Top-ranked Alabama relying on young, untested secondary

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              FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2018, file photo, Patrick Surtain Jr. is interviewed with his family behind him, after announcing he is signing with Alabama on national signing day in Plantation, Fla. Alabama needs immediate help in the secondary after losing its top six defensive backs from last year’s national championship team. That should create an early opportunity for Surtain, rated by the 247Sports Composite as the nation’s No.  1 cornerback and No. 6 overall prospect in his class. (Taimy Alvarez/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File)
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — All the offseason chatter about who will be throwing passes for AlabamaJalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa — has overshadowed the pressing question of who’s charged with defending them.

The top-ranked Crimson Tide’s secondary, often seemingly an NFL feeder system, is now the least experienced position on the roster. The top six defensive backs from last season are gone, including versatile All-America safety Minkah Fitzpatrick .

It has left a scramble for young players like freshman Patrick Surtain Jr. and junior college transfer Saivion Smith to secure some role. Returnees such as Trevon Diggs, Xavier McKinney and Deionte Thompson are aiming to carve out much bigger ones from last season.

“It’s a real work in progress to me,” said coach Nick Saban, who takes a hands-on role with the defensive backs in practice. “I think that probably the two guys that have played with the most consistency out there are Trevon Diggs and Xavier McKinney. Those two guys have been pretty consistent all along.

“Everybody else has been a little up and down, and to me, everybody else’s positions is still, there’s competition at all the rest of the positions. How we fit the guys around those two guys remains to be determined.”

This being Alabama, there’s a long list of highly recruited players trying to climb up the depth chart.

Thompson is the most experienced defensive back since he started both playoff games last season due to an injury. Diggs started the opener against Florida State at cornerback before former walk-on Levi Wallace claimed the job for the duration. He also played some wide receiver two years ago as a freshman.

McKinney saw limited playing time as a freshman but, according to Diggs, is “a guy that can make the calls across the board.”

The DBs even have a new position coach, Karl Scott, to work alongside Saban.

Replacing star defensive backs is nothing new for Alabama, which has produced seven first-round NFL draft picks — including Fitzpatrick — from the secondary since 2010. And that doesn’t even include two-time Pro Bowler Landon Collins, a second-rounder.

But the group that takes the field Sept. 1 against Louisville will have to learn on the job.

Diggs, who also returns punts, and Thompson are the so-called veterans of the secondary.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to happen someday,” said Diggs, whose older brother Stefon is a Minnesota Vikings receiver. “All of the older guys are going to leave and I was going to be in this position one day, so you’ve just got to take it how it is and just follow what the guys that left, Minkah and all those guys, just follow and pass it on.”

Two of the newcomers are former five-star recruits, Surtain and Smith. Smith is a former LSU signee who enrolled in January.

Son of a Pro Bowl defensive back, Surtain was rated as the nation’s No. 1 cornerback prospect by all the major recruiting sites.

Alabama’s inexperienced DBs will face new Louisville starter Jawon Pass , heir to 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

Carter expects Pass to, well, pass against the young group.

“That’s one of the main things on your mind,” he said. “You’re hoping and praying that they throw the ball, so you can cause turnovers or make big plays. Definitely. We’ll be ready if we get tested or not. We’ll be ready.”

Alabama is banking on it.