TUSCALOOSA — A year ago, then-true freshman Patrick Surtain II was trying to prove he could handle the responsibility of playing early in his Alabama career.
The South Florida product was the Crimson Tide’s most significant 2018 signing and widely projected to contribute immediately in an overhauled secondary that lost all six of its dime package starters.
Surtain II — the son of former NFL cornerback Patrick Surtain — did just that, ultimately starting the final 12 games at corner and earning a spot on the SEC’s All-Freshman team after tallying 37 tackles, seven pass breakups and one interception.
“I just looked at it as a blessing,” Surtain said Saturday. “I’m thankful for all the opportunities just to play. And basically, I felt like just going in, getting some exposure (early) helped me grow as an Alabama football player.”
This year, though, the 6-foot-2 and 203-pound Surtain is embracing a different challenge as one of four returning starters in an experienced secondary that includes senior cornerback Trevon Diggs, senior nickelback Shyheim Carter and junior strong safety Xavier McKinney.
Because of that experience and his athleticism, Alabama’s coaches have tried Surtain at the star/slot-corner position, a key spot in the defensive scheme given its inherent versatility.
“I’d say I’m still learning, it’s a learning process as you know,” Surtain told Rivals.com. “I can still get better at it, improve at it, but I’m liking it so far.”
With the team’s transition to a more nickel (five-defensive back) base secondary, Alabama’s star position has usually gone to the defense’s most talented and versatile DB, including Minkah Fitzpatrick, a former first-round NFL draft pick.
Last year, the undersized Carter was at star, which plays closer to the line of scrimmage and matches up against either the opponent’s slot receiver or a tight end/running back.
But with Carter limited by a sports hernia during spring practice, coaches took the opportunity to see who else could handle the position and cross-trained both Diggs and Surtain.
“I’m very comfortable, I know (star) well,” Diggs said Saturday. “I could play it if Coach (Saban) needs me to play it.”
Through the first three preseason practices, though, it’s been Surtain manning the star spot with Diggs and fellow sophomore Josh Jobe working with the first-team defense at outside corner. A fully recovered Carter has been splitting reps as the first-team free safety with fellow senior Jared Mayden, while also seeing time at star with the second-team unit.
Having experienced it already, Diggs said one of the biggest challenges he faced at star was playing more toward the middle of the field, where there’s far more space for a receiver to take advantage of.
“On the outside you’re kind of in the boundary and it’s not hard to just pick one side,” Diggs said. “But when you’re in the slot you’ve got to be really sound on your technique and really detailed in what you do because there’s a lot of space out there.”
From his perspective, the 6-foot Carter said adjusting to the inherent shiftiness of a slot receiver can be difficult, especially for taller players, but added both Diggs and Surtain — each listed at 6-foot-2 — “don’t have a problem with short-area quickness” and “make (playing star) look easy.”
Surtain wasn’t nearly as optimistic regarding his own progress, pointing out he’s still learning the intricacies of having to read the run game and adjust to the entire play, rather than focusing entirely on his individual matchup against an outside receiver.
Still, he’s welcomed the challenge and acknowledged how his move to star has not only added to his own versatility but further strengthens the secondary, especially since it allows the 6-foot-1 Jobe to get into the first-team mix at cornerback.
“It brings out more depth in us and brings out the competitiveness in us,” Surtain said. “We’ve got talent all around the secondary and I feel like it brings out the best in us.”