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With Jaylen Key, Malachi Moore in flux, Alabama’s secondary depth will be tested vs. Texas

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama’s secondary is seen as a position of strength on this year’s team, both from a talent and depth perspective. The unit played well in the season opener against Middle Tennessee, allowing just 133 yards and forcing an interception.

But two injuries from Saturday could impact this weekend’s game against Texas. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Starting safeties Jaylen Key, who had the interception Saturday, and Malachi Moore both left the game to undisclosed injuries.
  • On Monday, Nick Saban described both players as “day to day” and said they will not practice Monday, but he is hopeful for a return to practice soon.
  • In their absences Saturday, redshirt freshman Earl Little II (Moore’s replacement) and Kristian Story (Key’s replacement) filled in and are the listed backups on Alabama’s Week 2 depth chart.
  • Junior DeVonta Smith, a playing time candidate if healthy, remains out with a foot injury.

The Athletic’s instant analysis:

Who could step up?

The numbers bore out the notion that Saban is confident in several defensive backs as eight players played at least 20 snaps on against Middle Tennessee: Terrion Arnold (52), Caleb Downs (52), Kool-Aid McKinstry (41), Moore (38), Trey Amos (33), Key (28), Story (27) and Little (20). The front-line starters in McKinstry, Arnold, Moore, Downs and Key performed well, but Saban described the play behind them as a mixed bag.

“Some play really well,” Saban said. “Some of them have things that they can improve on and sort of didn’t play with the poise that you need to play with, maybe a little anxiety in the first game, whatever. But we need all those guys to continue to develop and play well.

“Because right now (Smith) is already down, and we got (Key and Moore) that are not able to practice at least (on Monday), so it’s important that we develop young players and these guys have a chance to develop confidence, which I think that just the fact that they got to play the game should help them to some degree.”

If Key and Moore are unable to play, the two players to watch are Arnold, who played both cornerback and Star in the opener, and Amos, who pushed Arnold for the starting cornerback spot. Arnold’s position versatility allows for the coaching staff to plug a starting hole, and Amos’ ascension can put him on the field at the boundary corner without the coaching staff fearing a drop-off, a luxury that wasn’t present throughout last season.

Here’s a projection of what Alabama’s starting secondary could look like in the event of one or two absences:

Without Moore — CB: McKinstry, Amos / Star: Arnold / Safety: Downs, Key

Without Key — CB: McKinstry, Amos / Star: Arnold / Safety: Downs, Moore

Without Key and Moore — CB: McKinstry, Arnold or Amos / Star: Arnold or Little II / Safety: Downs, Story

What this means for the Tide

Outside of the lineups, the potential of losing two experienced players is worrisome against Texas due to the pressure the Longhorns’ offense puts on defensive backs to communicate; particularly Moore who Saban described as the best communicator on the team. Texas will implement a lot of pre-snap motions to undress Alabama’s defense as much as possible and try to find favorable matchups and busted coverages.

Alabama’s first two opponents are on different levels of skill, but the Middle Tennessee game served as a good, early test for young players like Downs, who will be put in situations to execute at a high level Saturday as a true freshman starter.

“With (Texas coach Steve Sarkisian), obviously he’s a genius,” Arnold said Monday. “Obviously he’s been (at Alabama from 2019-20), he knows our defense very well so we have to do a good job of communicating, and I feel like with my teammates, building a bond in the offseason, really just growing and knowing how they are like, we do a better job communicating so I feel like it’s very easy now.”

The confidence Arnold expressed in the secondary’s communication progress mirrored his confidence in the group overall. In addition to communication, Saturday will be another test in discipline (holding, pass interference penalties) and open-field tackling. Saban referred to Saturday’s game as a barometer for where the team is, and in one of the biggest matchups in the country, the top-to-bottom strength of the defensive backs will be tested.

“Like Coach Saban always preaches, you have to always be ready,” Arnold said. “You never know when your number’s going to be called. From this game to all the way back in the summer as far as (position coach Travaris Robinson and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele) pushing us and really being on us, you never know when your number’s going to be called. To have position versatility and to have position depth means the world in this defense.”

Required reading

(Photo of Jaylen Key: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

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