TUSCALOOSA, ALA. -- The two towheaded young boys dressed in Alabama jerseys pressed against the chain-link fence behind the Crimson Tide bench, screaming the name of Alabama's youngest defensive starter. Only two minutes remained in the Tide's 25-0 win over Ole Miss last Saturday night, and after a few moments, the boys persistence was rewarded: Freshman cornerback Eddie Jackson, arguably the most valuable player of the game, turned around, smiled brilliantly at his newest fans and flashed the No. 1 sign.
Nick Saban has landed the top recruiting class in the nation in five of the last six years, according to Rivals.com. So when a player such as cornerback Dee Milliner leaves Tuscaloosa early to be picked in the first round of the NFL draft, Saban can hold a tryout among several former four- and five-star recruits to fill his spot. This ability to retool has been a key component of the modern Alabama dynasty. Now, four games into the 2013 campaign, it appears as though Saban has found his next special cornerback in Jackson, who started the second game of his budding career on Saturday.
Against Ole Miss, Jackson made one of the most important plays of the game. On first-and-10 with the Rebels driving late in the first quarter and Alabama up 3-0, Jackson leaped high into the air to intercept a pass thrown by Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell. It was an instinctive and athletic. Jackson had been beaten earlier in the series by wide receiver Donte Moncrief for a 26-yard gain, but Saban, who personally coaches the defensive backs, kept Jackson on the field and was rewarded for his faith in his true freshman from Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.
The 6-foot, 175-pound Jackson finished the night with four tackles (one for a loss), one interception and two pass breakups. But most significant, he flourished in man-to-man coverage, which is a must in the Saban scheme. "In key moments in the game, Saban will blitz about 75 percent of the time," said an SEC coach. "This means he leaves his cornerbacks on an island and they have to cover one-on-one. If they can't, you can beat that defense over the top with some long throws. But if Saban does have corners who can stick with the receivers, you're going to be in trouble because you'll have less than three seconds to get rid of the ball. To me, it's the cornerbacks that are key players on Saban's defense."
With senior cornerback and likely future NFL player Deion Belue playing opposite Jackson, it now appears that the Alabama secondary, which struggled early in the season, is in good shape moving forward. Jackson replaces senior John Fulton, who was memorably beaten several times against Texas A&M on Sept. 14, at the No. 2 corner spot.
Jackson, who was ranked as a four-star prospect coming out of high school, chose Alabama over LSU, Florida State, Arkansas and Tennessee. He has all the attributes Saban looks for in a corner: excellent hip and ankle flexibility, the speed to run stride for stride with virtually any receiver and a willingness to hit and be a force in run support. Jackson is far from polished -- he missed a few assignments on Saturday night -- but his talent is unmistakable. "I recruited Eddie to come here when he was in high school," said junior safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. "He's physical, he's fast, he's strong, he does everything right ... We all trust him."
Another young player that has earned the trust of the veteran players and coaches is sophomore running back Kenyan Drake. After gaining only 281 yards last season, Drake has quickly emerged as the Tide's No. 2 running back. Saban typically plays two feature backs with differing running styles. Starter T.J. Yeldon is more of a between-the-tackles runner who has enough speed to break long runs (witness his 68-yard touchdown gallop on Saturday night), while Drake may be the fastest player on the team. Against Ole Miss, the 6-1, 201-pound Drake rushed for a career-high 99 yards on 12 carries, including a 50-yard touchdown sprint in the fourth quarter. Some inside the Alabama football building believe that Drake -- who was the Gatorade Georgia Player of the Year coming out of Hillgrove High in Powder Springs after rushing for 1,610 yards as a senior -- may be the team's most talented back.
"I told Kenyan that when he went in he just needed to use his speed," Yeldon said. "I've never seen anyone catch him. He's really stepped up and we're going to need him going forward."
Though top-ranked Alabama is 4-0, it's a team that remains very much a work in progress. The next four opponents on the Tide's schedule -- Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee -- should offer little resistance, so expect Jackson and Drake to play a lot over the next month. Saban needs these young players to gain experience. After all, Jackson and Drake will be counted on heavily when LSU rolls into Tuscaloosa on Nov. 9, which is the next time Alabama should seriously be challenged.