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2023 NFL Scouting Combine

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NFL Combine Notebook: Xavier McKinney helped pave way for Alabama DBs 


It's no secret that Alabama football has become a direct pipeline to the NFL since Nick Saban took over the program in 2009.

In this year's class, two of the top five expected picks alone come from the Crimson Tide (QB Bryce Young, DE Will Anderson Jr.), with countless others expected to hear their names called at some point during the 2023 NFL Draft.

One of those players is Jordan Battle, who is looking to continue the trend of Alabama safeties dominating at the next level.

Some of the NFL's most talented safeties once called Tuscaloosa home, including Pittsburgh's Minkah Fitzpatrick, Chicago's Eddie Jackson and Denver's Kareem Jackson.

Giants safety Xavier McKinney is another ascending player who used to don the crimson and white. In fact, McKinney shared the field with Battle during the latter's freshman season, a campaign that ended with McKinney being selected Third-Team All-American and First-Team All-SEC by the Associated Press.

While McKinney was one of the leaders of the defense, Battle was just getting his feet wet at the collegiate level. However, the 2023 draft prospect was thrust into action during his freshman season, playing 13 games with four starts alongside McKinney. The 22-year-old credited the Giants safety, whom he still talks to, for helping prepare him during his first season at 'Bama.

"Xavier McKinney was another one of those great mentors…" Battle told during Thursday's Combine Media Day. "Just growing up alongside X, he helped me understand the playbook faster. I had to get on the field early as a freshman when I got to 'Bama. I started about four games my freshman year. Just knowing that I didn't have that pressure on me because I was so prepared, X was a big part of that."

Battle enjoyed a lot of success over the next three seasons. The 6-foot-1, 206-pound safety was a part of the program's National Championship team in 2020, starting 12 games as a sophomore and ranking third on the team with 66 total tackles. In each of the previous two seasons, Battle earned both Third-Team All-American and All-SEC honors from the AP. However, Mel Kiper's No. 10 ranked safety did not lead the Alabama defense in tackles in 2022.

That honor belonged to DeMarcco Hellams, another safety prospect in the 2023 draft class.

Hellams earned a spot in the starting lineup in each of the last two seasons. After totaling 87 tackles in 14 games during the 2021 campaign, the 6-foot-1, 208-pound DB racked up an impressive 108 tackles in 13 games this past season, his fourth at Alabama.

While he only played in two games as a freshman back in 2019, Hellams also recalled McKinney's leadership in the DB room.

"Xavier McKinney was a guy I learned a lot from when I was a freshman," Hellams said. "Bringing me up, showing me the way to practice, showing me the way to watch film. Just the way he played, he was definitely a guy that I learned a lot from and a guy I looked up to… I saw how he paid attention in meetings, how he took notes in meetings, how he approached the game. I saw him late nights in the film room, early mornings. Just how he played the game, on and off the field, I definitely learned a lot from X."

McKinney was voted by his teammates as one of the Giants' team captains this past season, continuing his display of great leadership that dates back to his time in Tuscaloosa.

"X is a great leader, as well," defensive lineman DJ Dale said during Wednesday's Media Day. "X tolerated nothing but your best. Him being a leader on the defense, he kind of got us going. When things weren't what they were supposed to be, he was the guy to speak up. Even from watching him now, X is still that guy to this day. It was great playing with X."

View photos of the Giants participating at the NFL Combine.

*One of the biggest benefits of playing at Alabama as a defensive back is the elite talent you go up against during practice.

During the 2019 season, Nick Saban's wide receiver group consisted of Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Henry Ruggs, all of whom were first-round picks, as well as second-round pick John Metchie.

As the saying goes, "iron sharpens iron", and Battle will be the first to tell you just how beneficial it was to go up against teammates like that in practice every day.

"(DeVonta Smith) made me better," said the 'Bama safety. "He took me in. Him, Waddle, Pat (Surtain), those were my guys when I first got there. Every day in practice, it was competitive. Whether I lined up against Waddle, Jeudy, Smitty, whoever was in front of me… Metchie at the time, too. Whoever lined up in front of me, it was just competitive, brotherly love. Just get at it every day. That's the one thing I loved about Alabama. The ability to compete every day. That made me better."

*The Giants spent a fourth-round pick in last year's draft on safety Dane Belton. The former Iowa safety was named First-Team All-Big Ten by the league coaches and media in his final season. Belton made an impact on the Big Blue defense as a rookie, recording two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, three pass breakups and 31 total tackles in 15 games (five starts).

Two of Belton's former teammates in the Iowa secondary are likely to be selected in this year's draft, both of whom raved about the Giants safety on and off the field.

"Dane is an incredibly gifted player," said safety Kaevon Merriweather, who was named Second-Team All-American by the AP last season. "Somebody that was able to come in as a freshman and play for us. To play as a freshman, on the field and part of the system, is pretty hard with all of the checks and things that we have to do at safety. I was able to learn so much from Dane, somebody who was very well experienced. He was a really gifted athlete, saw the game really well. He was just naturally gifted. Always got his hands on the ball. It was amazing to watch him play. I was able to play with him for three years, so it was definitely amazing to watch him. I was behind him most of the time, so to watch him go and make plays on the field."

"Dane is a great dude," cornerback Riley Moss, a First-Team All-Big Ten selection, added. "20 years down the line, if I ever needed something, he would be right there. He's one of those guys. He played majority in the slot. He's just one of those guys that you can count on. He rarely ever made mistakes and did his job. Great teammate, like I said. One of the things that I think he helped me on, he's a year younger than me but he gave a different perspective on the inside, playing the nickel for when I get in there."

Belton still talks to both Merriweather and Moss and shared some advice with his former teammates leading up to this week's events in Indy.

"We talk all the time," Merriweather told "He just told me to go in there and be confident. He said I was readily prepared for everything with the questions, with all of the drills I'm going to run. He was like 'You're going to knock it out the park.' He's definitely helped my confidence a lot with everything at the Combine."

View photos from Media Day as some of the top S and CB prospects speak to reporters from the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.


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