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Injury to Alabama’s forgotten man created butterfly effect Tide couldn’t overcome against Clemson

Two days before Alabama lost the national championship game to Clemson, Karl Scott was in the middle of an interview at the SAP Center in San Jose when he stopped to interrupt a reporter asking a question about coverage schemes.

“This is Tre Diggs,” the Crimson Tide’s secondary coach said, as the junior cornerback approached him.

That Scott felt compelled to introduce Diggs revealed how much he had become a forgotten man in Alabama’s defense after he fractured his foot in a victory over Arkansas on Oct. 6. But Diggs’ absence would be felt 48 hours later when Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence began to shred the Tide during a 44-16 victory that was as dominating as it was shocking.

After all, the man who replaced Diggs in the starting lineup — Saivion Smith — authored the worst performance of any defender on the field that night. According to, Smith surrendered three catches and 162 receiving yards. He was responsible for the 62-yard completion from Lawrence to Tee Higgins in the first quarter that started to strip away Alabama’s veneer of invincibility and was later victimized on the 74-yard touchdown to Justyn Ross that left Smith shaken so much he was carted off the field in the third quarter.

As Smith experienced calamity, it was hard not to recall the nightmarish night Tony Brown endured two years before against the very same opponent, on the very same stage. In a 35-31 loss to Clemson, Brown was roasted repeatedly — losing time and again to Tigers receiver Hunter Renfrow. By the end of the night, Alabama’s slot cornerback had yielded ten catches on 11 passes thrown his way, including the two-yard completion that sealed the Tide’s miserable fate.

Like Smith, Brown was thrust into a major role after another defensive back — safety Eddie Jackson, in this case — suffered a season-ending injury during an October SEC game. Jackson’s fractured leg had a ripple effect, causing Star cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick to move to safety and Brown to become a regular in Nickel — the Tide’s most-used defensive package.

While Alabama continued to thrive after losing Jackson as it defeated its next six opponents by an average margin of 26.5 points, Clemson presented an entirely different challenge that tested the limits of Alabama’s personnel and exposed whatever shortcomings the Crimson Tide had related to its depth.

Trevon Diggs considered turning pro but staying at Alabama

On Monday, the Tigers again revealed the same problems, shining the spotlight on Smith and making him the face of an inexperienced secondary that had to replace six starters in the offseason. Both of the big strikes Smith conceded came while Alabama was in Dime, which was telling because the injury to Diggs had a domino effect that weakened that particular package — necessitating Shyheim Carter to go down from safety to Star and forcing Jared Mayden to play a featured role as a back-end defender.

“We have had some issues with the guys that are not out there playing,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the game Monday. “And I think sometimes you have to be fortunate because when you play against good teams, you need that depth and you need those people.”

Saban isn’t one to make excuses, and over the years he has done his best to shield his team from the impact of injuries by loading his roster with five- and four-star talents. But as early as October, Saban fretted about the readiness of the players in reserve roles — sensing the fragility of a defensive backfield that wasn’t nearly as battle-tested as units that had buttressed the championship teams of the past.

“We don’t have a lot of depth right now and we’re going to have to work to get some other players to develop and be able to play for us,” Saban said two days after Diggs was hurt.

Saban initiated that process; He just couldn’t quite expedite it to the point needed to protect Alabama from the butterfly effect created by Diggs’ injury.

Ninety-three days after the cornerback was lost for the season, his presence was felt at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. And by the time Clemson put the finishing touches on its resounding victory, everyone remembered Diggs, Alabama’s forgotten man.

Rainer Sabin is an Alabama beat writer for the Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @RainerSabin

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