Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick jumped off the screen when I studied the Crimson Tide's 27-19 win over Texas A&M on Saturday night. He recorded 5 tackles, including a team-high 2 for loss, forced a fumble and picked off a pass to help the Tide remain undefeated.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that he stood out. We knew heading into the season that the junior is one of the top talents in the college game. However, he might be the least talked about elite player in the country.
Fitzpatrick could be Tyrann Mathieu in a bigger package. He has the same ball skills. He's bigger (Fitzpatrick is 6-foot-1, 202 pounds, per school measurements; Mathieu is listed at 5-9, 186) and probably faster than Mathieu. He also has similar instincts and toughness. I think Fitzpatrick gives you all of the versatility that Mathieu possesses.
Here are 5 takeaways from Fitzpatrick's performance vs. the Aggies.
1. Few players can match him when it comes to versatility. He lines up primarily as the nickel back in Alabama's defense, but we've seen in the past that he can play as the high safety or outside at corner. He's excelled in all three of those positions. You can use him anywhere.
2. Fitzpatrick is tough. He's eager to make his presence felt in the run game. I saw it Saturday in the way he fought to get off blocks and attack ball carriers, forcing a fumble on a QB scramble. He packs a punch as a tackler. I love it when the coaching staff allows him to play press coverage. They don't do it a lot, but when they do and he gets his hands on a receiver, it's over for the receiver.
3. He's an expert at clogging throwing lanes. When he's not assigned to a man and free to float underneath in coverage, he has a great feel for reading the quarterback, understanding the route concept and positioning himself between the target and the QB. It doesn't show up on the stat sheet, but he forces the QB to hold the football because he's so good at reading the QB's eyes and getting into the right position. It allows the Tide's pressure to get home to the QB.
4. He has outstanding makeup speed. One of the key elements for anyone playing corner, whether it's inside or outside, is that you have recovery speed because you're going to find yourself in a trail position at some point in every game. The big-time players have the ability to make up ground and close the cushion. That was something Fitzpatrick displayed against Texas A&M. He rarely gets caught out of position, but when he does, he's quick to recover because of his explosiveness and speed. He only got beat on one route the whole game (Aggies star Christian Kirk hit him with a quick out route) but he closed it down and made the tackle on the play. Outside of that, he didn't give up anything.
5. Fitzpatrick has ball skills for days. They were on display when he made his first interception of the season Saturday night. He used his closing speed and natural hands to make the play, ending an Aggies drive inside the Alabama 10-yard line. Fitzpatrick recorded 6 picks last season (only 6 FBS players had more). There's nothing more deflating for a defense than a dropped interception, and that's not something the Tide has to worry about when Fitzpatrick gets his hands on the ball.