TUSCALOOSA – Ten months after electing to sign with different SEC superpowers, Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II and Georgia’s Tyson Campbell reunited on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf nearly two weeks ago.
As one-half of the coveted defensive back duo from American Heritage (Florida), Surtain came out on the winning end on Dec. 1 when his Crimson Tide rallied back to claim a 35-28 victory over Campbell’s Bulldogs to win the SEC Championship.
Not that it changed anything between the two.
“He’s a brother for life,” Surtain II said after the game, his first media availability since arriving at Alabama earlier this summer.
Surtain’s first collegiate season has been a steady climb to prominence for the former five-star product from south Florida, who was thrust into a starting role four games into the regular season and has quickly established himself as one of Alabama’s most important defensive figures over the last two months of the season.
“He’s come in and been real competitive. That’s the thing that I like most about him,” sophomore safety Xavier McKinney said of Surtain in late October. “He’s been able to get the calls and relay them back to everyone else. He’s done a great job of competing in practice and coming to work every day.”
Surtain, the son of former NFL cornerback Patrick Surtain Sr., signed with the Crimson Tide in February on National Signing Day in a much publicized last-second decision to spurn LSU for the reigning national champions.
Of course, the move clearly paid off for Surtain, who was celebrating Alabama’s 27th conference championship after helping the Tide defense limit Georgia to zero points and just 171 yards of total offense over its final six series. Alabama scored the game’s final 21 points.
“That’s why I chose to come here, to play in big-time games like this,” Surtain said Dec. 1. “Kudos to Georgia, they played their butts off. We had to fight hard. That’s what we came into this game thinking, Georgia wasn’t going to back down, so we had to play our A-game.”
Despite being a freshman, Surtain has helped Alabama’s secondary make great strides throughout the season, including limiting opposing offenses to an average of just 138.5 passing yards over the final six games of the regular season.
Surtain’s play this year has been so crucial, he was the only freshman among four players to garner the “defensive achievement award” during Alabama’s annual end-of-season awards banquet, along with star defensive back Shyheim Carter and middle linebackers Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson.
“Patrick has done a really good job. He’s a bright young man. He’s been able to learn and grow at the position and be able to execute and do the things he needs to do,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said earlier in the season. “He fits our style very well in terms of what we want to do. We’ve been pleased with his progress. I think with young players their ability to stay focused and sustain is always a challenge for them, and hopefully Patrick will have the maturity to continue to do that throughout the season.”
For the most part, he has. According to Pro Football Focus, Surtain hasn’t given up a touchdown on 771 snaps this season. His longest reception allowed was a 24-yard completion against Missouri.
Surtain has also posted an overall grade of 77.4 this season while being targeted just six times over Alabama’s last four games, four of which came against Georgia.
Of course, it hasn’t exactly been easy, especially when it came to the mental side of playing defensive back at Alabama.
“Just learning the whole playbook, just mentally getting prepared for games, studying the playbook,” Surtain said. “That was probably the biggest adjustment from high school to college. Once I learned some of the playbook, I sort of got a hand of it.”
Especially challenging was picking up Saban’s complicated pattern-matching secondary scheme, which Surtain admittedly didn’t start becoming comfortable until about the midpoint of the regular season.
“It’s difficult,” Surtain said. “Coach Saban puts a lot of adjustments and all that in it. He makes sure that we study it a lot, and to play in games like this, you’ve got to know the playbook.”
Before the SEC title game, Surtain ranked second among the Alabama defensive backs allowing less than 4 yards per target this season. Only junior safety Deionte Thompson, an expected first-round NFL Draft pick this spring, was better at 1.5 yards per target allowed.
Through 13 games, Surtain is tied for third on the team with six passes defended along with 33 tackles and an interception, which came in his first start of the season against Texas A&M.
“No, I’m not surprised at all,” junior cornerback Trevon Diggs said of Surtain’s success in October, before he went down with a season-ending foot injury, which further thrust Surtain into the spotlight. “I’ve seen him, how hard he worked in the summer time, working with us, so I feel like it’s showing now,” Diggs said. “He’s a really good player. I’ve been saying that since he came in. He’s a really good player and it’s showing.”