TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Minkah Fitzpatrick is normally the kind of disciplined defensive back Alabama coach Nick Saban likes.
But the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s sophomore cornerback momentarily put that relationship to the test when he decided to run out an interception from the back of the end zone against Arkansas.
“The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh no,'” Saban said. “And then after he got to about the 10-yard line, I said, ‘He may go all the way.’ So it worked well.”
Indeed, Fitzpatrick’s 100-plus yard return was the latest scoring play for ‘Bama’s defense, No. 7 of the season going into Saturday’s visit to ninth-ranked Tennessee.
Fitzpatrick, who had three picks in the game, has already tied the Alabama record of three career interception returns for touchdowns with teammate Eddie Jackson and former Tide stars C.J. Mosley and Antonio Langham.
Cincinnati’s Mike Tyson is the only other FBS player to pick off three passes in a game this season.
The performance earned Fitzpatrick Southeastern Conference and various national player of the week honors. He has moved into the starting cornerback role after being the Tide’s nickel back much of his freshman season.
Saban said Fitzpatrick has grown more confident and praises everything from his work ethic to his football IQ and instincts. The big plays are no coincidence, he said.
“When I talk about discipline and eye control, looking at the right things, understanding what the other team is trying to do so you put yourself in the best position to take advantage of it, he probably does that as well as anybody that we have on defense,” Saban said. “I think that he ends up making plays because of it.”
Fitzpatrick is a rising star in a secondary featuring Jackson and fellow cornerback Marlon Humphrey, a projected first-round NFL draft pick. He is the Tide’s third-leading tackler and leads the way with five pass breakups.
“He’s an explosive football player,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “He can do it all. Very, very strong, very, very physical with his hands, great, great instincts, great speed, great body control. But very, very aggressive, very physical and plays with a lot of confidence.
“You can see that by the way he attacks the football, by the way he plays with a high level of physicality. I’ve been very, very impressed with him and their entire group.”
Fitzpatrick can freely expound on the many details he’s looking for when he lines up, from the formation to where the receiver is likely to head based on how close he is to the hash marks. He seems to embrace Saban’s oft-stated reliance on “attention to detail” and paying attention to the seemingly small things in preparation
“I like staying on a routine,” Fitzpatrick said. “I like being early to things, make sure I understand what’s going on around me and who is around me.”
Jackson was the one around him in that end zone interception, urging Fitzpatrick to eschew the seemingly wiser decision to take a touchback and bring the ball out. He’s pretty dead on in surmising Saban’s reaction to that call.
“As soon as I caught the ball, Eddie had tapped my arm,” Fitzpatrick said. “He was like, ‘Come on,’ and he pointed to the left side of the field — and it was wide open. So I just had to take a chance.
“I know coach Saban probably wasn’t happy at first, but I think he was happy with the end result.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report.
AP college football web site: www.collegefootball.ap.org