There aren’t too many defensive backs like Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has played just about every position in the Alabama secondary in his first two seasons on campus. The All-American has eight career interceptions — four of which he’s returned for touchdowns, including two in one game in 2015.
The former five-star recruit came to Alabama from Old Bridge, N.J., and played a major role in the Crimson Tide’s national championship as a true freshman. Now Fitzpatrick is in position to be one of the top cornerbacks off the board in the 2018 NFL Draft.
He sat down with Athlon Sports in the offseason to discuss the heartbreak of the national championship game, his transition from New Jersey to Alabama and his thoughts on the best athlete on the Crimson Tide’s roster.
Q&A With Alabama Defensive Back Minkah Fitzpatrick
Let’s get this out of the way: Do you still think about the loss to Clemson in the national championship?
We learned a lot from that game, as a defense. It’s just about finishing and executing. I feel like it was a wake-up call for a lot of us on the defense, especially. The offense did their part, for the most part. I mean, they put points on the board when they needed to. For the defense, it was just a wake-up call.
What were those next few days like after the game?
I was upset. I was real upset after the first couple hours after the game because I was around all the seniors. It was their last shot, but after a while, I shifted the focus more toward this season. I mean, we lost. I watched the game multiple times and saw what I could have done better or what my teammates could have done better. But you can’t really sit on it too long. You have to learn from it, which we definitely did as a team.
Some coaches say that losing is misery while winning brings relief. Do you see things in the same light?
Yeah, because we put so much work into it, when we lose a game — especially the last game of the season — it’s kind of a slap in the face because you work real hard all season and you’re winning all these games. To lose the last one, it’s … it’s tough.
You have the Alabama record for pick-six touchdowns with four. How much do you practice that?
After every time we get a pick in practice, we return it. We never just sit there. We always catch it and return it. The defensive linemen and linebackers, all the other DBs, we always try to find a receiver or offensive player to block. I think that’s why we’re so good at it, because whoever has the ball, we want to see them in the end zone. Just show effort to block for your teammate and lead the way for your teammate.
Does instinct take over in that moment?
Oh yeah. I played offense in high school, so as soon as I touch the ball, I switch over to an offensive player.
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When did you first realize you were not merely a good player, but you could be an All-America-caliber athlete at the highest level?
I don’t know. … You never really know, because a lot of people come in and think they can play, but you never actually know until you get here. I would say you never really know.
You’re a New Jersey guy. Why Alabama?
The main thing was the demand for excellence here. I feel like I’m kind of that way on myself and the people around me always demand the best. I demand the best every day, no matter what it is. And Coach Saban and the rest of the coaches, no matter who it is, they just kind of have that same mindset. If you’re not giving your best, you might as well not be doing anything at all. I like that about the program and the connection you have with everybody on campus. Everybody wants to see you do well because they know all the work we put in.
How did the reality of playing football at Alabama compare to the vision you had in your head as a high schooler?
I’m going to be honest with you. I really didn’t know what to expect. I’m the first person in my family to go to college, so I really didn’t know exactly what to expect in the actual college social scene, besides movies. Well, some of it is actually true (laughs). Football-wise, I’d talk to people that were a couple years ahead of me and get insight from them. But they didn’t come to Alabama, and nothing is like Alabama. I knew it was going to be hard, and I knew I was going to have to be really focused when I came in. When I actually got here, it was harder than I expected. I will say that. It was harder than I expected.
What was the biggest adjustment coming from the pace of New Jersey to Alabama?
Well my father’s side of the family is from Alabama (grandmother lives in Wetumpka), so I kind of knew what it was like down here. So, it wasn’t a huge culture shock. But it is a whole lot different. If I didn’t experience it before, I would have been thrown completely off. But it is different. I enjoy it. It’s a little more relaxed. I’m a laid-back type of person. I don’t like people running around all the time.
You talked about the support you feel on campus at Alabama. Does that become pressure at any point?
I don’t like the word pressure. I see it more as opportunity to show people how good we are and how great of a team we could be. The quote, I think, is “Pressure only exists to those who can’t handle it.” I feel like at Alabama, it’s Alabama. I feel like you can handle any situation that you put us in. Because, one, we prepare for it. And two, it’s just a mindset. It’s really how you look at it. You can’t look at it as pressure … because that’s when it breaks you.
What’s your favorite stadium to play in other than Bryant-Denny Stadium?
I really liked Tennessee’s stadium and the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium.
What’s it about those two that you enjoy so much?
I like Tennessee’s stadium just because of the way it’s built. It’s kind of like a bowl, so you can see everything around. I didn’t like their colors though (laughs). And then the Cowboys’ stadium, it’s … the Cowboys’ stadium. It was extremely nice inside. And LSU is on that list too. That’s probably the most fun, besides the national championship game, we had all season was at LSU.
Is there a place you’d like to play one day?
You know, I think it was Virginia Tech and Tennessee in the racetrack (Bristol Motor Speedway). Yeah, I want to do that one day. It looked pretty cool.
Who is the best athlete on this Alabama team?
Shoot, we have a whole bunch of athletes. Tony Brown, me, Anthony Averett, Robert Foster, Calvin Ridley, Xavian Marks. We have a whole lot of athletes — different kinds of athletes.
Who was the best receiver you’ve faced?
Mike Williams (of Clemson). He was a big dude. We kind of took him out of the game in the first half. We were being physical with him, but then we were all tired. He didn’t play a lot in the second quarter and came back in the third quarter like a new dude. We were all worn out and he was running around out there full speed doing a 4.3 (40-yard dash) at 6'3". Physical dude. It was a good matchup between our corners and him. We were making plays and he was making plays, but he’s a really great receiver.
Who was the best quarterback you’ve faced so far?
Deshaun Watson. Simple answer. It was stuff like, we’ve faced mobile quarterbacks before, but it was the same thing last year. It would look like he was tackled and would get out of it somehow and would either make a really great throw or he’ll just make a play with his feet and it was just wearing us out. It was to the point where we’d have to cover for six, seven, eight seconds. You really can’t do too much when you’re covering for that long