This is the story I wrote for today’s print editions about Tide junior Nick Perry:
TUSCALOOSA — Even after helping Prattville High win a couple of Class 6A state championships, Nick Perry figured he would need some patience at Alabama.
A 6-foot-1, 208-pound defensive back, Perry signed with the Crimson Tide after the 2009 season, when Alabama was coming off a national championship season and had plenty of highly rated prospects like him crowding onto campus.
So, if Perry minded not playing much the past two years, he isn’t saying. Instead, this is what he said about having to wait: “I knew coming in, it was going to take time for me to mature.”
The patience has paid off for Perry, who has developed into an important piece of the Crimson Tide’s defensive puzzle.
As Alabama drives toward a possible third national title in four years, Perry no longer is one of the guys bunched in the aisle of the bus. He has grown into someone who has his own seat, right next to the other first-team players. In some cases, he might even have his hand on the wheel, as fans will see his No. 27 jersey on the field in some big moments.
“Nick has come a long way,” Tide strong safety Robert Lester said. “He’s a very smart guy. … He’s a great player, able to come out there and make plays.”
After playing sparingly in 15 games in 2010-11 and making three tackles, Perry is the Crimson Tide’s first-team free safety. In addition, he is trusted enough that when Alabama goes with an alignment that includes six defensive backs, Perry shifts the “money” position, which is the sixth defensive back. It requires a little more physical presence than the average safety.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban — a former defensive backs coach — oversees the secondary more closely than any position on the team. He often indicates that he has to trust a player to allow him more than one position in the defensive scheme.
“He’s very conscientious, very smart,” Saban said. “He does a good job of making sure he’s ready to do his job well.”
Whether Perry starts a game sometimes will depend on what defensive alignment uses for the first play. He wasn’t on the field for the first play against Michigan, but was when Alabama faced Western Kentucky the next week.
Either way, he still played more than half the defensive snaps and made a combined five tackles.
Perry said all of this time on the field is the result of a good spring. With starter Mark Barron gone to the NFL and the remaining safeties battling it out for his spot, Perry found that everything was coming just a little bit easier than it had before.
“Everything started clicking into place,” he said. “I started to understand the defense a little bit more, and actually started carrying it over to the field more and practicing and having instincts and everything started working and falling in place.”
Again, “starting” only means being on the field for the first play, but for Perry, it marked a special moment to start against Western Kentucky. He hadn’t started since Prattville.
“It was great,” he said. “Great to be able to have my first start at home and have my parents there to watch. It was a big-time experience that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
He said he never was told specifically that he would start. Instead, he found out by seeing how the game plan was developing.
“I’m not going to lie,” Perry said, smiling. “I was pretty nervous, but after my first couple tackles, my instinct carried over and my nervousness went down.”
Now, as he has worked himself into the playing rotation, he said he can see how it helped to realize that he needed to learn and wait for his chance.
“Everyone expects to come in and play, but it’s not like that at every university, every big team,” he said. “Everybody is used to being on the field. Everybody has a dream of coming in and being a true freshman, but sometimes you have to wait your turn and mature.”
And, of course, there’s the Saban defense to learn. When a reporter hinted in August that the defense was complicated, Saban shot back, “What’s complicated about it?” The Alabama defensive players, including Perry, say it’s not always easy to absorb quickly. Perry said there are more moving parts than a typical prep defense.
“I played at Prattville High School, and our defense was pretty good,” he said, before smiling again and adding: “But of course Nick Saban’s defense is going to be more complicated, and it just takes a little time to get used to.”
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