Alabama, 11-1 and ranked third in the nation, meets Oklahoma, 10-2 and ranked 10th, in the Sugar Bowl at 7:30 p.m. CST Thursday at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
At least two factors have contributed to the uncharacteristic situation at the position that is coached in practice by Nick Saban. One problem has been returning starter, senior Deion Belue, being injured much of the season. The other, though, flies in the face of recent Alabama history: the second cornerback has not emerged.
In 2010, Tide cornerback Kareem Jackson was a first round NFL draft pick by Houston. Two years later, Dre Kirkpatrick was plucked from the Bama secondary in the first round by Cincinnati. Last year, Dee Milliner left the Tide and was drafted in the first round by the New York Jets.
Alabama Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart agreed that the position has been unsettled this year. “We’re not used to that,” he said. “We’ve kind of always had one key guy with all the first round, second round corners we’ve had. We’ve always had a staple guy there, then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner.
“It hasn’t been that way this year. It’s been frustrating.
“Some of that has been because of injury. Deion has been our best corner, but he’s been in and out because of injury.
“Opposite him, it’s been musical chairs. Eddie Jackson played pretty well, but he also got injured, so it pulled him out for a while. We have other guys who have played well one game, not play well the next. We’ve not gotten the consistency we want out of that position. And we don’t have the depth that we’ve had in the past, so it’s been a struggle.
“A couple of the kids have done well in bowl practice. We hope they play well in the game.”
Alabama will have had 33 days since its final regular season game before getting ready for Oklahoma. About 15 of those days will have been practice days, but fewer than a dozen of those practices specifically dedicated to preparation for the Sooners. That preparation has had to include getting ready for Oklahoma’s run-based offense, generally when Trevor Knight is at quarterback, and for its pass-oriented offense, when Blake Bell is at the controls.
Smart said it’s a little more than usual. “Any time you prepare for an ofense, you have to be ready for the back-up quarterback,” he said. Against Oklahoma, he said, Bama has to be ready for Knight and Bell and also for whoever might be the third quarterback.
“There are some similarities between the guys and there also are some differences. We’ve emphasized those to our players so that they understand the difference in the two quarterbacks they’ve used the most.
“We have to know which one is in.
“We’ve had enough time to prepare for both. In a week it’s a lot tougher. The time allows us to have a plan for both guys. You’ll find out during the game which one is playing better. They’ll probably have one in there more than the other.”
Smart said the Tide will be counting on Belue in his final game.
“Deion gives us some consistency,” Smart said. “He’s a veteran, understands the defense. With him out there, I think a lot of guys feel more comfortable.
“He has fought really hard throughout the year with injuries. He’s had weeks where he couldn’t practice, but still was willing to go out and play in the game, which is tough to do mentally and physically.”
“They are both good quarterbacks,” Belue said of the Thursday assignment against Oklahoma. “They’re both going to run the ball. They will use them in different situations. We have to prepare for both of them.”
Belue downplayed the injuries he has faced as a senior. “Players all over the country play with injuries,” he said “It just happens that mine had to do with my running ability. I play defensive back, so it had to do with my cuts and things like that. I managed it well, myself and the training staff.”