ATLANTA — Now that Alabama junior Minkah Fitzpatrick has been a two-time All-American, now that he’s won the Bednarik Award as the defensive player of the year, now that he’s won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back, I think we all can agree Fitzpatrick has validated his standing as a can’t-miss recruit.
But the question is: Does any such person exist? Analytics are coming to football, but they have yet to crack the code of recruiting, even in the case of a Fitzpatrick, ESPN’s 27th-ranked player in the class of 2015. If you want proof, we could show you quarterback Blake Barnett, the No. 14 recruit that same year, who signed with Alabama and spent this season backing up Manny Wilkins at Arizona State.
Or there’s this, in the Now It Can Be Told Department: Saban wavered on whether to sign Fitzpatrick.
Yes, Fitzpatrick, whom most everyone in the Crimson Tide football program believes is Nick Saban the Sequel.
“Well, first off, he’s a hell of a lot better player than I ever was,” Saban said last week in New Orleans. “Let’s get the record straight on that.”
When the laughter subsided, Saban continued.
“I do think that Minkah has a lot of the qualities that I think I’ve always tried to put in place for myself to have the best opportunity to be successful as a coach, as a person,” Saban said. “And I see a lot of those qualities in him. He’s very conscientious, pays attention to detail, very disciplined, understands the importance of preparation. He’s not one of these guys that just thinks, ‘I can go out there and make plays without doing things the right way.'”
And Saban wavered on signing him? Saban, who to this day still does his own scouting evaluation of every player that Alabama signs?
Saban has wiped his memory clean of any hesitation.
“I don’t ever remember a time, from the time he came to [Alabama football] camp and I met him — the kind of person he is, the kind of family he has, the kind of competitor he is — that I had any doubt about him being a player,” Saban said. “But my memory at my age may not be as good as some others, so I’m not trying to discredit anyone here.”
And that’s where it gets really interesting. The person who does remember the hitch in signing Fitzpatrick is Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, until two years ago the Alabama defensive coordinator and top recruiter.
This wasn’t a case of Smart trying to rattle Saban on the eve of the national championship game. He made this comment in the middle of the season, when asked about how Saban has widened his recruiting radius from a five-hour drive from Tuscaloosa to a five-hour flight. Two starters in the secondary, Fitzpatrick and redshirt senior Anthony Averett are from New Jersey.
“What’s amazing is we almost didn’t take both of them,” Smart said. “I mean, that’s crazy. We’re sitting there debating the last few days if they were good enough. You just don’t ever know.”
“[Saban] didn’t like Minkah at one point,” Smart said. “That, to me, was just crazy because Mario Cristobal and I were fighting like hell [for Fitzpatrick]. We thought he was such a good kid.”
Cristobal was then a Tide assistant head coach and offensive line coach. Now he is the head coach of Oregon. He is no longer under the sway of Saban. He is a Power 5 head coach. And he had absolutely no interest in discussing Saban’s feelings toward Fitzpatrick. He declined comment. He might have mentioned a 10-foot pole. But he didn’t deny the story.
However, Cristobal did remember another wrinkle in the recruiting of Fitzpatrick, one that reminds you of the paranoid nature of recruiters. Keep in mind that Fitzpatrick committed to Alabama in April 2014, his junior year at St. Peter’s Prep. And then, in December, he took a recruiting visit to Florida State. Fitzpatrick never decommitted from Alabama.
And then, on National Signing Day in February, his fax didn’t show up. Most faxes show up first thing in the morning. Fitzpatrick’s did not. Someone in the Alabama football building said you didn’t need a blood pressure cuff to see that Cristobal’s spiked.
“I blew his phone up,” Cristobal said. “I called him a hundred times. He didn’t pick up.”
Cristobal finally made contact with Fitzpatrick’s mom, who took a photo of the Letter of Intent and sent it to Cristobal’s phone. The fax rolled in at about 4 p.m. What happened?
“The fax machine wasn’t working,” Fitzpatrick said. “That was the honest truth. Coach Cristobal, Coach Kirby, they bring that up to me every time I see them. They do not believe me. That’s really what happened. They thought I was going to flip to Florida State. But the fax machine was just broken.”
One other thing to remember: Smart and Cristobal didn’t sign Fitzpatrick over Saban’s objections. Saban did come around to sign off on him. And when Fitzpatrick arrived, the love affair began.
“Nobody knew what we were getting in Minkah until he got there,” Smart said. “And you knew the first day.”