TUSCALOOSA — Dre Kirkpatrick can chuckle looking back at his 19-year old self.
The 165-pound freshman spent most of his time on the sideline with nothing to do as established players fueled Alabama’s 2009 national title run.
“I was one of the little jokers on the sideline because I didn’t get much playing time,” he said.
Now a junior and 25 pounds of muscle heavier, the cornerback has just as much fun with the game. Kirkpatrick is just doing it with big plays for the third-ranked Crimson Tide entering a 7 p.m. Saturday meeting at Florida.
His eight pass-breakups already bettered his 2010 total and leads the team. The only two forced fumbles of the season came by way of Kirkpatrick’s helmet at Penn State.
His biggest game, though, came last week. Six of his nine tackles came in the 38-14 pounding of Arkansas when the Tide secondary slowed one of the more explosive passing offenses in the nation.
His open-field tackling limited a few short passes to minimal gains instead of the home runs the Razorbacks are accustomed to hitting. Each big hit drew a reaction from the player who still idolizes Deion Sanders, but Kirkpatrick keep his celebration to a un-Deion-like minimum.
The new and improved Kirkpatrick treats is “more like a business” now, leaving his days as a sideline-cutup in the past.
Coach Nick Saban helped teach the hardly-understated Kirkpatrick how to harness the enthusiasm before it cost Alabama penalty yards.
“We’ve talked about it in the past, and we’ve talked about it a lot this year, and he’s gotten a lot better from a maturity standpoint,” Saban said. “I think Dre is a very emotional, passionate guy, which is a good thing to a point, but when you get so emotional that you make poor decisions and judgments, that’s not good.
“ I think that’s happening less and less, and he’s playing with more and more maturity and consistency and he has been able to focus on doing his job a lot better, and he has improved significantly probably because of that.”
Rated one of the top cornerbacks in the nation as a high school senior, Kirkpatrick played mostly special teams when he wasn’t enjoying his sideline time as a freshman. The mass exodus of defensive backs after the title run pushed him front and center in 2010.
A starter in 12 of the 13 games, he racked up 53 tackles and intercepted three passes. Still, he learned a few hard lessons against Arkansas and South Carolina. Kirkpatrick said he took it personally when the Razorbacks threw his direction several times a year ago. He made up for it with the game-sealing interception and a big performance one year later.
That wasn’t lost on Tide linebacker Jerrell Harris who knew Kirkpatrick long before they landed in Tuscaloosa.
Both came to Alabama by way of Gadsden City High School, though Harris was a year older than the confident cornerback.
“It’s unbelievable how far he’s come over the past couple years and how much he’s matured to become one of the top players that he is now,” Harris said.
But don’t mistake the growth for a loss of his trademark “swag.”
Kirkpatrick still works the crowd when it needs energy. His teammates still count on him for a boost when they hit a lull.
Dee Milliner, a more reserved cornerback, calls Kirkpatrick “the hype man” of the unit.
That vigor infects all levels of the Tide defense.
“I don’t think there is another guy out there that could replace a Dre Kirkpatrick attitude,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “He’s always ready to go. He wants to go against the best. He wants to be the best cornerback in the nation. He continues to work that way, not only on the field, but in the weight room as well.”