After covering the offensive side of the ball yesterday, let's focus attention now on the defensive side of the ball as well as special teams:
As deep as we may be at the tailback position, we are probably just as deep on the defensive line. Even I expected a bit of a drop-off after the departure of Terrence Cody, Brandon Deaderick, and Lorenzo Washington, but it certainly looks like we are going to replace those guys without a beat just like we did the previous two years with Bobby Greenwood and Wallace Gilberry. The depth is just so incredible that we were cycling in wave after wave of players on Saturday and each of them getting after the quarterback and attacking in the running game with apparent ease.
Marcell Dareus is the headliner, and deservedly so, but it would be a mistake to overly focus attention solely on his performance. Josh Chapman has developed into something that Saban and company could have probably only hoped for when they stole him away from Auburn in January of 2007. Luther Davis has quietly turned into a massive defensive end, and the performance of the younger players like Kerry Murphy, Damion Square, Undra Billingsley, Chris Bonds, Darrington Sentimore, Brandon Moore, and others were all impressive. In terms of historical comparisons there simply aren't any in my lifetime. We've never had this caliber of depth in the trenches on the defensive side of the ball.
In a bit of a surprise, we have a slightly different line-up than some expected this spring at linebacker, and moving forward the starting four looks to be Jerrell Harris (Sam), Chris Jordan (Will), Dont'a Hightower (Mike), and Courtney Upshaw (Jack). And when the second-team linebackers include the likes of Nico Johnson, Ed Stinson, Tana Patrick, and others, well, that ought to tell you something.
Jerrell Harris made a comment a couple of weeks back on the athleticism of the revamped linebacker corps, and he is clearly right. If you look at this year's linebacker corps in terms of raw speed and mobility, the 2010 group wins hands down. These guys were all over the field during the A-Day game, and making matters better (despite the relative inexperience), this is the third year on campus for all four of the likely starters, so these guys are not exactly green (all four were members of the 2008 recruiting class). Moreover, despite the speed, this is not an undersized group by any stretch. Harris is probably the smallest of the group at around 220, Hightower is probably 250 at this point, Jordan is a solid 230, Upshaw looks to have bulked up into the 260 pound range, and all of these guys are 6'2 and above.
Bottom line, these guys have an unreal combination of size and speed, and it's the third year on campus for all four of the likely starters. They played extremely well on Saturday in the A-Day game, and quite frankly they have no excuse whatsoever to not play extremely well during the 2010 season. Guys with that kind of physical ability ought to terrorize opposing offenses. Anything less will (and should) be a disappointment.
As myself and many others expected going into the A-Day game, the three main cornerbacks we have moving forward are Dre Kirkpatrick, B.J. Scott, and Phelon Jones. Dee Milliner and John Fulton are highly-talented players who will almost certainly see some playing time, but most certainly it will be the aforementioned triumvirate that we sink or swim with.
In terms of early observations, Dre Kirkpatrick looked the best of the bunch, and moving forward he will probably play well enough. I do think he is likely our best cornerback, and while he is probably not to the level yet where we could say he will be a bona fide star, he'll likely be a pretty good player even as a true sophomore. The real issue is going to be with B.J. Scott and Phelon Jones, and the early returns on their performance yesterday was a bit more of a mixed bag. Scott looked pretty good in coverage and he is likely our second cornerback, but he didn't exactly tackle well at times yesterday and that is a particularly big issue in a Nick Saban defense. And Phelon Jones, while he didn't do anything necessarily bad, really didn't do anything to particularly stand out either. None of those guys played poorly, mind you, but by the same token as a group they really didn't do enough to put all of the fears to rest.
Meanwhile, Dee Milliner and John Fulton looked like freshman. Those guys have barely gotten their feet wet at this point, and it showed. They are clearly great athletes and had some flashes, but both of them also made their fair share of freshman mistakes and were beaten at times on some pretty vanilla routes.
Unfortunately, I'm afraid to say that yesterday really did not provide us much of an accurate look at the current state of the cornerbacks (and to an extent the safeties) for two simple reasons. One, apparently the Nicktator did away with the pass interference penalty yesterday, and two, the top cornerbacks were all going against McElroy, who as I mentioned yesterday really could not throw the football down the field. Yes as a whole they looked pretty solid yesterday, but could they have done the same against a team with a legitimate vertical passing game -- see Arkansas, Florida, and others -- with a bunch of flag-happy referees closely scrutinizing their play? Of course we would all like to say yes, but I'm afraid we cannot say that for certain based on yesterday's performance.
I'll be short and frank, things look very ugly at safety. Mark Barron is a superstar and probably the best safety we've had at Alabama in almost 20 years (or more), but once you get beyond him it's a bleak scene. And a bit of a surprising scene, too. Most expected, myself included, that Rod Woodson would be the default starter with the suspension of Robby Green, but to much surprise it was Robert Lester taking snaps with the first team.
And I'm not sure that is a good thing, either. I would like to think that Woodson has played well and that Lester just played even better, but I'm afraid that may not be the case. Lester really didn't do anything bad on Saturday, mind you, but by the same token he really didn't stand out either, and again that is a concern further enhanced by the fact that there were no pass interference penalties and that they were playing an offense that really could not throw the football vertically down the field.
Unfortunately, what we did found out yesterday is that regardless of what Woodson and Lester can do, they are the best we have at the moment and that there is simply no quality depth behind them. Wesley Neighbors and Will Lowery are walk-ons and they more than played like them on Saturday. If we have to rely on those two guys over the course of the 2010 season, I'm afraid to say that we will be in a world of hurt. For better or for worse, Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams are likely going to have to provide some quality playing time for us in 2010.
As Nick Saban directly said afterward, we don't have one. Period. Truth be told, I really don't think anything all of those walk-ons did yesterday is going to matter. I highly doubt any of those guys will ever play, and most likely we'll have a battle this August between Taylor Pharr (I know, right?) and incoming freshman Jay Williams for the starting punter job. I would repeat my old line that we should hope for the best, but after watching the performance this past Saturday from the walk-ons, in this case I'll alter that to say pray for the best. Hope is not enough.
Unless Pharr or Williams turns out to be a revelation this Fall, you can just go ahead and brace yourself for the reality that we will probably be one of, if not, the most aggressive teams in the country on fourth down. If you're only going to net 30 yards a punt -- which looks a tad optimistic based on the guys we saw Saturday -- then there really is no reason to ever punt the ball except in the most absurd situations (4th and 36, anyone?). To hell with netting 26 yards on a punt, just take your shot at going for it and hope your defense can get a stop if the offense cannot get down. It's simple risk / reward analysis at that point.
If you say we don't have a punter, well, we might have a kicker but we don't have much of one. As I've hinted at quite a few times the past several months, these people who have this idea that the transition from a high school kicker to a college kicker is an easy one for a kid with a big leg frankly don't know what in the hell they are talking about. It's a tough transition, and we saw that with Foster on Saturday. He tried one long field goal -- which he missed about eight yards short and about seven yards wide right -- and his kick-offs generally struggled to get past the opponent 15-yard line. Again, it's a very tough transition, and you're kidding yourselves if you really ever thought otherwise.
Now, Jeremy Shelley did look pretty good. He has solid mechanics, and I imagine he'll be a short-yardage assassin, as Saban likes to call it, and he will probably do pretty well in that role. I imagine he'll be successful more often than not from anything under 30 yards. The problem with Shelley is just that the leg simply is not there. God love the kid, but he has more of the build of a Tri-Delta pledge than a legitimate football player, and the raw power really just isn't there. I imagine that 35 yards is probably about the legitimate limit of his range, and anything over 40 is likely just going to be a wasted possession. For better or for worse, I imagine we'll use Shelley on extra points and short kicks, and if we are in a tough situation were we have to attempt a long kick, we'll bring Foster in and quickly attempt to appease the football gods.
As was the case with the situation at punter, I think the net effect of it is going to be that we will probably end up as one of the most aggressive teams in the country on fourth down in field goal range. Frankly, if we have a 4th and 6 at our opponents 24-yard line, based on what we saw yesterday there is really no reason why wouldn't go for that more often than not. On the whole, any field goal from beyond 30 or 35 yards is likely going to be a losing proposition for us, unless these guys can show significant improvement in the next few months.