the NFL Draft, a fourth-round selection.
No prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft has gotten a more thorough education in how to play his position than Anthony Averett. The draft has plenty of players with experience, and it has plenty who played alongside Averett at Alabama. But there’s nobody else who spent a full five years sponging up the kind of knowledge Averett had access to each day in Tuscaloosa.
Averett was a four-star safety recruit in the class of 2013 — a highly touted prospect, but pedestrian by the standards of an Alabama signing class. He redshirted a year and played only in bits and pieces for two more, while getting hands-on training from college football’s foremost coach, who also happens to be its foremost DBs coach: Nick Saban.
“He was really the main reason why I chose Alabama,” Averett tells SB Nation. “He is the reason. I knew he was a DB guru, and I knew he pretty much knew everything about the position, and me coming in, just playing that role, for him to teach me from the ground up, it’s something I always wanted. I mean, he was tougher than I thought.”
Saban is a notorious hardass about every facet of his program, but he’s a little extra fiery about defensive back play. That was his position as a player at Kent State in the early 1970s, and he coached secondaries in several stints. It’s easy to find videos of Saban, in his element, meticulously breaking down the position and screaming at players whose technique doesn’t meet his standards.
“He’s a perfectionist,” Averett says. “He takes that part of the defense very seriously. He speaks with us 24/7 pretty much. Like when we’re watching film, he’s with us, watching film, like the DBs. I’m not saying he doesn’t care about any other positions, but DBs, he’s pretty much our coach. Of course we have a DB coach, but he’s our coach at the end of the day.”
Averett is laughing, but he’s serious about how hands-on Saban is.
At Alabama, Averett got a schooling in the finer points of cornerback play.
By Tide standards, Averett’s job might have been simple. As a starter the last two seasons, Averett was an outside corner. Unlike teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick, who moved all around the field, Averett’s job was to cover one receiver or one sector of the field. That’s hard against SEC receivers, but at least it seems pretty straightforward, right?
“The toughest thing to learn is just all the coverages, pretty much,” Averett says. “There’s more to discover than, you know, cover 1 or cover 2, just so many little things that you don’t even think of it, or pattern-matching: If the guys go over, you’ve gotta match that, or if a guy goes under, you’ve gotta call under. It’s just certain things that you really don’t know or really don’t understand.”
Averett played a lot of offense in high school — quarterback and receiver, mainly. He had some DB experience but had to develop himself to become a starting college corner. He had certain advantages: a 6-foot frame that gave him solid size to play on the outside and lightning speed (a 4.36 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine). But he needed to master technique, like how to most efficiently turn his hips and not waste steps in chasing receivers on fly routes. Then he had to get down the complexities of Saban’s schemes.
“I just had to learn everything from the ground up,” he says. “It just took me a little longer than some of the other, like, five-stars that have been playing corner all their lives or all through high school, so it was just something new for me.”
Now, he’s ready. He’s projected as a second- or third-round pick.
Averett’s scouting report on himself:
“I think I’ll bring an automatic cover guy. I love to come down and tackle. I think I’m pretty much an all-around player. You can send me on blitzes as well.
“I just wanna compete every play, just gonna go hard every play. I’m a very fast guy as well and a savvy guy. I feel like I’m very smart, too.”
Averett had 96 tackles in his two seasons as a starter, which were the only two years that saw him get much defensive playing time. He really does like to tackle, despite being 185 pounds and not looking much like the kind of player who’d thrive on contact. He had eight passes defensed both years, one sack both years, and one interception in total.
He started in two College Football Playoff runs and was on the roster for another two, winning two national titles. I asked if his experience on those stages had done anything to help him prepare for the NFL, but I’d missed the point. The college experience that got Averett ready for the pros didn’t come in games.
“I think when I first got here, sticking Amari Cooper and then lately Calvin Ridley, sticking those guys, I feel like they prepare you for anything,” Averett says.
Going head-to-head with future top-pick receivers is good job training. But when Saban’s overseeing a practice with a depth chart like the Tide’s, the entire week is the game.
“I mean, that’s the thing with Alabama,” Averett says. “Even our second string is good. It doesn’t matter to us. We have top dogs here, man. We got the best recruits, the best players. I feel like we’re the best at everything. Practice is much harder than the games.”