Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
There are plenty of question marks in Alabama's secondary this year. Nick Saban's forte is said to be coaching defensive backs, and that is about to be put to the test: this year's results may have more to do with coaching, and less to do with talent and experience, than has been the case during at least the last four years.
Assuming Dee Milliner's draft prospects don't undergo a sea change between now and May, this will be the third straight year an Alabama defensive back has been one of the first 17 players drafted. One or another of those three first-rounders--Milliner, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Mark Barron--was also a first-team All-American for each of the last three years, and if you add Javy Arenas and Rashad Johnson to the list, Alabama has had a first-team All-American defensive back for four years in a row now, and a first team All-SEC defensive back for five years in a row.
By contrast I wouldn't expect any Alabama defensive back to be on the AP's pre-season first-string all-SEC team when it comes out this August, and any pre-season mock drafts from serious analysts probably won't feature Tide DBs as first-rounders, and perhaps not even first-day selections. There is talent at the position, but a lot of it will be inexperienced talent, so Saban and new secondary coach Greg Brown will have their work cut out for them if Alabama's secondary play is to remain at a very high level.
The Tide only lost one guy who got any significant time in the defensive backfield. While I'd generally try not to get too opinionated in these pieces, I can't write about what that loss means without mentioning my personal belief that Dee Milliner's 2012 play was the best by any Alabama DB in the half-century I've followed the Tide. (Previously, I hung on to memories of Don McNeal, the guy who did this.) Losing Milliner, particularly from a position that was never overly burdened with depth, won't go unfelt. By comparison, the loss of Robert Lester at safety will be relatively easy to compensate for, and in fact Alabama's safety play can reasonably be expected to improve.
2012 starter Deion Belue, who recorded 40 tackles, 2 interceptions, 7 pass breakups, and a 57-yard TD fumble return, has one cornerback position nailed down. The other likely will belong to Geno Smith, who moved into Alabama's nickel and dime sets late in his true freshman season and looked solid. John Fulton, who came in as a fellow blue-chipper with Milliner, will compete with Smith for that spot, but he is recovering from toe surgery and will miss spring practice. Fulton was showing signs of living up to his some of his promise last year before the toe injury sidelined him for the last 4 games.
There are a slew of other candidates. None have seen the field in serious SEC competition, but offensive convertees Jabriel Washington and Bradley Sylve each saw spot action last year while learning the position, with Sylve getting a bit more time, and Cyrus Jones may join the mix this spring. All are good athletes and Washington and Sylve will benefit from the year they have already spent in the position under Nick Saban and last year's DB coach Jeremy Pruitt, now the defensive coordinator at Florida St.
Talented true freshmen will be in the mix as well. The highest-rated cornerback recruit was Texan Maurice Smith, 6'0", 180, who boasted a star-studded offer list from schools like Florida, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio St., Oklahoma, and Texas. 6'0" 185 Jonathan Cook, from Spanish Fort, Alabama, was not as widely pursued, but Saban liked what he saw in Cook's workouts. New Jersey's Anthony Averett, 6'0", 170, is listed as an athlete but probably projects at cornerback for the Tide.
In short, there may not be a Milliner or a Kirkpatrick this year, but Alabama has some cornerbacks. If just one out of Washington, Sylve, Jones, Maurice Smith, Cook and Averett can develop to give Belue, Geno Smith and Fulton some competition, the cornerback position might just look pretty good after all.
At safety, Lester and Vinnie Sunseri began the 2012 campaign as starters, but both had somewhat disappointing seasons, and for the same reason: difficulties in tracking fleet receivers one-on-one. Alabama may put forward a slightly more mobile and slightly less physical look at the position this year.
Leading the way will be Ha Ha Clinton-Dix--no joke is forthcoming--who led the team in interceptions last year with five although he didn't become a starter until the 5th game. Clinton-Dix had 37 tackles and 7 pass breakups to go along with the picks. If any Bama DB proves me wrong by garnering 1st-string pre-season All-SEC honors, this would be the guy - and the media might be at the point of designating one Bama DB on principle.
One position is his, and there will likely be a battle between Sunseri and last year's special teams phenom Landon Collins for the other. Man-to-man coverage issues aside, Sunseri has much to commend him as a defensive back. He makes great reads in the zone, blitzes well, has good hands, and is a stone-cold hitter, with his 54 tackles tying Milliner for the team lead among DBs. Collins doesn't have Sunseri's experience, but he was a guided missile on punt coverage and undoubtedly is the more athletic of the two. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that Collins will take the job unless Sunseri somehow finds a way in the off-season to improve his acceleration and flat-out speed, but Sunseri will get plenty of playing time.
Nick Perry provides a fourth experienced defender, but he was torched a few times in 2012 and only recorded two pass breakups and had no interceptions, despite getting enough playing time to be ninth on the team in tackles with 38. If Jarrick Williams is fully recovered from the ACL injury he suffered last August, he will provide stiff competition to Perry, and perhaps even to Collins and Sunseri.
Alabama did not sign a safety this year, only to lose last year's 5-star athlete, Eddie Williams, shortly after signing day, a victim of his own foolishness. Athlete ArDarius Stewart reportedly expects to start at receiver, but some think safety is a better position for him, and the talent traffic probably won't be quite as jammed here as it will at wideout. I think he has a few months to adjust his expectations if he is so inclined.