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Athlon Sports names two UA players on its top 15 list for 2016

Cedric Mason- Touchdown Alabama Magazine

Spring practice kicks off in a few week, but preseason hype has already started.

The Southeastern Conference returned to the pinnacle of college football in 2015, as Alabama won its fourth national championship under coach Nick Saban. With 74 participants in the NFL Scouting Combine and much of them viewed as solid draft picks, the SEC looks to reload for next season.

Athlon Sports writer Steven Lassan released his top 15 defensive players on the rise in the SEC for 2016. His list includes Crimson Tide cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick and defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand.

Fitzpatrick, a rising sophomore, rose to the occasion last season. He earned a starting role at “Star” in Alabama’s nickel and dime packages, pushing both Marlon Humphrey and Tony Brown in fall camp. The New Jersey native collected 45 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks.

He had a team-high 11 pass breakups with a quarterback hurry. Match-ups against Georgia and Texas A&M witnessed Fitzpatrick at his finest for Alabama. He blocked a punt against the Bulldogs and recovered for a touchdown in the Crimson Tide’s 38-10 victory on the road.

Fitzpatrick became the first defender in school history to return two interceptions for touchdowns in the same game.

He accomplished this feat at Kyle Field against the Aggies in the Tide’s 41-23 win on Oct. 17, 2015.

Hand, a rising junior, was a huge factor in Alabama’s 45-40 win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. He secured four tackles, with two coming for loss. Hand ended the 2015 season with 16 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries and three sacks.

The former five-star prospect from Woodbridge, Va. will have an opportunity to compete for a starting job at defensive end, opposite Jonathan Allen this fall.

Stephen M. Smith is a senior analyst and columnist for Touchdown Alabama MagazineYou can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @ESPN_Future.

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