It’s cold out there. Like ice cold.
We’re talking about the no-man’s land out on the left side of Alabama secondary (or to the quarterback’s right), where few opposing teams dare to visit, or at least throw the ball in any sort of threatening way. This is considered junior cornerback Patrick Surtain II territory, and it definitely should have warning signs posted along the sideline.
Actually, they’re not necessary.
Texas A&M got an early first down on him off a tough-to-defend slant route and then seemed content with the minor victory. The Aggies didn’t complete another pass against Surtain during the rest of the game, and barley tried.
Lane Kiffin didn’t need his inside knowledge of the cornerback. Ole Miss had a lot of success against the still-developing Alabama defense on Oct. 10, but had only one completion with Surtain in coverage — and it was on a low-risk play with the receiver breaking off his route.
Then No. 3-Georgia? The Bulldogs looked six times in his direction and only managed a paltry two completions for five total yards along with an interception by safety Daniel Wright. It was one of two picks in the second half, the other thrown in cornerback Josh Jobe’s direction and snared by freshman Malachi Moore. Alabama turned both turnovers into touchdowns to flip a 24-20 deficit into a 41-24 victory.
“I believe that they were big momentum swingers,” Surtain said. “We obviously needed big plays on defense.”
But the game that may have best demonstrated what Surtain means to the 2020 Crimson Tide defense was Mississippi State. Even through Bulldogs head coach Mike Leach seemed to have no interest in trying to challenge the Alabama cornerback, his quarterbacks did twice. The first was batted down at the line of scrimmage, the other resulted in a touchdown going the other way.
Specifically, Surtain successfully baited the passer as his 25-yard return into the end zone extended Alabama's streak of scoring at least 35 points to 19 straight games. The Crimson Tide also notched the first-ever shutout of Leach’s prolific Air Raid offense.
“I disguised it because I knew they had run the concept before earlier in the game so I recognized the play before it happened,” Surtain said. “I jumped it.”
Because the first attempt never got past the line of scrimmage, statistically it was one pass thrown at Surtain during 47 coverage snaps, resulting in minus-six points. Through the first six games of the season he had been targeted 22 times with 10 completions and 110 yards, resulting in just seven first downs allowed and one touchdown on a ball that was perfectly thrown into the back corner of the end zone.
It added up to a 57.0 passer rating yielded, and 11.3 coverage snaps per target, which led the nation. Against SEC wideouts, his career rate as a cornerback lined up on the outside was 0.62 yards per coverage snap, which was light years better than the FBS average of 1.1 yards.
“Pat is definitely a key piece to our defense,” senior linebacker Dylan Moses said.
That’s an understatement. The term “lock-down cornerback” gets thrown around a lot and has been grossly overused over the years. But he’s the real thing.
Surtain’s success has been anything but a surprise, as he was named a preseason All-American and considered one of the favorites for the Thorpe Award for the nation’s best defensive back along with LSU's Derek Stingley Jr.
After being widely hailed as one of the top prospects in the 2018 signing class, he quickly worked his way on to the field. Surtain was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and a Freshman All-American, and last year established himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the nation.
He totaled 42 tackles to go with three forced fumbles, eight pass breakups, two interceptions, a fumble recovery and one quarterback pressure, all while getting challenged less.
But during both of those seasons he was playing with a much more veteran unit. With Trevon Diggs leaving early for the 2020 NFL Draft along with safety Xavier McKinney, and Jared Mayden and Shyheim Carter seeing their eligibility expire, Surtain was really the lone returning starter.
When Diggs opted out of playing in the Citrus Bowl, Jobe stepped up and performed well, all but securing the other starting cornerback spit. However, everyone else was new and due to the coronavirus pandemic Alabama didn’t have the usual benefit of spring practice to try and get everyone up to speed.
The third-year starter Surtain took it upon himself to treat the secondary as if it was his position group.
“Most definitely,” he said during fall camp. “I know I have to play a big role in that leadership role, and provide the guys and give them expectations and come on the field every day leading them guys and be that dude where they could look to, to play ball.
“You've got to expect more from yourself.”
As he spoke up more, and the players continued to progress, both the secondary and defense, played better with each game, as best demonstrated by the Mississippi opponents. In the span of three weeks the Crimson Tide went from yielding 48 points against the Rebels to zero by the Bulldogs.
“I think Pat's done a great job,” Nick Saban said. “He leads by example. He always, you know, practices, the way you're supposed to practice, takes coaching and the way you're supposed to take coaching. I think he respects the critical eye, you know, he wants to be a good player. So now he wants you to tell him how he could do things better. And he’s very committed to being a good player.
“He's not really a vocal guy, a lot, I think, but in a quiet way impacts everybody in a very, very positive way because of the example that he sets and he is somebody that I wish every guy on our team were trying to emulate in terms of the character that he has as a person, and the competitive carry character he demonstrates every day in preparing for a game as well as how he plays a game.”
Saban, of course, may be the world’s leading authority on cornerbacks named Surtain, having coached the father as well. The All-Pro played 11 years in the NFL after being a second-round pick out of Southern Miss in 1998, No. 44 overall.
His son is almost certainly going to top that as his game is considered solid.
As in frozen solid.
So says teammate Jordan Battle about Surtain often icing the opposition’s best receiving threat.
“Patrick made the video of his island, you know, the iceberg — not the island, the iceberg.”