“You always hate it when guys get injured,” said Alabama Coach Nick Saban. “It’s a tough part of the game.”
Vinnie Sunseri has been a starting strong safety for the Tide, but has also been a key member of special teams for Bama. Saban said, “Vinnie’s done a great job for us. He's an outstanding player and really good person, good leader. Can't say enough about the job he's done throughout this year and his career.
“But it's going to provide an opportunity for some other guys to step up and play well. We'll probably play with Landon Collins in that position.”
Collins, a 6-0, 215-pound sophomore from Geismar, La., was a back-up at strong safety before starting safety HaHa Clinton-Dix was suspended for two games. For the past three games, Collins has started at the weak safety position.
Saban said, “Landon's been a very good player for us in whatever role that we've asked him to play. He's played money. He's played some free safety. He's played strong safety. Strong safety is his natural position. When we had all of our players, he was Vinnie's backup, so that's where he got the majority of his reps.”
Clinton-Dix is back and the 6-1, 208-pound junior will resume his spot at weak safety.
Jarrick Williams, a 6-1, 210-pound junior, will be the primary back-up at both spots.
Also on the injured list are Bradley Sylve, who started at cornerback against Arkansas and suffered a high ankle sprain, and tailback Altee Tenpenny, who suffered a turf toe injury in kick coverage against the Razorbacks. Saban pronounced both of them as “day-to-day. We will not know until later in the week whether they'll be able to play in this game.”
Alabama uses a lot of safeties in its defense. In addition to strong and weak, the Tide is more often in a nickel or dime package than in regular defense. Saban said, “I think when we're in nickel, we're okay because Jarrick is the Star (the designation of the nickel back). So when we go to dime then Geno Smith has to come in (at Star) and Jarrick has to play Money (dime). That makes more changes from that standpoint.
“But you lose the continuity of the reps from nickel and dime when you move guys all around to new positions. That's not something we're going to do if we can help it. We had to do it in last week's game but hopefully at least we have the opportunity to prepare the guys at the position they're going to play.”
Saban said that Geno Smith, a converted cornerback who played nickel as a back-up last year, “is doing a good job. He's playing multiple roles. He plays Star and we're trying to develop him as a safety. I think he's learning and progressing every week and doing a good job. I think there's a lot to learn, especially during the course of the season when every week you play a team that's a different set of circumstances that you have to play against, so you're adjusting and adapting everything you do.
“So if a guy doesn't have a foundation for that, it makes it much more difficult for him to learn the basics as he's trying to learn the adjustments. Geno's a bright guy and he's worked hard at it and he's doing a good job.”
Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron said that Sunseri will still have a role on the team after his surgery. “He’s got to be the same guy,” McCarron said. “He’s got to be a leader for us. If he starts to fall off, the other leaders will tell him. He’s got to be there for us mentally and to teach these young guys how to do the right thing, what to do at all times [so that] it puts us in a good situation at the end of the day to win a ball game still. He’s definitely going to have to be there for us and these younger guys as we go throughout the season.”
Collins, the man who will replace Sunseri, said, “We have to step it up. He was a big loss for our defense. He made a lot of our calls, he made a lot of our important decision-making and arrangements when we were on the field and there’re no coaches on the field with us. He’s a big part of our defense.”
Collins said that starting the last couple of weeks “prepared me well. Got me to settle down, got me to see how fast games really are, see that once you slow down and catch your breath and look at the formations, you’ll be all right.
“For me, it’s a much easier position to learn because that’s what I’ve been playing the whole season. Just when I went back to strong this past game it just felt more comfortable and I played way better than when I played at free, I think. It’s easier for me.”
When Collins played in high school, the safeties were left and right. When he came to Alabama, he said, “Coach Saban asked me” which safety he wanted to play. Collins selected strong “because I like the feeling of coming into the box and playing the run more, and that’s what the strong safety does.”