Those of you who know me and to those of you who don't, I am not a sunshine pumper when it comes to Alabama football. Through the Crimson Tide is clearly on top of the football world I keep remembering a conversation myself and a friend had in January of 1993. Alabama had just won the national championship in grand fashion with a team with plenty of young players. What could possibly go wrong?
We didn't know it but we were standing on a cliff we were about to walk off of. The valley below was low and it sucked. We remained there as fans for 15 LONG years waiting to see Alabama matter again. It's been a rapturous ride since 2007 but I remain ever vigilant against the cancer that is losing and weakness.
Now that I've given you my paranoid manifesto here is a review of the secondary battle this spring.
Alabama's secondary got torched like props in Ron Howard's movie "Back Draft". No, it's ok. We can admit it. We still won anyway. so it's ok. But I may have lost several years off my life and my blood pressure meds may have to be increased. So as I sit in the stands this spring I really am hoping to see some improvement. But can Alabama's secondary improve after losing it's best player?
For all intents and purposes Alabama functions with 5 defensive backs. 2 safeties and 3 corners. The corners are labeled "Field", "Boundary", and "Nickle". There is a variation that pulls a third safety they call a star but it's less often used than the standard nickle.
Last season Demarcus Milliner manned the field position. He was the best player out there on paper. The odd thing was that in the last few games of the season teams incessantly went after him almost to ignore the other corner Deion Belue who was both smaller and had struggled in coverage. This is still a mystery to me. Did Belue improve significantly during the season thus making them shy away from him? Did Milliner have a weakness the fans didn't see? If they saw something on film it's not evident to me and they didn't really get the better of Milliner so if they saw something they were wrong.
This spring the secondary battle may be one of the most crucial.
I mentioned Deion Belue, a senior he was signed in 2010 from Tuscumbia, Alabama The three star prospect was considered more of a kick returner by the fans and he didn't qualify anyway so off to Jr College he went. Belue returned last season and earned a starting spot over another highly touted and bigger DB transfer Travell Dickson. After losing that battle Dickson transferred out. Belue had rave reviews in camp but at 179 lbs he got overpowered by bigger receivers. He also was out of position several times resulting in disastrous plays. There was never a doubt he was the best we had other than Milliner so the staff kept coaching him and he probably had his best games toward the end. His crowning moment was knocking down a sideline pattern in the first half of the national championship game that would have given the Irish a field position switch. Nick Saban is a top DB coach himself and Alabama has done a masterful job improving players with time. I expect that all the hard lessons learned this season will help Belue become a much better player this season. He will still be challenged by bigger more physical receivers.
Sophomore Geno Smith was nowhere on the depth chart in 2012 until after the bye week. Somehow over the break in the schedule it seems many players minds get reset and things tumble into place. That was the case with Smith. After spending much of the season lost and confused suddenly smith was doing everything right. This of course did not go unnoticed by the staff. Alabama had tried to play three safeties instead of three corners and the experiment wasn't working. It really came to a head against Texas A&M where the secondary completely collapsed in the first half allowing a flurry of long passes resulting in Alabama's only loss. At this point I think the staff was ready to give Smith his shot. He started the Auburn game. He wasn't really challenged by the hapless Auburn passing attack but he apparently got lined up right and didn't make any terrible decisions so Alabama swung for the fence starting him against the powerful Georgia Bulldogs in the biggest game of the year. Smith shined in the back and forth thriller and completely justified the staff's faith in the young player. The fighting Irish threw for plenty of yards on Alabama but the offensive domination Alabama displayed in that game made it a moot point. Smith now has a full winter, spring, and summer to hone his craft. I expect nothing less than greatness from Smith.
John Fulton arrived as a four star recruit in 2010 and until 2012 was used primarily on special teams. Alabama rolled the dice with Fulton starting late in the season and he seemed to be responding and improving when an injury slowed him down. This spring is his last and it's his best chance at earning any real playing time. This fall four new corner recruits arrive. Without spring practice it's going to be a push for those new players to catch up with the mental part of the Nick Saban defense. Fulton will need to be way ahead of the younger players to hold them off.
Behind Fulton are Jabriel Washington and Bradley Selve. Both will be sophomores and both got limited garbage time in 2012. These two have battled each other for pecking order for two seasons and this spring will be another crucial battle to see who comes out ahead.
Aside from walkons that's pretty much it for corners on campus. With the new guys not arriving until summer or fall it's a safe bet that Alabama will sink or swim with these five guys at least until mid season. There is always the chance a true freshman could be a quick learner as DeMarcus Milliner was. Milliner didn't arrive until fall and started his first game.
At safety things are equally unsettled but more potential talent is available.
In 2012 Hasean Clinton-Dix a.k.a Ha Ha Dix, Nick Perry, and Vinnie Sunseri battled most of the season at free safety. Nick Perry seemed to come out on top but at the end against Georgia and Notre Dame Dix seemed to take over.
With the departure of strong safety Robert Lester things may move around a bit. We might see Sunsuri move to that spot and have Ha Ha and Perry continue to share the free safety. Sunsuri however was exposed as a liability in coverage this past season. He needs to improve that aspect of his game to stay on the field as much as he has been in the past.
Alabama has been developing super recruit Landon Collins. A physical player Collins head knocking skills became more evident late in the season with some brutal hits on the coverage team. With a year in the system look for him to start making a big push this spring to take his piece of the pie.
Alabama appears to have red shirted Eddie Williams, an equally impressive recruit who also has shown a propensity for laying the wood. At 6' 4" and room to grow this guy could bring a significant physical presence to the game. Williams was probably behind Collins as a freshman because he played both wide receiver and safety in high school and was tried initially at wide receiver.
With a year in the system hopefully he is ready to make a push.
EDIT: Strike all that about Eddie Willimams. He likely eliminated himself
The final two pieces to this puzzle are veteran player Jarrick Williams and Jai Miller. Williams was one of the top safety prospects in the nation in 2010. He has been a stalwart on special teams and probably figured in to playing time this past season but a severe knee injury in camp ended his season. Williams was back practicing by the bowl game and hopefully will have an opportunity. It remains to be seen if he can hold off the younger and possibly healthier players.
Then their is Jai Miller. Jai is closer to retirement than playing time at Alabama. He spurned football back in the dark ages (2003) to play baseball. At the time he was a top football prospect. In the decade since he has played baseball for several organizations even making it to the bigs briefly. I hate to be negative about any player but I would be less shocked to see Vinnie Sunsuri open the 2013 season at quarterback than to see Jai Miller line up for a non garbage time play at any point. But being an old guy myself, I'm rooting for him all the way.