No experience playing cornerback in high school? No worries when Nick Saban is your college head coach.
Anthony Averett Jr. arrived at the University of Alabama without a set position. Five years later, he leaves as one of the top-rated CBs in the 2018 NFL Draft.
Averett's emergence is a testament to hard work, perseverance and the luxury of having someone who specializes in secondary play serving as a mentor. A defensive back at Kent State in the early 1970s, Saban began coaching the position at the college level several years later. Even as he climbed the coaching ranks, Saban continued to work hands-on with his cornerbacks.
The fruits of Saban's labor are reflected in the draft. Six CBs from Alabama — including four first-rounders — have gotten picked since Saban became head coach in 2007. Averett will be the seventh even though he took an unconventional path.
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While starring at Woodbury (N.J.) High, Averett played quarterback, safety and “pretty much everything." That led to his being "recruited as an athlete" by other major college programs.
That wasn't the case with Saban.
"He saw me as a corner," Averett told co-host Solomon Wilcots and me on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “He wanted me to start from the ground up and just teach me everything when it came down to schemes and coverages.”
The process, as Saban would say, wasn't an easy one.
After a redshirt year, Averett began receiving snaps at wide receiver during spring practice in 2014. The conversion experiment was short-lived, as Averett quickly returned to the secondary. He appeared in only one game that season and received action almost exclusively on special teams rather than defense in 2015.
"I had to start from the ground up," Averett said. “I don’t think I really realized how hard it was going to be.”
Anthony Averett Jr. breaks up a pass intended for Mississippi's D.K. Metcalf in 2017. (Getty Images)
At the same time Averett was trying to get his footing, Alabama was recruiting other elite-level cornerbacks who too were competing for snaps. Averett admitted he considered transferring to a school where he'd have a better chance for more playing time.
"I was a guy that was the man in New Jersey in high school and I thought I was going to come right in and play right away [at Alabama]," Averett said. “It obviously didn't work. It was just hard, but I have a strong family. They told me to be strong, don’t give up, keep doing what you’re doing and work hard at it.
"I knew I had the natural ability. I just had to put everything together."
Averett began doing that his junior year. A strong performance in Alabama’s 2016 season-opener — eight tackles and sticky coverage that helped the Crimson Tide limit Southern California to just 130 passing yards — earned Averett a starting spot the following week against Western Kentucky.
He never relinquished it.
Averett finished his senior year in 2017 ranked second on the team in pass break-ups (eight) for the nation's top-ranked defense.
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The biggest threat to Averett’s first-string status in 2017 didn't come from a blue-chip recruit. It came from a pothole. Averett stepped in one prior to Alabama’s Sugar Bowl game against Clemson before boarding the team bus en route to practice.
"My foot turned a different direction, a direction it’s not supposed to turn, and I put all my body weight on it,” said Averett, who was admittedly distracted when sending a text message while stepping off a curb. “When I sat down on the bus, I’m like, ‘OK, I rolled it a little bit. I’ll be all right.’ I mean, it’s not the first time I did that. I’m from Jersey. We’ve got a lot of pot holes.
"When I got off the bus, I realized I couldn't put any weight on it. I was like, Woah, this is more serious than I thought. (The trainers) picked me up and walked me to the training room and I had to deal with it there."
Despite missing Alabama’s final two practices leading into the College Football Playoff semifinal, Averett returned to help the Crimson Tide limit Clemson to just 124 passing yards in a 24-6 win. A healing Averett was even better in Alabama's national championship victory over Georgia with six tackles, a sack and pass break-up.
If there were any lingering doubts about his health, Averett answered them last month at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. A former track star at Woodbury High, Averett ranked fourth among cornerbacks in the 40-yard dash with a time of 4.36 seconds.
Averett also believes he impressed during the Combine interview process because of his ties to Saban and how many schemes he was forced to master. That knowledge from learning pro-style defenses should lead to an easier transition than the one he experienced coming from high school to Alabama.
"Teams will ask what coverages we play,” Averett said. “And I’ll say, ‘Cover-1, Cover-2, Cover-3, Cover-4, Cover-5, Cover-6, Cover-7 …'"
More work awaits in the NFL from both an educational and physical standpoint with Averett needing to add weight to his 6-0, 185-pound frame. But this time, he’s truly ready for the challenge.
"I’m glad I stuck with it," said Averett, who is projected to be selected between Rounds 1 and 3. "I mean, look now. I’m just very blessed to be in this situation."