Plenty of pundits have spent the last eight months comparing the Tide’s losses in the secondary following the 2009 national title with this year’s need to replace three starters at corner and safety. While the experience and production of the departed defensive backs will be difficult to replace, especially that of first round draft pick Mark Barron, the Tide is in considerably better shape going into 2012 than it was headed into 2010.
While the 2010 defense found itself needing to replace the top three corners on the roster, this season sees the return of Dee Milliner, who started most of 2010 as a true freshman. The 6-1 199 junior has been curiously absent from most preseason publications as a returning starter, but with 17 starts under his belt he’s hardly an untested newcomer in this defense. Though he saw his "starts" dip last season in favor of DeQuan Menzie, Milliner was still on the field a significant amount of the time, lining up outside opposite Dre Kirkpatrick while Menzie moved to Star in the Tide’s nickel package. In fact, his 21 passes defended was second on the team behind only Menzie’s 23 and his three INTs led the team. So unlike 2010, this year’s defense has at least one veteran at cornerback to build around.
Finding two more consistent contributors to compliment Milliner is the real challenge at corner, and despite some strong recruiting at the position, the Tide may be going with a JUCO transfer to start the season. Deion Belue initially committed to Alabama out of high school, but after he failed to qualify academically he was forced to spend two years at Northeast Mississippi Junior College. Considering we held a scholarship for him, it seems fairly obvious the staff felt he was capable of contributing right away at a position of need, and after going through spring practice he has certainly worked his way up the depth chart to be considered among the top three CBs on the roster. He’s still raw, though, drawing both praise and criticism from Saban at the conclusion of spring camp:
"Deion has had a really good spring, he’s a really good cover guy. I think sometimes he’s not sure exactly what he’s doing. We definitely need to get him to be a little more physical in run support and some of those things, but I think he’s going to be a good player."
Battling him for a starting role is John Fulton, a 6-0 187 junior. A four star prospect from South Carolina, Fulton has spent the first few years of his college career mostly on special teams, playing in 12 games last season and seeing some mop up duty. It’s his performance during spring that has him poised for a breakout season. He was one of the recipients of the Jerry Duncan "I Like to Practice" Award, and was praised for his improvement after the A Day game:
"John had a good spring. [He’s] starting to show that he’s more confident in what he’s doing. [He] knows what to do out there, and now it’s just a matter of doing it with some kind of consistency."
Though Milliner, Fulton, and Belue are seemingly entrenched as the top three for now, the Tide does have a couple of promising prospects backing them up. Travell Dixon is another JUCO transfer that made a push in spring but has seemingly fallen behind in fall camp. Dixon is an interesting prospect to say the least; he played only year of football as a high school senior prior to enrolling in junior college, where he was ultimately rated as the top recruit in the country thanks to his athleticism and raw talent, but he still seemingly has a ways to go in simply learning the game at this level. Saban isn’t known for handing out scholarships to two-year players unless they can play immediately, and after a decent spring the hope was that he would develop enough over the summer and fall to be a contributor, much like Jesse Williams last season who was similarly quiet during his first spring camp. That hasn’t materialized for Dixon yet, but with another year he could be something special as a senior.
Finally freshman Bradley Sylve is also in the mix after redshirting last season, but he too is still a work in progress and will likely be seen only in mop up time, while true freshman Geno Smith was one of the most sought after corner prospects in the country but needs time in the system and strength and conditioning program before seeing significant playing time.
Moving inside to safety, the departure of Mark Barron is offset by the return of senior Robert Lester, who briefly considered an early departure for the NFL himself. Lester made a big splash in the secondary in 2010, leading the SEC in interceptions (8) his first year as a starter, but he hit a bit of a sophomore slump last season with only two INTs and eight passes defended. He’s still the veteran of the bunch, though, and despite the drop off in numbers last season he did improve his overall game to the point he was selected as First Team All-SEC by the league’s coaches at SEC Media Days. He and Milliner will be counted on to lead the new faces into 2012 and help them get acclimated as soon as possible.
A not exactly new face in the secondary that we should see plenty of this year is Vinnie Sunseri, the 6-0 215 sophomore who worked his way up from special teams stand out to situational role player (and even top backup for an injured Mark Barron in the Iron Bowl) last season. Sunseri is the son of former outside linebackers coach Sal Sunseri, and was an under the radar recruit as a linebacker when he signed with the Tide. But he quickly made an impression during his first spring camp and managed to keep a stable of highly touted safety recruits on the bench once the season rolled around, and is expected to fill the void left by Barron as the secondary’s resident hard hitter. Sunseri was given the Bart Starr "Most Improved Player" award at the conclusion of spring practice.
Sunseri will most likely be splitting time with Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, another sophomore that received far more attention as a recruit out of high school. Clinton-Dix was a five start prospect out of Orlando, FL and arguably the crown jewel of the 2011 signing class. He’s a better pure cover safety than Sunseri, so look for the Tide to continue its use of a three man rotation at safety with him, Sunseri, and Lester.
The x-factor in the safety rotation is true freshman Landon Collins. Another five star prospect, the true freshman is already getting noticed by the veterans, and may simply be too good to keep off the field.
Overall the secondary isn’t in as dire of a situation as 2010, with solid experience at one of the corner positions and at both safety spots, as well as talented backups that should be able to step right in without significant growing pains. Its still an area of concern though, especially since the defensive backs have been some of the most important cogs in the Saban/Smart defense over the last five years, and when the secondary has had break downs and lapses in coverage the whole defense has suffered. Smart puts it best:
"Any time you've got the back end of your defense, those are the areas the rest of the world sees. When that guy on the back end messes up, everybody knows your number, everybody knows your name. Those are the mistakes that usually cost you games. Those two positions, as far as what you're telling the corner to do, what you're telling the linebacker to do, what you're checking to, they're very critical on our defense."