If you’re looking to explain what makes Minkah Fitzpatrick such a valuable, difference-making player to the nation’s No. 1 team, it’s important to look off the field as much as you do on it.
You could start with an example of how during the bye week the first thing the native New Jerseyan did upon returning to campus was to study film. Or you could point to his attitude and aptitude in how he scored closer than any other player in the Nick Saban era to the irascible head coach on a personality test. Or perhaps you could point to a story pre-dating his Alabama days.
During Fitzpatrick’s senior year of high school, he spent his spring break not at the Jersey Shore, or a sugar-sand locale on the Gulf Coast or even in the Florida hotbed of spring breakers. Instead, he spent the week on the sidelines of Alabama’s practice fields, studying the Crimson Tide’s defense as the team underwent spring practice.
“I realized that coming to Alabama is serious,” he said. “I just wanted to be ahead of the game when I got here. I didn’t want to be equal or I didn’t want to be behind. So I came down here. I was learning the playbook. I was asking questions, following people around. So when I came in, it was a smooth transition.”
The decision, rare for a teenager, was noticed by then-Alabama players.
“I was here because I’m a little older than him. He watched us his whole spring break,” senior cornerback Anthony Averett said. “I just remember when I was in high school, I wasn’t thinking about football on spring break, and I was committed here. After seeing that, I saw that he’s different. He’s all football.”
It was the beginning of the newcomer turning veterans’ heads. At first, it was, ‘Look how good this freshman is. He can play.’ Then it turned into everyone judging their play and effort by Fitzpatrick’s.
Take his 2015 recruiting classmate, Damien Harris. In his own right, the junior running back is one of the best back in the conference and nation. A five-star player out of Kentucky, Harris has judged himself against Fitzpatrick, his former roommate, for a long time.
“We came in at the same time, that summer our freshman year watching him during workouts, conditioning in the mornings and 7-on-7, you would hear the older guys saying, ‘Man, this kid is good,’ Harris said. “It was easy for us to say that because we were in the same class, but when I witnessed the older players like Reggie (Ragland), Tim (Williams), Reuben (Foster), Cyrus (Jones), Eddie (Jackson) all those guys on the defense, guys talking about how good he was, it was kind of eye opening. He’s that good. We’d been there maybe a month or so and everybody was already talking about how good he was.”
This offseason, wanting to take his game to the next level, Harris set a goal for himself each week that revolved around Fitzpatrick.
“This past summer we would do our summer workouts in the morning, conditioning, drills and stuff and Minkah’s always in the front of the line,” Harris said. “I wanted to get better so I told myself, ‘I’m going to get in the first line. No matter who’s in the front, I’m getting in the front line.’ Because I knew Minkah’s going to be up there. Every time we would do a drill, every time we would do a sprint, no matter what it was, halfway through the drill I would look to my right or my left and I would see how much farther ahead he was. And each week, I told myself I would get closer and closer and closer. For me, I was trying to get better, but I guess you could look at it as like that’s how people see Minkah. They see him as someone to look up to, somebody you can identify as this is the way things need to be done. Guys look at him that way. Every time anybody sees Minkah do something they say, ‘I want to be like that guy.’”
It can be near impossible for a player of Fitzpatrick’s ilk to avoid the attention. These days simply avoiding the television or websites that state how good you are isn’t enough. The articles get sent directly to athlete’s phones. They can’t avoid it. Fitzpatrick does downplay it though.
Even compliments from his head coach don’t really phase him. He appreciates them, but they don’t mean that much to him either.
But there are a couple of people from whom a positive words about his play still resonate: his parents.
Minkah Sr. and Melissa, Minkah’s parents, were set up by an uncle on his father’s side. His mom, a natural athlete who never really participated in organized sports, and his dad, a football and basketball player, have been together ever since. They’ve seen their son play at a high level for a long time. So it can take a lot to impress them.
“They’re really hard on me, but only in sports,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was a kind of tough love when it comes to football. My mother always gives me a grade after every game. She’s given me an A like one or two times. We get grades here too, and I get an A like almost every other week. My mother’s like, ‘B- or a C+.’ I say, “Come on, mom.’ She knows how good I can be. She knows a lot about football too. She knows when I mess up and do little things that some people may not see. Hearing a compliment from my mother or father is a big deal.”
Fitzpatrick’s importance is undeniable for an Alabama team riddled by injury this season. As Fitzpatrick lie on the turf inside Bryant-Denny Stadium on two separate occasions Saturday night, crimson-wearing fans all over the country held their collective breath. Some immediately declared the season over, the type of overreaction that’s understandable when it seems an entire linebacking corps has suffered season-ending injuries.
Thankfully for the Alabama faithful, Minkah Fitzpatrick’s hamstring and head/neck injuries weren’t serious and UA coach Nick Saban said he’d be able to practice some this week.
The point is, the specter of Alabama having to play an extended amount of time without Fitzpatrick served as nightmare fuel for the Crimson Tide. Even in Fitzpatrick’s limited absence against LSU — he missed a few series — what followed showed unequivocally the junior defensive back is UA’s most valuable player. An injured Fitzpatrick equals multiple players losses in the secondary. The majority of the time he plays the Star defensive back position, but he also plays Money in the dime, and if need be he lines up at safety and cornerback too.
His role in the dime defense has given him more opportunities to rush the quarterback this season. His 5.5 tackles for loss this season ranks tied for third on the team.
With the loss of senior linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, who is out for the season, Fitzpatrick’s responsibilities might increase. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for him to take on a bigger role in communicating the defense to his teammates.
“(He’s) like playing with a mini-Saban,” Averett said. “Having that in your secondary, to have that laser focus that Saban has, it makes things a lot easier, especially when it comes to communication across the board.”
Before every practice he listens to his position coach Derrick Ansley ask the same question: “Who are you going to affect today?” It’s that message he tries to respond to. “I try to go out there and affect as many people as I can in a positive way,” he said.
In that regard, it’s working. Nearly everyone watches Minkah Fitzpatrick. Those who want to be the best judge themselves against the best.
“Anytime I’m not on the field and Minkah’s on the field, I’m always watching him,” Harris said.
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.