The story of the University of Alabama football team’s defense in 2019 is one of what it was missing more than what it had. The context of time will include the players this defense played without — Dylan Moses, Joshua McMillon, Quinnen Williams, Mack Wilson, LaBryan Ray — as the ones it had on the field.
A well-earned exception to that rule: Xavier McKinney.
The junior safety spent the last week collecting various All-American honors while preparing for the Citrus Bowl against Michigan. It is yet to be determined if he will turn this productive season into the start of his NFL career or return for one more campaign, but there is a case to be made that McKinney will never be more valuable to UA than he was in 2019.
On the surface, McKinney was a veteran presence at a position that needed one. Deionte Thompson going to the 2019 NFL Draft forced Jared Mayden into action, who had not started before this season. McKinney was someone Mayden looked up to as he made the jump to starter as a senior.
“What impresses me the most is the consistency he played with,” Mayden said. “Sophomore year he had a great year, and there wasn’t a drop-off. Even before the year, he was on watch lists, this and that, it’s easy for you to kind of coast through the year. But he still attacks every day like it’s a new day. Has endless tackles, he had a lot of tackles, and he’s consistent.
“He’s a consistent tackler, consistently makes plays, doesn’t make a lot of mental errors, blitzes well. That’s the kind of things that, when I look at him and when I play beside him, it makes me want to be better.”
McKinney proved a useful example: Mayden finished fifth on the team in tackles (53), first in interceptions (four) and even added two quarterback hurries on occasional blitzes.
But McKinney was more than a safety this season, and that versatility made UA’s secondary the unit it was.
In five-defensive back sets, McKinney would join Mayden as a deep safety. But when UA went to packages with six defensive backs, McKinney would move from deep safety to Money, allowing freshman Jordan Battle to slide in at safety.
McKinney’s versatility made multiple things possible. It kept Shyheim Carter at Money, where he had starting experience before, and kept Patrick Surtain II at cornerback, as opposed to potentially moving him to Money or Star situationally as was possible in the preseason. It also allowed Battle to get into the game only in situations where he was most comfortable, boosting the probability of success for a freshman.
“He’s always full speed ahead in how he practices and how he tries to do things. He’s very focused, you know, in whether it’s meetings, walk throughs, whatever it is,” UA coach Nick Saban said of McKinney earlier this season. “He’s obviously talented and an explosive player, but he really does try to do things the right way. And I think he’s made a tremendous amount of improvement. He’s a lot more confident than he was a year ago, not only what he’s supposed to do, but how he supposed to do it and why it’s important to do it that way.”
McKinney was quite productive in the broad role as the team leader in tackles (85) and forced fumbles (four), second in interceptions (three) and fourth in pass breakups (five), plus a blocked kick.
But McKinney also proved to be of help to the youthful defensive front in front of him.
For most of the season, UA had a seven-man defensive line rotation, and four of them were freshmen, including two of the starters — plus the two starting inside linebackers, both true freshmen.
In their support, McKinney proved useful as a run stopper and a pass rusher when called upon, contributing 4 1/2 tackles for a loss and two sacks this season.
“I watch the way he blitzes, I try to imitate that when I come in on blitzes,” Mayden said.
With that jack of all trades, both mental and physical, at the back of the defense, even a year that was down by UA’s own defensive standards still ended the season ranked tied for 17th in the nation in yards per play allowed. Without McKinney, it likely would have been significantly worse.
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or email@example.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson