Marlon Humphrey is one of the best CBs -- and athletes -- in the nation
Every year the Alabama Crimson Tide are able to put together one of the best teams in the nation, despite seeing plenty of top-level talent leave every year for the NFL. Heading into last year they lost their best offensive playmaker in Amari Cooper, and proceeded to go on to the College Football Playoff and win the national championship.
This year the Tide saw four defensive players selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft, but are still in position to defend their crown thanks to a wave of talented defenders waiting in the wings. One of those is sophomore Marlon Humphrey — who is ready to emerge as not only one of the best cornerbacks in the nation, but one of the best players in all of college football.
Excellent in coverage
A redshirt freshman a year ago, Humphrey earned a spot as a starter on the Alabama defense, playing nothing like you’d expect from a freshman and finishing the year with our eighth-highest coverage grade among cornerbacks in all of college football. Not bad for his first year on the college field.
He graded well against the run, but it was in coverage where he truly stood out, grading negatively in five games, but only twice below -1.0. Tough to throw on, Humphrey allowed just 31 receptions from the 62 passes thrown into his coverage, going for 539 yards and two touchdowns, while breaking up seven passes and picking off three more. Even better, he improved as the year went on, allowing just 80 receiving yards over the final five games of the year, including just 28 yards in two playoff games.
Humphrey is also one of the best athletes in all of college football. You can see this on the field, but also in the fact that he was an outstanding track athlete in high school, winning the 110 meter hurdles and 400 meter hurdles at the 2013 World Youth Track and Field Championships. He’s even contributed to Alabama’s 4×400 relay team.
The athleticism which helped him be a track star in high school has obviously translated well to playing football, as evidenced in several big plays since arriving at Alabama. That included this interception against Georgia where he matched the receiver step-for-step downfield before turning to intercept the forced pass by quarterback Brice Ramsey. His quickness allows him to keep up with some of the fastest receivers he has to face in the SEC, and can frustrate quarterbacks into forcing passes that aren’t there, where Humphrey can pounce to pick the pass off.
Not just a finesse player
Often at times when you see college players who make a lot of big plays thanks to their athleticism, they are players who rely a little bit too much on the finesse nature of their game. That’s not Humphrey. While one of the biggest keys to his game is being light on his feet and being able to both sprint downfield with receivers and cut quickly in space, he’s also incredibly tough, and is willing to lay a big hit to leave his mark on a receiver.
As well as coming up to make tackles on receivers on short passes, he made his mark against the run, with the 22nd-highest run defense grade of the 183 cornerbacks returning to college this year who played at least 530 defensive snaps in 2015. You need that physicality to be a force in the SEC — with some of the best running backs in the nation in the conference — but also to ensure that you can be a threat to cause a big play even if it’s not a passing play. Humphrey did just that, forcing two fumbles as a freshman. Where some cornerbacks shy away from contact, he is willing to dig in to force a big play whenever the ball is near, even if it’s already in someone else’s grasp.
Not just a star of defense
While his primary role comes on defense, to get a complete feel for how good a player is, you need to check him out on special teams as well. Routinely one of the first Alabama players downfield on the kickoff, Humphrey made four solo tackles and one assist in 2015. Given his speed, he is the perfect fit as either the L1 or R1 on kick coverage. Players in those positions primarily need to ensure that they set the edge, stopping kick returners from finding the outside and causing a big play first, and then looking to make the tackle. It’s not an easy role, and involves a lot of discipline, but it’s just another area where Humphrey excels.
He saved his best special teams performance for the national championship game, making a touchdown-saving tackle on a kickoff midway through the first quarter, and then coming up with one of the special teams plays of the year in the fourth. With the game tied at 24-24, with 10:34 left in the game, Alabama made the bold decision to attempt a surprise onside kick. The ball was kicked perfectly by Adam Griffith and Humphrey tracked it like a wide receiver on a go-route downfield to give the Crimson Tide an extra possession.
We saw plenty of top defensive talent leave college football for the NFL a year ago, but with players like Marlon Humphrey, we’ll be sure to see more dominance over the next couple of seasons. Humphrey was outstanding, both in coverage and on special teams in his first year in college, and it’s going to be interesting to see just how well he can perform in his follow-up year. If 2015 was anything to go by, it’s not a stretch to say he could contend with Jourdan Lewis and Desmond King for the top cornerback in the nation.