TUSCALOOSA — The play that served to introduce Jordan Battle to the masses also may have solidified him a role in the Alabama secondary moving forward.
In the closing minute of the season opener, with the second-ranked Crimson Tide holding a commanding 42-3 lead, Duke quarterback Quentin Harris went for broke and lofted a 40-yard throw to the left side of the end zone for 6-foot-4 senior receiver Aaron Young.
But instead, it was Battle who came down with the ball, as Alabama’s 6-1 freshman safety faded to his right just enough to position himself directly under the all-too-easy interception just in front of the goal line. In fact, Battle — a four-star summer enrollee playing mop-up minutes in his first collegiate game — didn’t even have to adjust on the play, striding right to the landing zone before elevating just enough to out-leap Young for the pick, almost as if anticipating the pass before it happened.
And the best part, at least to Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban, was that it came off busted coverage.
“I love Jordan Battle. He’s a really good player. He’s going to contribute to our team this year,” Saban said last week, showing rare enthusiasm for a freshman. “He is one of the young players on our team that seems to be able to stay focused and improve and make plays every day.”
Even, apparently, when he might be in the wrong coverage.
“I think he’s the kind of player that even though we didn’t do the right thing on that side in the coverage, he finished the play, he played the play,” Saban said of Battle. “It didn’t bother him … (he) went and played the ball with confidence, which is an important part of being a good defensive back. We’re excited about him being in the program, and we’re excited about his performance.”
Whether it was that one play or his continued development throughout his first three and a half months on campus, Battle showed enough to earn his first career start in last Saturday’s 62-10 blowout of New Mexico State, stepping in as the strong safety as Alabama (2-0) began in the nickel package.
“He’s a really good player, had a big-time interception in the back of the end zone against Duke, really high-pointed the ball,” South Carolina’s Will Muschamp said of Battle. “You can see he’s got a lot of range, and can cover in man and zone. A guy we thought a lot of coming out of high school.”
So too did Alabama, which prioritized the former St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High standout and ultimately flipped the long-time Ohio State commit on the first day of the Early Signing Period Dec. 19, 2018.
Ten months later, Battle is among a handful of true freshmen turning heads along a rebuilt Crimson Tide defense that has embraced a bit of a youth movement even as it enters conference play with Saturday’s SEC opener at South Carolina (2:30 p.m. CT).
Battle is the fourth true freshman to start in the middle of Alabama’s defense through the first two games this season, joining opening-day rookie starters in nose guard D.J. Dale and inside linebackers Christian Harris at Will and Shane Lee at the Mike.
And much like the three other first-team freshmen defenders, Battle has done plenty to impress his new teammates, especially with his work ethic behind the scenes.
“He’s always locked in and focused during practice, during preparation, watching film, so we knew he would be ready just like any other young guys that came in there on Saturday,” junior free safety Xavier McKinney said of Battle. “I think all the freshmen are doing well. I think they’re all playing well. I think they practice hard. I think they pay a lot of attention to detail when watching film. But like I said, I think everybody in the defensive back group is ready to play.”
Still, it takes a unique type of player to start as a true freshman within Alabama’s secondary, where Saban often takes a hands-on interest as a self-appointed “grad assistant” working directly with the defensive backs every practice.
Which is why sophomore cornerback Patrick Surtain II — who started 12 games as a five-star freshman last season — knows Battle has what it takes to be special.
“He’s grown very well. He’s getting into the plays, learning the plays very well, communicating out there,” Surtain II said of Battle. “It seems like he’s a vet out there already. He’s a pro playing at the safety position. He’s doing very well.”
Throughout this week, Battle has continued to work with the first-team defense as the free and strong safety in the dime and nickel packages, respectively, with starting free safety McKinney sliding to the Money role in dime, and he could be in line for his second straight start Saturday in Columbia.
“Jordan Battle is a really good freshman who seems to be able to handle and manage the week to week preparations that’s necessary to be able to play in the secondary and not make a lot of mistakes,” Saban said. “I think the guy’s got potential to really help our team this year.”