Spring Football Preview: The Defensive Backfield

FAYETTEVILLE - SEPTEMBER 25: Robert Lester #37 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates with teammates after his interception which set up the game winning score against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on September 25 2010 in Fayetteville Arkansas. Alabama won 24-20. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

After everyone spent the entire offseason last year biting their nails over the lack of depth and experience in the defensive backfield, in the end the Crimson Tide defensive backfield probably performed about as well as could have been realistically expected. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart worked their DB magic, and while there was a drop-off in performance from the previous season and while there were definitely some growing pains, the defensive backfield was at least reasonably solid and generally improved as the season progressed.

Moving forward into 2011, the defensive backfield arguably looks to be one of the most promising units on the entire team and the depth here arguably surpasses any other unit on the team. The spring roster features no less than six cornerbacks on scholarship to go along with seven safeties -- not to mention two more cornerbacks, Christion Jones and Jabriel Washington, and a safety (Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix), who were members of the 2011 recruiting class that will report later this summer -- and twelve of those thirteen have at least some degree of experience. 

Given the raw talent, depth, and burgeoning experience to be found here, the outlook for the defensive backfield is very promising, and an expectation of significant on-field improvement in 2011 is by no means unreasonable. The key this spring will be continued development and improved consistency.

Dre Kirkpatrick will get close attention this spring, and with a standout year this fall he could be NFL bound. He was inconsistent and played soft in the early stages of last season, but he improved significantly down the stretch and surprised most everyone by eventually playing with a reckless abandon that stood in stark contrast to his long, lean frame. Kirkpatrick has been dogged the past two years by offseason shoulder surgeries, and those shoulder problems continued to linger last season even after a second surgery. His development may continue to be hampered as long as the shoulder keeps giving him problems -- thus preventing him from taking full advantage of Scott Cochran's strength and conditioning program -- but the potential upside for Kirkpatrick is tremendous, and if he develops again this year like he did last year, 'Bama could have another bona fide star in the defensive backfield.

Much of the same could be said of DeMarcus Milliner. He had his fair share of growing pains a year ago as a true freshman making the transition from safety to cornerback, but he showcased the size and raw athleticism that made him such a heavily-recruited prep prospect, and he too improved as the season progressed. His performance a year ago was probably as good as could have been reasonably expected given the circumstances, and this spring he will look to build on that even further.

With Kirkpatrick and Milliner looking to solidify the defense on the outside, the key this spring is arguably finding a nickel corner who can cover and provide a legitimate threat as an edge pass rusher. The mere fact that DeQuan Menzie was even be able to get on the field year was nothing short of amazing, and in all fairness he generally played well in coverage and in run support. Having said that, he was a non-factor as an edge rusher, and unless he shows a much better burst this spring he is likely not going to be the answer in that role.

 

Perhaps the answer here could prove to be John Fulton. He narrowly lost out on a starting job a year ago to DeMarcus Milliner, but still played as a true freshman. He has good size for a corner, very good quickness, and he plays with an aggressive streak. If nothing else, barring either sudden regression from or serious injury to Kirkpatrick or Milliner, the nickel corner job looks to be Fulton's easiest path to playing time, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him moved inside this spring.

Phelon Jones will return for the senior season of a tumultuous collegiate career, and he will see some playing time on defense and on special teams. He has a role somewhere on this team in terms of quality depth, and to be sure it's an embarrassment of riches to have him buried this deep on the depth chart, but he'll need to have a breakout senior season if he wants to work his way into the starting line-up. Phelon has seemingly been around forever, but it's now or never for the Mobile native to live up to the recruiting hype he received coming out of the McGill-Toolen.

At safety Alabama finds itself as the beneficiary of an unexpected turn of events that has resulted in an abundance of talent, experience, and depth. Mark Barron was widely expected to leave early for the NFL Draft last season, but a torn pectoral muscle against Auburn gives 'Bama the added benefit of getting a senior season out of an All-American caliber safety. With a healthy 2011 campaign, Barron may be the best safety in the country.

Meanwhile, Robert Lester returns after somewhat of a surprising season a year ago. He needs to become more consistent and take better angles in pursuit of the ball carrier, but Lester proved to be a solid player a year ago and was a ball hawk in the secondary. It's not exactly set in stone that Lester will be a starter in 2011, but he was a pleasant surprise a year ago and won't be removed from the starting line-up without a fight.

Nick Perry played as a true freshman a year ago, and he is expected to see more meaningful playing time this year. It's possible that he could push Robert Lester for the starting job opposite Mark Barron. Likewise, Jarrick Williams should be healthy after offseason shoulder surgery, and he is easily the most physical member of the secondary outside of Mark Barron. That alone could yield him playing time on running downs if Lester continues to struggle against the run, but some think it's possible for Williams to bulk up and move to outside linebacker, so his viability in pass coverage remains a bit of a question mark that he needs to answer this spring.

Robby Green will return to competition this spring as a senior after a year-long suspension, and he will play in some capacity this fall if he can stay out of trouble. Nevertheless, Green doesn't have a direct path to playing time, and he will return to a crowded depth chart that bares little resemblance to the paper-thin rotation he left behind a year ago. The same largely goes for Will Lowery. What he did a year ago was commendable given his physical limitations, though in all honesty his play very much reflected his status as a walk-on. The coaching staff loves Lowery's intelligence and dedication, but he will be hard-pressed to get back on the field in meaningful situations in 2011. And despite enrolling early, Vinnie Sunseri will likely face the same uphill short-term challenge for playing time. Given the depth in the defensive backfield, he will likely take a redshirt this season while the coaching staff figures out exactly whether he needs to be placed at safety or outside linebacker.

All in all, the outlook in the defensive backfield is bullish as spring football approaches. To be sure, overall performance and consistency need to improve further, and many of the mental mistakes from a year ago have to be significantly reduced. Having said that, though, there is an abundance of talent and depth, and given the coaching prowess of Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, the odds seem high that by September a productive rotation will be formed. Nevertheless, the competition looks to be stout this spring, and there are far more players competing than there is meaningful playing time to be doled out. Spring football will be key to the development of the unit as a whole, and in determining which individual players will be awarded with meaningful roles once toe meets leather on the 2011 season.

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