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FRISCO, Texas — Nick Saban didn’t answer her call.
So Stephanie Diggs left a message.
“I didn’t think he was going to call me back,” she told USA TODAY Sports. “But it was so funny. He called me back and I chickened out and let it go to voicemail.”
The year was 2017. Stephanie’s son Trevon was a sophomore on Alabama’s football roster. He expected further opportunities at receiver after his freshman campaign included 11 catches for 88 yards and a touchdown. But Saban, Alabama’s legendary coach who had already won five of his now seven national titles, had other plans. Saban designated Trevon a full-time cornerback.
Trevon cried as he called his brother Stefon, an NFL receiver. Trevon called his mother, who heard the energy drained from his voice. She decided to advocate for her son.
Until Saban entertained the offer, that is, and Stephanie was too nervous to pick up the phone.
They ultimately spoke at a game.
“I said, ‘You’re switching Trevon’s positions, what are you thinking?’” Stephanie remembered. “I didn’t want him to not hone in on one position, to be all over the place and (unable to) concentrate on being a cornerback or wide receiver.”
Mother asked coach: “Do you think he can do it?”
“Yes,” she says Saban replied. “Trevon can do it. He will be a great corner.”
Five seasons later, NFL record books agree.
After a rookie year featuring three interceptions and 14 pass deflections, Trevon leads all NFL players with 11 interceptions and ranks second with 21 pass deflections. He has more interceptions than the league has seen from a player in a single season in nearly 40 years. With one game to play, he has matched Cowboys Hall of Fame Everson Walls’ 1981 franchise-record collection of 11. Dick “Night Train” Lane’s 14-interception season has remained the high since 1952.
“I just want to create as much plays as I can to help my team win,” Trevon said. “If the opportunity presents itself, I’m going to take full advantage.”
Trevon’s secret? He grinds tirelessly to improve technique, fluid movement and aggressive pursuit. But even more so, he studies film through the lens of a receiver. Trevon understands route concepts deeply, considering which formations favor which routes and how to capitalize on an opponent’s tendencies at the break or point of catch.
Now, Trevon thanks Saban for the fortuitous reassignment. He thanks Stefon, too, for the continuous support.
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Saban’s eye for talent
Stefon remembers that fateful 2017 day as “rough” for his brother. He consoled the five-years-younger counterpart whom Stefon had mentored like a father after their actual father died of congestive heart failure in 2008.
Stefon had implored Trevon to train harder and longer in teen years that followed, to run one more route before Trevon grabbed his skateboard and to embrace competitive fire. The brothers competed in Uno and Monopoly, trivia games to name all 50 states, and knee-football (the aim: score a makeshift touchdown while standing on knees). Trevon came to delight in the deep route, attacking the ball like he was the next Randy Moss. He admired how Stefon followed receiver dreams from college to the NFL.
But a future on offense faded suddenly when the best coach in college football weighed in. It was not a request but a redirection.
“It behooves the player to listen to him,” Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper, a 2015 first-round draft pick out of Alabama, said of Saban. “Because whatever position you’re at at the time, he’s low-key telling you, ‘Hey, we’ve got other guys for this position.’
“I’m sure when he told Trevon to move to corner, he saw his ball skills or how good his hips were or (something). He really, really has a great eye for talent.”
Saban said in October that he doesn’t “make guys move” and that he believed Diggs was a “really good receiver” but offered more value on defense. Saban cited a track record of transitioning eventual NFL cornerback Corey Webster from receiver at LSU, and Cyrus Jones at Alabama.
“His skill set, he had agreat ball skills, really good hands, really athletic,” Saban said. “It was his final decision to do it, (but) I said, ‘Look, I think you got a better future at defensive back.’”
Before he could imagine a future, Trevon was upset in the present. Stefon empathized.
“Say you were reporting your whole life and someone told you to go to construction work,” Stefon explained to reporters. “We played wide receiver our whole life. In that moment, I kind of felt for him.”
Then Stefon reminded Trevon: The same work ethic that earned him a scholarship to a perennial championship contender would fuel his growth in a new position. The length that gave him an advantage on 50-50 balls would still translate. The ball skills would give him an edge.
“A lot of DBs you see with good feet can run but can’t catch,” Stefon said he told Trevon. “If anybody can do it, it’s you. It’s going to be hard in the beginning but I’m pretty sure it’s still football.
“You’ll adjust just fine.”
Trevon did. He broke up three passes his debut year as a full-time defender and six more the following year, including an interception before missing time with a broken foot. By Trevon’s 2019 senior season, he was breaking up 11 passes and intercepting three, including one he returned 84 yards for a touchdown vs. Arkansas.
Cowboys coaches saw the potential and coveted the ball skills. They considered him with their 2020 first-round draft selection and were thrilled to snag him in the second round, 51st overall. The physical ability to track the ball and maintain balance after contact with receiver wowed them. But his ball-hawking mindset was also conspicuous. Cowboys secondary coach Joe Whitt said defenders often think first to tackle, then to break up a pass and lastly to intercept a ball if given the opportunity. Trevon works backward.
That fits the Cowboys, who encourage their players to make rather than create plays but nonetheless understand the risk of their aggression. Again, circumstances that initially ran counter to expectation – his first-round snub – have yielded joy and fulfillment.
“I was really upset, because I felt like I was one of the better guys in our draft class,” Trevon said. “I always think highly of myself and I want to go out there and prove it. So it is what it is. But I’m extremely happy I’m still at the place I wanted to be at the end of the day.
“So it all worked out.”
Stephanie Diggs has forgiven Saban and hopes to spend her birthday weekend cheering on her sons facing off at the Pro Bowl. She plans to sew together their jerseys for the Las Vegas outing—unless, of course, the Bills and Cowboys advance to the Super Bowl, in which case Stephanie will gladly travel farther west to Los Angeles.
Trevon tells Stefon he hopes to “battle for the confetti.”
“I said, ‘Look: If anybody got the recipe on you, I got the recipe.’ We got this little thing called the Little Brother Syndrome.”
Trevon claims the syndrome gives Stefon the edge in video games, but the Cowboys corner will bet on himself in live sports. Stefon asked him again: Do you really think you could beat me?
“Little Brother Syndrome don’t apply here,” Trevon quipped, to which Stefon answered: “I guess time will tell.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs' mom challenged Nick Saban on position change