Nick Saban’s favorite safeties almost always work out in the NFL. HaHa Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins, Eddie Jackson, Minkah Fitzpatrick, etc. — safeties who start for multiple seasons under Saban often become capable starters in the NFL, if not full-blown stars. There will always be exceptions, but Saban does not tend to miss when he puts an extraordinary amount of faith in a player.
Xavier McKinney is the most recent safety entrusted with the fate of the Alabama defense. Though not necessarily Saban’s best safety since he took over the Crimson Tide, McKinney is as smart, versatile, and tough as anyone at the position Saban has ever coached. Saban piled responsibility onto McKinney, especially in 2019, using him as a moving piece all over the defense as well as making him the on-field leader to help communicate play calls and adjustments. Saban put it on McKinney to fill in the gaps wherever necessary on a given play. Though that “gap” changed week by week, drive by drive, and play by play, McKinney rarely faltered. He was the glue that held the defense together.
The structure of Alabama’s defense in 2019 almost forced McKinney into playing many snaps in or near the box, as well as at nickel cornerback. Alabama had a pair of stud corners as usual, but their starting two linebackers were freshmen with limited experience, and their other starting safety, Jared Mayden, could only effectively play from a single-high position where he could use his vision to compensate for middling athletic ability. The middle of the defense was considerably less stable than Alabama had been used to for the prior decade, so Saban sent in McKinney to fix it.
Playing from the box starts and ends with run defense. Passing the ball is king in the modern age, but weak run defenses will be targeted and gashed, especially in the college game. If a safety is going to be rolled down to the box, he had better be willing and able to get physical between the tackles. Luckily for Saban, McKinney is not just willing to be physical, he lives for it.
Take these two run plays versus LSU, for example. LSU is running an H-insert concept on the first play and a duo concept on the second, but McKinney’s job in the run fit is more or less the same. McKinney (15) is quick to trigger toward the line of scrimmage and drives his shoulder into LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s chest to bring him down. Had we not already known McKinney is a safety, he could easily be mistaken for an undersized linebacker with how eager and capable he is fitting run assignments between the tackles.
McKinney’s run fits and ballcarrier-tracking are just as impressive from a standard safety spot. Whether playing from a split-safety alignment or from a single-high position, McKinney shows the range and quality angles to make plays near the line of scrimmage. He is a heat-seeking missile with his sensors set straight for a ballcarrier’s jersey numbers.
Auburn tries to sneak a jet sweep by Alabama on this play, but McKinney is not having any of that. As Auburn’s jet player is coming across, McKinney shuffles across to match him if need be without fully committing himself, just in case Auburn had some misdirection or play-action up their sleeve. Once McKinney confirms the jet player has the ball, he angles himself to work downhill and outside the hashes. McKinney sees the alley between Alabama defensive lineman Justin Eboigbe (92) and Auburn running back Jatavis Whitlow (28) and wedges himself between the two for a clear shot on the ballcarrier. Upon arriving, McKinney makes a textbook tackle by slowing himself to shuffle and square his body before striking the ballcarrier’s chest with his near (left, in this case) foot and shoulder. That is a devastating hit considering how much traffic McKinney had to sift through.
McKinney’s trigger and tackling also show up when working toward the perimeter versus screens, swings, flat routes, etc. McKinney was frequently aligned as an overhang player, especially whenever Alabama brought out a third safety. On those plays, he was often responsible for the curl/flat area in Saban’s heavy pattern-match defense, which regularly pitted him against slot receivers and tight ends. He smothered a ton of plays in the curl/flat area before they ever got a chance.
Almost as soon as the ball is snapped, McKinney swings his eyes over to the flat as South Carolina’s tight end shoots off the line of scrimmage toward the sideline. Just before McKinney commits to a full sprint, he turns his head to check South Carolina’s outside wide receiver potentially cutting inside to pick him. Slant-flat is a common route combination, and McKinney realizes what may be coming as soon as the tight end shoots to the flat. It does not take long for McKinney to see the wide receiver getting vertical, which gives the Alabama safety the green light to attack the flat and stop the tight end before he can turn up the field for a first down.
This time, McKinney is playing tight man coverage over Duke’s No. 3 (innermost) receiver to the trips side of the formation. McKinney opens with his hips slightly turned toward the sideline so he can drive on a quick out or flat route, but his receiver instead breaks a one-step slant underneath. McKinney’s technique is not necessarily bad, but he did cheat towards out-breaking routes off the snap, which forces him to make an extra effort to work back to and shut down any inside routes. The technique decision leaves Duke’s receiver open just enough to give up a catch, but that’s all McKinney surrenders. With the ball caught about a half-yard from the marker, McKinney drives through the back of the receiver’s frame to force him back, then rips the receiver back as he tries to turn up the field for the first down. That kind of strength and tackling determination from such an awkward position is hard to find in linebackers, let alone safeties.
McKinney’s versatility in and around the box kicks into overdrive when considering his effectiveness as a blitzer. No matter which gap he aligns over, McKinney has the explosiveness, savvy, and scrappiness to work himself free enough to make an impact. It is more than fair to say McKinney was Alabama’s best blitzer by far last season.
In each of these three plays, McKinney attacks a different section of the protection, and finds some degree of success each time. As the second clip highlights, McKinney tends to find his best success from a wide alignment, which best allows him to make use of his speed and flexibility. It is unlikely McKinney remains the best blitzer on his team once he gets to the NFL, but being a reliable blitz piece is a clear plus on his profile.
Do not let the abundance of plays in and around the box fool you into believe McKinney is just a box safety, though. While McKinney is fantastic at all the pseudo-linebacker responsibilities of a box safety, he is well versed in playing man and match coverages from a nickel position as well as deeper zone assignments from traditional safety alignments. There is not an alignment or assignment on the field that McKinney can not handle.
McKinney starts this play near the left side of the line of scrimmage as if he may blitz. Considering McKinney had been sent on a number of blitzes to this point in the game, the threat of him being sent again was convincing. At the snap, McKinney peels off the line of scrimmage while Alabama sends a blitz from the other side of the formation. McKinney opens himself to the No. 2 receiver (middle) to the trips side of the formation, which pits him against stud LSU wideout Terrace Marshall Jr. (6). After slow-playing the route for a few steps, McKinney recognizes Marshall will continue down the seam, so he turns on his own jets, magnetizes himself directly into Marshall’s hip pocket, and runs with him down the field while maintaining tight inside positioning. McKinney does not end up needing to make a play here, but that he could show off some of the recognition, speed, and technique necessary to cover slot receivers was nice.
In this clip, McKinney starts in a split-safety alignment near the left hash. McKinney begins to walk down before the snap, even before Duke’s receiver motions across the field, but really starts to fly down once Duke’s receiver shows himself coming across in jet motion. Once the ball is snapped, McKinney hits the next gear and flies down to the line of scrimmage, anticipating he will need to play the alley in run defense. On his way down, however, McKinney catches a glimpse of the backfield and realizes the jet motion was a fake. McKinney almost instantly stops in his tracks and re-squares his frame to jam the tight end, bullying him with tight coverage up the field and giving almost no chance for Duke’s quarterback to find a window. This play-action concept is designed specifically to target McKinney (or whichever player is on that assignment), but McKinney read and reacted to the play perfectly.
LSU runs a similar concept on this play, but McKinney’s assignment is different. Rather than man coverage on the tight end (like in the Duke clip), McKinney is responsible for the curl/flat area in Cover-3. As the play rolls, McKinney plays the running back up the seam, which would be his assignment if Justin Jefferson (2) had not come in motion. McKinney can not instantly bail on the seam route to cover Jefferson, however; he needs to hold leverage against it for as long as possible to pass it off to his teammates before turning to close on the flat for Jefferson. What stands out most in McKinney’s technique is how he instantly reacts to LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. McKinney holds the seam just long enough to coax Burrow away from it, then flips his hips in perfect unison with Burrow as the quarterback turns to the left to throw to Jefferson. McKinney having the know-how to ward off the seam route before perfectly mirroring Burrow’s throw to the flat is a testament to his film study, preparation, and laser-sharp instincts. Sure, the clip ends with McKinney whiffing a tackle attempt on Jefferson, but being left on an island like that versus a player as shifty as Jefferson, especially after having spent time holding the seam route to prevent a deeper completion, is a brutal predicament for any safety. McKinney’s showing of elite processing and assignment execution should weigh heavier than missing a low-percentage tackle attempt against a likely first-round pick.
McKinney also did plenty of work for the Crimson Tide from deeper alignments. Though head coach Nick Saban is widely known for his pattern-match Cover-3 system, he has turned to more two-high looks in recent years, specifically pattern-match Cover-5 and Cover-7 concepts that function similarly to standard 2-Man and match-quarters, respectively, once all the route concepts play out. Playing a split-safety role in these coverages seldom proved to be difficult for McKinney.
McKinney is positioned over the right hash toward the top of the screen on this play. South Carolina’s No. 2 (middle) and No. 3 (innermost) receivers to the trips side of the field both run vertically down the field, with the No. 3 bending toward the inside as he traverses down the field. As the half-field safety on this play, it is McKinney’s responsibility to support in coverage over both routes. McKinney has to walk a fine line between being in position to play both routes without leaving either open. As the receivers fly up the field, McKinney backpedals on the midpoint between the two of them before opening his hips inside once the quarterback slides to the left. McKinney does not fully commit right away, though, which gives him the range of motion to react as the quarterback pulls up to throw to the No. 2 receiver in the end zone. McKinney gets back with plenty of time to spare and positions himself right under the ball, giving him a clear shot at an interception. That is about as smooth as midpointing vertical routes and moving backwards in space can look.
Versatility is McKinney’s clear selling point. As such, he should be the consolation target for teams who miss out on Clemson LB/S Isaiah Simmons. Though arguably a bit more raw of a prospect, Simmons is an all-time elite athlete with as much versatility as any defender could have. It is almost certain Simmons hears his name called in the top 10. McKinney is a touch slower and does not sport as daunting a build, but the Alabama product is a smart, gritty, and versatile prospect who can fit into any defensive scheme.
Players such as Malcolm Jenkins, Adrian Amos, and Jamal Adams come to mind as comparisons for McKinney’s projected role and quality. All three safeties are do-it-all types with the hard-nosed nature to play near the line of scrimmage as well as the coverage tools to match up against tight ends and slot receivers. That kind of impact and versatility is worth a first-round pick in any class.