Talking his way through a cornerback position filled with experience and talent to get into the playing rotation wasn’t an option, so Colby Dempsey found an infallible way to make it happen.
“He’s just basically saying, 'I’m going to make you play me,' [and] he’s doing that by his play,” said UAB cornerback coach Daric Riley.
To understand the magnitude of Dempsey’s attempt to climb up the depth chart, you have to first look at the crowd surrounding him. Senior Starling Thomas V is one of the top cornerbacks in Conference USA, while redshirt sophomore Mac McWilliams may have been the top at that position on UAB’s roster when healthy last season. Senior CD Daniels has played in 41 college games and Devodric Bynum has played in 33 college contests. At 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, Xavier Lanier is a physical cornerback, and several younger players are trying to crack the rotation.
It's not easy getting noticed.
“In my opinion, this is the best secondary we’ve ever had [in my time] at UAB,” said UAB interim head coach Bryant Vincent. “It’s not easy to break [into] that rotation. We have experienced players, we’ve got guys that have great technique, great skill. For Colby to make that push right now says a lot about what he’s doing in fall camp.”
Dempsey is accustomed to competing, growing up in South Florida. He began high school as a receiver at Miami Dwyer Senior High. During an early practice, his team’s head coach Jack Daniels had a Hall of Fame visitor suggest that Dempsey should be a defensive back.
“Bill Parcells saw me do one route and changed me to defensive back,” Dempsey said. “He saw one play with me at receiver, and the rest is history. My coach told me it was him who made the decision. After the season, after I had played so good, he told me that he didn’t want me to get too happy, [but] it was [actually] Bill Parcells who saw me play one little rep and said I would be good at DB.”
Dempsey was a varsity starter as a sophomore and junior at Dwyer and said he collected 10 interceptions in his junior season. Before his senior season, Dempsey decided he wanted to challenge himself by playing at Saint Thomas Aquinas, which is annually one of the top high school programs in the country and often plays top teams from throughout the country.
Logistically speaking, that wasn’t easy. Workouts began at just after 5 a.m., and practice was after school. Dempsey lived nearly an hour away. He woke up at around 3 a.m. and took the train to school. After school ended, he went to practice and then took the 50-minute train ride back home.
“There were too many days like that,” Dempsey said when asked if he ever had early morning questions as to why he was putting himself through that effort. “But those are the days you got to be like, ‘This is what I’m here for.' I made the decision to go to Saint Thomas, I knew I could put the work in, that’s what got me here now.”
As a senior in 2019, Dempsey once again had 10 interceptions for a team that finished 15-0, including wins over perennial powers Concord De La Salle of California and St. Louis of Hawaii. His reported scholarship offers included Minnesota, Iowa State, FAU and Boston College. He said the aggressive style of defense taught by former head coach Bill Clark and defensive coordinator David Reeves played a big factor in his decision.
His first two seasons in Birmingham weren’t easy.
“These past two years have been rough,” said Dempsey, who weighed 155 when he arrived in Birmingham. “I got hit with COVID. I came in small, undersized, already overlooked. I lost 20 pounds, gained it back and got up to 181 pounds, got sick again, lost about 15 pounds. It’s been a hard time. I’ve been playing pretty good those last two years, but either I’ve been too small or it’s something [else]. This year, I have my head down and made sure there is no excuse. I’m going to make them know I’m here, I deserve this because I put my head down and worked for it.”
Riley was asked how Dempsey has gotten himself into the mix.
“I think confidence,” Riley said. “He just has a ton of confidence. He just goes to the next play. The last play, good or bad, he just forgets about and moves on to the next one. He believes in himself and he’s doing a great job of listening and paying attention. He’s really trying to execute hard and use his confidence to play.”
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