NEW ORLEANS – Few players are as familiar with the first two installments of Alabama-Clemson as Minkah Fitzpatrick. The junior defensive back is one of just a handful of players who will start his third straight game in the series on Monday.
He knows the history. But he doesn’t plan on revisiting it.
“I’m playing this year’s Clemson team,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’m not going to watch last year’s game.”
He played nickel for Alabama in the 2015 national championship game, then played safety last year. He’s played every position in the Alabama secondary this season.
Fitzpatrick’s exact role for Monday still isn’t clear. That’s almost appropriate for a player who’s been as versatile as Fitzpatrick has been during his college career.
“He can play corner, he can play safety, he can play star, he can play wide receiver, he could be our punt returner, he probably could play quarterback for us,” defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said.
He could fill in at safety for the injured Hootie Jones. He could cover the slot. He could do almost anything.
That’s how Fitzpatrick has come to like it. Sometimes his alignment and responsibilities look more like those of a linebacker, lining up in the box. He watched film of former teammates Ryan Anderson and Jonathan Allen to help with his pass-rush ability this season. Pruitt’s praise may not have been hyperbole.
“I enjoy moving around,” he said. “Usually it depends on what the offense does, where I’m playing at. If they have a really good running back, I’ll play more in the box to try and shut him down. If they have a really good receiver, I’m going to cover him. Every game will be a challenge. Every game I’m doing something different, which is a good thing.”
Safety Ronnie Harrison said Fitzpatrick’s teammates call him a “robot” for his tendencies during game preparation. Fitzpatrick said he’d been spending time reviewing tape with sophomore Deionte Thompson, who could make his first start at safety in the semifinal.
That all fits with the role Fitzpatrick has played all season. He was voted a permanent team captain, the only junior to be chosen for that honor this season.
“Minkah surprises me every day,” Pruitt said. “Yesterday I’m sitting there looking, we bus over to the stadium, and I’m kind of looking around. The first person on the field, the first person dressed out there is Minkah Fitzpatrick. He’s down there talking to Coach (Nick) Saban and I know they’re talking ball. I can see it, I can tell both of their mannerisms. He eats, sleeps and breathes it. He’s probably as good a competitor – as tough, instinctive a player – as I’ve been around.”
FItzpatrick said he expects to have “more on him” in this year’s game than last year. He had four tackles in 2016. In 2015, playing mostly in the slot, he had two pass breakups and four tackles.
“I think it gets me closer to the ball,” Fitzpatrick said of his role this year. “Last year I was in the back end, I wasn’t really covering man-to-man at all. I was making plays but it wasn’t a whole lot. I think it’s going to get me closer to the ball and allow me to make more plays.”
Fitzpatrick has had as much an impact on Alabama’s season as any player. Playing a key role against Clemson – wherever it is – only makes sense.
“There’s not many of them out there like him,” Pruitt said.
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.