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Role reversal gives edge to Cowboys, Eagles stars

Cowboys star CB Trevon Diggs and Eagles star WR DeVonta Smith were teammates at Alabama, where they learned how to play offense and defense.

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FRISCO, Texas — Roughly 45 minutes awaited before practice, and Nick Saban was at it again.

“Hey, we need to train this guy,” then-Alabama defensive backs coach Karl Scott remembers Saban telling him in October 2018. “You need to meet with him. Make sure he knows what he’s doing out there.”

The player in question was receiver DeVonta Smith, who had caught the winning touchdown in the national championship game nine months prior. He would go on to win the Heisman Trophy two years later, then merit first-round draft selection and an NFL debut with the Philadelphia Eagles in three years.

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But Alabama’s gruff, meticulous head coach wasn’t asking his assistant to prepare Smith for pass-catching or run-blocking or even some trick play out of the backfield.

No, Saban wanted the speedy wideout ready to line up as the sixth cornerback in Alabama’s dime package against Missouri.

A quiet Smith joined Scott in the meeting room, nodding from his chair as coach taught player the system.

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“I’m like, ‘I don’t know if this guy is going to remember anything I tell him,’” Scott, now the Seattle Seahawks’ secondary coach and defensive passing game coordinator, told Yahoo Sports recently by phone. “I try to give him signals like, ‘When we’re playing this, I’m going to signal this to you,’ and he’s like ‘No coach, I’ll be straight.’”

Scott’s impression? “Either he’s too arrogant or he doesn’t think he’s going to be playing.”

In practice that day, Smith swiftly disproved both theories.

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Trevon Diggs' path once nearly resembled DeVonta Smith's at Alabama. (Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)
Trevon Diggs‘ path once nearly resembled DeVonta Smith’s at Alabama. (Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)

Smith rolled with the first-team offense as a receiver to start practice, then threw a yellow pinnie over his offensive jersey to line up with the secondary. He remembered his calls and assignments without asking for reminders. No hesitation, no complaints about extra responsibility. Smith even had fun.

“Being in the receiver room, we all think that we can play corner,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “It felt kind of natural.”

Smith ultimately would injure his hamstring in the Missouri game before Saban could throw him on defense for third down, but the plan was there — and had been since at least the spring.

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After all, this wasn’t the first time the only college football coach to win seven national championships was toying with the idea of shuffling his players.

NFL fans are far more familiar with another recent Alabama receiver-turned-cornerback tale: that of Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs, who arrived in Tuscaloosa as a four-star wideout in 2016 but was moved to full-time defender his sophomore season. By 2021, he was intercepting passes at a rate the NFL hadn’t seen in 40 years, with a league-best 11 picks.

But Diggs, Smith and their Alabama coaches shared with Yahoo Sports memories of the practices, most often during spring, when Smith was tasked with playing defense. They considered: How would each player have fared as a pro on the other side of the ball? And why was Alabama so eager to consider the move?

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‘Only at Alabama…’

Alabama’s staff, to be fair, never intended to fully eliminate Smith’s offensive responsibilities as they did with Diggs. But the same philosophy dictated both players’ trajectories.

Diggs began working full-time at defensive back during spring 2017, after current NFL defensive backs Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson left for the NFL draft. Diggs had dabbled at safety, receiver and returner as a freshman, the complexity of Saban’s system overwhelming for a player more deeply rooted in offense.

By 2018, the Tide’s secondary depth void was dire: All six starting defensive backs left, five continuing their careers in the NFL. How much talent was the Tide losing? Consider that the average NFL career lasts three years. The five Alabama DBs who turned pro that spring — Minkah Fitzpatrick, Anthony Averett, Ronnie Harrison, Levi Wallace and Tony Brown — all have played at least seven games this year, in their fifth pro season.

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So in Tuscaloosa, coaches considered: Which receivers were physically and mentally best suited to step in? Who had proven instinctively aggressive and willing to initiate contact? Receivers willing to block, they knew, would be more inclined to tackle. Size, strength and athleticism helped; but perhaps the least teachable trait was ball-tracking. Receivers like Diggs and Smith, they knew, were born with that awareness. They could elevate helpful pass breakups into game-changing interceptions.

“How many times do you see interceptions dropped?” Jeremy Pruitt, Alabama’s defensive coordinator in 2017 when Diggs moved over, told Yahoo Sports. “You want those guys who can finish on the ball and make them pay.”

Trevon Diggs' ball-tracking was a key reason he moved over to defense despite being a highly touted wide receiver recruit. (Photo by Jamie Gilliam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Trevon Diggs’ ball-tracking was a key reason he moved over to defense despite being a highly touted wide receiver recruit. (Photo by Jamie Gilliam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Diggs broke up three passes in 2017, then six with an interception in just six healthy games played in 2018. By 2019, he disrupted eight passes, intercepted three and recovered two fumbles, including one for a touchdown. He says he had inculcated an aggressive mindset already at receiver, but learning at-the-line technique demanded long hours of post-practice reps in the indoor facility. In the film room, Diggs sought to leverage his understanding of route concepts and receiver tendencies.

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Smith, at times, would join those sessions. Because beginning spring 2018, Saban decided: Smith better be ready for defense.

Pruitt, who left in January 2018 to become Tennessee’s head coach, recalls his colleagues’ amusement.

“We were laughing about it,” he said. “That only at Alabama could you catch the winning touchdown pass in the national championship game as a freshman and that spring, you’re playing corner.”

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‘Don’t let his size fool you’

Coaches assigned Smith to defense sparingly at first, 2017 cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley told Yahoo Sports.

“Smitty was a freshman, so we didn’t want to do it to him,” said Ansley, who’s now the Los Angeles Chargers’ secondary coach. “DeVonta and Tre both have great ball skills, both long, could track it and big.”

By 2018, Smith’s secondary work wasn’t unusual: He was tasked with spending at least half of spring practices playing defense with the expectation that he would be the regular-season emergency corner should a teammate go down. His football acumen and understanding of angles from both sides of the ball impressed coaches. At 6-0, 170 pounds, Smith was 2 inches and 25 pounds slighter than Diggs. But coaches and teammates alike insist he plays bigger and stronger than his frame hints. He “packs a pretty good punch for his size,” Pruitt said.

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“Don’t let his size fool you,” Scott agreed. “He’s probably one of the toughest guys to step through that hallway at ’Bama.”

DeVonta Smith caught the winning touchdown in the national championship game. A few months later, the coaching staff was considering moving him to defense. Only at Alabama. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

DeVonta Smith caught the winning touchdown in the national championship game. A few months later, the coaching staff was considering moving him to defense. Only at Alabama. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Sometimes, reining in that intensity was challenging. Smith admits he once tackled now-Washington Commanders rookie running back Brian Robinson in a cone drill in which he was supposed to simply thud. (A fight broke out elsewhere in practice, so Smith evaded consequence.) And he downplays the strategic challenge in team periods, insisting he was often assigned man coverage mirroring routes in ways that felt natural. Nonetheless, receivers ribbed him when he erred.

“I was in the slot, they ran a corner route, I jumped it and I dropped the pick first play at practice,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “Everyone was like, ‘You come to DB and now you just can’t catch no more.’”

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Smith ultimately wouldn’t play a gameday snap on defense at Alabama, practicing in-season at corner only before the Tide’s 2018 Missouri game in which his hamstring injury ultimately ended his day prematurely. He nonetheless would contribute 693 yards and six touchdowns that season, and his production ballooned to 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns the following year. In 2020, as a senior, Smith’s Heisman campaign featured a nation-leading 117 catches for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns. He was too valuable for defensive creativity. But his time behind enemy lines resonated.

Now a second-year NFL receiver, Smith says his DB work made him more intentional about his tendencies, such as where he’s pointing his eyes while running a route.

“If you’re turning your head early, it’s going to tell what direction you’re going to,” Smith said. “Being on the DB side kind of helps me out as a receiver that, OK, I know if I do this, it’s going to alert him to think I’m doing that.”

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‘If he’s not an All-Pro player for the next 10+ years …’

Diggs still wagers he could have succeeded as an NFL wide receiver. In a Nov. 14 conversation with Yahoo Sports, he estimated he’d be hovering around 1,000 receiving yards if he was playing offense. (This may not be unrelated to his brother Stefon, the Bills’ top wideout, clocking in at 985 yards that week.)

But Diggs knows the shift that he once resisted has paid dividends.

In 2021, that manifested as 21 pass deflections, 11 interceptions and two touchdowns in a flashy, All-Pro year with the Cowboys. One of his pick-sixes came on a pass Eagles quarterback and fellow Alabama teammate Jalen Hurts intended for Smith. Diggs anticipated the route, jumped it and raced home.

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This year, Diggs has deflected 13 passes and intercepted three balls in 11 games, but coaches insist he is playing better. His eye discipline has sharpened from last year. Diggs’ missed tackle rate has plummeted, from 16.1% missed tackles last season to 2.3% this year, per Pro Football Reference. Quarterbacks are thinking twice whether to target him, often as he travels with their top receiver. Consider the Cowboys’ 40-3 victory over Minnesota on Nov. 20: Diggs spent most of the day shadowing wideout Justin Jefferson, who ultimately caught three of his five targets for 33 yards. Only one other time in his last seven games has Jefferson missed the 100-yard plateau — on a day he’d gone for 98.

“Some of (Diggs’) game doesn’t show up on the stat sheet right now in terms of the volume of interceptions,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “But he is playing better today than he was a year ago today and our defense is playing better.”

Diggs continues to blend receiver diagnosis with cornerback mentality. He can rail off the dig route and go routes he succeeded on vs. Washington this year, and the curl he intercepted the Panthers on last season. Against the Giants this season, Diggs realized when a route he’d typically open up to the receiver’s split would be more efficiently executed by opening up to the quarterback. He confirmed the decision with defensive backs coach Al Harris and secured a game-sealing, diving interception minutes later.

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“Trevon’s got unbelievable upside,” Ansley said. “If he’s not an All-Pro player for the next 10+ years in this league, that will be because of injury or because of his decision. He has super talent.”

Smith, meanwhile, leads the Eagles with 56 receptions and ranks second with 609 yards and three touchdowns, a reliable complement to wideout A.J. Brown in the Eagles’ 10-1 start. Smith’s most productive game this season — an eight-catch, 169-yard, touchdown eruption vs. division rival Washington — displayed his versatility. He outraced his defender down the right sideline to catch a 45-yard go ball in the first quarter; then tacked on 28 yards after the catch to rip a 31-yard gain in the second quarter. Before halftime, Smith would also outmuscle his defender for an airborne 44-yard reception, setting up Philadelphia at the 1-yard line before out-leaping his man on a back-shoulder fade touchdown to cap the drive.

“One thing you see about DeVonta is that he’s going to catch the ball, right?” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said after the game. “He’s really outstanding at just catching the football in different body positions … and making those different types of catches because of the hands that he has.”

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Could that skill set translate to defense? Eagles coaches have declined to incorporate him in the defense — “We talked about it, but they ain’t going to let me do it,” Smith told Yahoo Sports — but he nonetheless envisions how closely his secondary style would resemble Diggs’.

“Instincts-wise, we probably would have been the same,” Smith said. “Because I’m a little smaller and don’t want to necessarily be out there fighting the big receivers, I probably would have been a lot more patient.”

Diggs believes Smith “probably would’ve been a pretty good corner,” and Pruitt agrees Smith was talented enough to be drafted at cornerback.

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But each player agrees: They ended up exactly where they’d like to be, and they wouldn’t change their fortune. They still “chirp” when they face each other (Smith scored a touchdown vs. the Cowboys this year, though Diggs wasn’t covering him on the play), but they no longer rattle off what-if games each visit.

“We both already know,” Smith said, “it just kind of worked out how it’s supposed to work out.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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