After looking at the offensive additions in the 2012 recruiting class, we'll switch to the defensive side of the ball and break down the defensive signees in a two-part piece, first focusing on the defensive backfield before later turning attention to the front seven. We'll begin by looking at the defensive backfield, where Alabama added four signees.
Just as was the case after the Tide's last national championship, in the following year the cornerback position is once again the biggest concern on the roster. Rising junior DeMarcus Milliner returns, but Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Phelon Jones have all since moved onto the next level, and given the attrition at the position inexperience and uncertainty are once again the dominant themes with the 2012 season on the horizon.
To help address this shortcoming, Nick Saban and company signed two junior college defensive backs, Travell Dixon and Deion Belue, both of whom have enrolled early in Tuscaloosa. Belue was a talented two-way signee out of Deshler that Alabama originally signed in the 2010 class, while Dixon was an overlooked prospect in that same class due to the fact that he had only played one year of high school football. Both are undeniably talented and possess the raw size Nick Saban prefer in a defensive back, but unfortunately both also expect to be relied on to be instant contributors in the nation's toughest conference.
The good news with Dixon and Belue is that, aside from their raw talent and size, both enrolled early and will go through the offseason strength and conditioning program and spring practice. Early enrollments often function more like returning players than incoming recruits, and having a junior college prospect enroll early on further increases the chances that a player can immediately play at a high level. Additionally, much progress can be made after spring practice (see Jesse Williams, for example). While there will obviously be some growing pains along the way, the hope is that having two JUCO players enroll early can help avoid the mental breakdowns that hurt the Tide secondary so much in 2010 while at the same time not forcing a true freshman into the rotation.
Dixon and Belue are particularly important signees because the reality of the returning depth at cornerback is that there are only three serious candidates on the roster, namely John Fulton, Bradley Sylve and Jabriel Washington, and it's possible that none of those three are viable short-term solutions. Fulton is clearly the best of the three, to be sure, but despite good size and athletic ability he has been something of a disappointment since he arrived in Tuscaloosa as a highly-touted recruit. Losing out to Milliner as a true freshman was one thing, but playing all season behind Phelon Jones is another, and the way that Fulton languished on the depth chart last season has some worried about his future. It wouldn't be a major surprise if he became a highly-performing starter next season based on the aforementioned talent, but by the same token it would come as no great shock if incoming players passed him by and he became, in effect, another Burton Scott.
Sylve and Washington are believed to have legitimate long-term potential at corner, given that the coaching staff could have generated a quicker impact by placing them at wide receiver, but both will be redshirt freshmen in 2012 and most likely both will not be ready to play at a high level in the short-term against SEC competition. Neither really has the size that Nick Saban usually prefers in his cornerbacks, and both have only spent roughly one year playing the position after having spent most of their prep careers focusing on the offensive side of the ball. Again, these players could be long-term solutions, but in all likelihood neither will see more than mop-up duty this fall. More work in the strength and conditioning program and time learning both the defense and the position will likely be required before these two can be considered legitimate options against high-end competition.
Geno Smith, the heavily-recruited cornerback out of Atlanta, has also been mentioned by several as a potential contributor as a true freshman given his billing and prep pedigree. Smith, though, also needs to add weight and he struggled at times against bigger wide receivers at the US Army All-American Game in San Antonio, so his path to immediate playing time could be slowed. Enrolling in the summer won't help his cause either, and barring a surprise showing in fall camp it's reasonable to expect that, while a redshirt may not be a guaranteed outcome, it will most likely take either injuries or some struggles by Dixon and / or Belue for Smith to see the field as a meaningful contributor this fall.
For all of the concern at cornerback, however, the safety position looks to be solidified even in the absence of Mark Barron. With Robert Lester, Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Vinny Sunseri,
and Will Lowery all returning for 2012, 'Bama looks to manage post-Barron at the safety position with no significant drop-off in effectiveness. Even so, Landon Collins will all but certainly see the field as a true freshman, and long-term he has the raw physical tools and the physical style of play to be the natural successor to Barron. Collins comes in at about three inches shorter, so he doesn't necessarily have the length to pull off some of the gravity-defying plays that Barron made his trademark, but that lower center of gravity will help him when he is isolated in man coverage, which was relatively speaking Barron's biggest weakness. Aside from the differences in height, however, it's almost a clone comparison between the two in terms of build, explosive ability, ball skills, agility, tackling style and just about everything else that can be measured.
All that high praise notwithstanding, though, Barron looked lost at times as a true freshman in 2008, and following that season Nick Saban readily admitted that he and his coaching staff simply threw too much at the Mobile native too soon, effectively creating sensory overload at times that led to mental mistakes. With Collins not enrolling until the summer, he'll be trying to process a complicated scheme in a very short period of time. Can the coaching staff now simplify the complexities of Nick Saban's over-under scheme such that Collins can digest it and play at a high level as a true freshman, or can the presence of the returning players streamline Collins' role such that he is not forced to assume multiple roles? In any event, Collins expects to be a three-year player and his time in Tuscaloosa will likely prove short, so Alabama must find a way to take advantage of his skills early in his career.