TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama coach Nick Saban hadn't intended to play junior Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, one of the top NFL prospects in the nation at the safety position, very much on Saturday against Arkansas.
After all, he hadn't practiced with the first-unit defense all week because he wasn't cleared by the NCAA to come off a suspension until the day before the game. And true to form, it was backup Landon Collins who got the start against the Razorbacks rather than Clinton-Dix. But an injury to starting safety Vinnie Sunseri pressed Clinton-Dix into service.
The return of Clinton-Dix, suspended for reportedly accepting a loan from a UA assistant strength coach who had ties to an agent, couldn't have come at a better time for the Crimson Tide with Sunseri possibly injured seriously. The junior went down with a knee injury and was receiving hugs on the sideline after returning from the locker room, a common indication that a player's season could be done.
"We'll see what the MRI says (Sunday)," said Saban. "It could be serious."
Saban said he thought it would be unfair for Clinton-Dix to start ahead of players who had practiced within the game plan during the week, since Clinton-Dix had spent the week working with the scout team, still uncertain if he would be eligible to play. Instead, the initial plan was to play Clinton-Dix only in the dime package with six defensive backs.
"He thought that was a fair way to do it, but I told him, 'You're still the backup safety for both guys, because we're short at safety. We're moving corners to safety. So when Vinnie went out, he was the next guy in," Saban added. "His leadership out there really helped the guys."
Clinton-Dix and offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, both juniors, are Alabama's top two possibilities for early NFL draft entry. Next week, Clinton-Dix figures to return to his starting role as Alabama plays host to Tennessee.