What happened back in January still clouds Xavier McKinney’s mind, and he’s letting that memory fuel him.

The Alabama defensive back refuses to forget how he and his teammates lost the national championship title to Clemson less than three months ago. The Crimson Tide was undefeated, until it wasn’t. And that last part, he wants to erase this time around.

“Of course I try to remind the guys of how the season ended last year,” McKinney said Friday. “That gets me going and gets my energy levels up.”

On Saturday, the Crimson Tide held its fifth spring practice. There are seven left, along with two scrimmages, before the A-Day game on April 13 in Bryant-Denny Stadium. “The Process,” as Alabama would say, begins here because the next thing on the schedule is the team’s season opener on Aug. 31 against Duke in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

McKinney is well aware of that fact and taking his preparation seriously, so much so UA coach Nick Saban has noticed.

“You couldn’t ask for a guy to set a better example,” Saban said Wednesday. “I mean, his practice habits have phenomenal these first three practices. He’s doing everything he can to set a good example and be a leader for the other plays.”

Which is exactly what Saban is looking for, especially in the secondary.

This month, Alabama returned three other starters to the field in addition to McKinney: Shyheim Carter, Trevon Diggs and Patrick Surtain II. But it lost big names like Deionte Thompson and Saivion Smith.

“Depth at safety is an issue,” Saban said. “We’ve got some young guys coming in next year, and they’re going to have an opportunity to contribute. And we’ve got to get the guys that we have here now playing better with more consistency.”

That’s where McKinney comes in.

McKinney has been leading this specific position group through drills so far, followed by Jared Mayden, Daniel Wright and Eddie Smith. Carter is also at practice, but he has been wearing a black non-contact jersey as he returns from a sports hernia.

“I’m kind of like a vet,” McKinney said. “I’ve been here, so I kind of know what goes on and a lot of things that go on around the building. Just helping the younger guys get prepared, helping everybody stay focused, that’s kind of big part of being here for my third year.”

Last season, McKinney played in all 15 games. He made 73 total tackles, good for third most on the Crimson Tide, along with 10 pass breakups, three sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. Six of his stops were for a loss of 44 yards.

McKinney was a 6-foot-1, 198-pound sophomore then. He may still be the same build – minus 2 pounds – but he’s a junior with more experience.

“I used to be a younger guy that look up to the older guys,” McKinney said. “Now I am that older guy.”

Reach Terrin Waack at twaack@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0229.