Just as we did with the offense, here goes with the defense:
It has long since been speculated that the biggest worry for the coaching staff going into the 2008 campaign was to be found at defensive end, and once you delve into the situation it's easy to see why that may very well be the case. We weren't exactly all that deep at the position anyway, and not attrition has hit. Wallace Gilberry is now looking for his name to be called in the NFL Draft, Jeremy Elder has been kicked off the team, and the absolute best-case scenario for Luther Davis is that he misses all of Spring practice and hopefully returns at a later date.
At this point, it's all one big question mark and we don't have very much talented depth to provide an answer. A year ago, Brandon Deaderick played quite well at weakside defensive end once Bobby Greenwood went down with a sprained ankle against FSU, but things aren't going to get any easier. It's easy to say that you could have Deaderick and Greenwood as starters, but that would require a position change for one of the two -- a move from weakside end to stronside end, which is probably more of a transition than you may think at first glance -- and honestly Greenwood really doesn't fit the 3-4 all of that well. He's more of a prototypical 4-3 end, and hasn't done as well in the 3-4 or the 3-3-5. And, of course, it's not going to help that opposing offenses won't have to worry about Wallace Gilberry in 2008.
The real problem, though, is the depth behind them, or more importantly I should say the lack thereof. Milton Talbert is a fish out of water; he's small even for a 4-3 end, much less a 3-4 end, and even so he's coming off of surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder. Nick Gentry has yet to play, and he missed most of last year with a shoulder surgery of his own. And after that? Your guess is as good as mine. It's ugly, to say the very least. At this point we just have to hope that Luther Davis comes back, and that a lot of these true freshmen can effectively play end. Though guys like Square and Dareus project in the long-term to nose tackle, I think it's basically just a given at this point that they will be forced to play at defensive end in the interim.
For all of the concern at defensive end, oddly enough, things look pretty good at defensive tackle. Again, it may seem a bit odd, but it is nevertheless true.
From a year ago, effectively everyone returns. Bryan Motley returns and he should be at full strength, and the same goes for Josh Chapman and Alfred McCullough. Lorenzo Washington also returns, and he really played quite well last season, he was easily one of the pleasant surprises of the 2007 campaign. Moreover, all of those guys will benefit even further from Saban's intense S&C program, only further fueling their improvement. And, you also have to consider that we signed both Kerry Murphy and Terrance Cody in this most recent recruiting class, and that will only help us out at the position. We aren't going to be dominant at the defensive tackle, but we will be pretty good and we will have a lot of depth.
The real question may be who moves away from defensive tackle. We have the depth to move a couple of guys over to other positions of need, and that just may happen. It has been mentioned in some circles of Motley going back to the offensive line, and McCullough has been mentioned as well. The most intriguing possibility, however, is easily Lorenzo Washington. He is a bit small for nose tackle, but he could be the perfect strongside defensive end, and Lord knows we could use him there. I wouldn't count on it happening, but it's very much a legitimate possibility. At the very least, possible position changes aside, things are looking pretty good along the interior defensive line.
Ordinarily I would break the linebacker section down into each individual position and then look at things on that basis, but in this case there is really no point in doing so. At this point, no one really has any clue whatsoever about linebacker.
The only constant of the entire group right now is Rolando McClain. He is a physical beast, he had a highly impressive freshman campaign, and he has the potential to perhaps be the most physically dominant linebacker that we have had since Cornelius Bennett. But even McClain isn't even a constant at this point. He played inside linebacker last year, but there have been a lot of rumblings that he may move over and play Jack linebacker, so even he isn't a certainty as this point.
Aside from McClain, for the Spring, I'm not even sure it'd do any good to fill out a depth chart. Guys like Charlie Higgenbotham, Charlie Kirschman, Eryk Anders and others will compete, and may "start," but who really knows with them? Being quite frank, it's possible that none of those guys even have legitimate SEC-level talent, and they will probably be surpassed in the Fall by the incoming freshmen. Aside from that, it sounds to me like Prince Hall has probably played his last game at Alabama, so you can cross him off. And everyone is going to talk about Jimmy Johns, but he had never played linebacker in his entire life before the I-Bowl practices. He's a nice athlete, but no one knows if he can turn himself into a viable option for the 2008 season.
In all honesty, the bulk of our starting linebacker corps for 2008 is probably getting fitted for prom tuxes at the moment. We signed three really good linebacker prospects in this class that could contribute right away, and they are Jerrell Harris, Donta' Hightower, and Courtney Upshaw. Yes they will be true freshman, but I don't think there is much of a question that they are more talented than anybody we currently have on the roster, sans McClain, and to be quite frank I wouldn't be shocked to see them starting early on in 2008. If I turned on the Arkansas game next season and saw a starting linebacker corps consisting of Courtney Upshaw (Jack), Rolando McClain (ILB), Donta' Hightower (ILB), and Jerrell Harris (SLB), I wouldn't be the least bit surprised. At the very least, being quite frank, it's almost a moot point to even discuss at the moment because there is simply just so much that we don't know.
The surprise of 2007 undoubtedly had to be true freshman cornerback Kareem Jackson. When Nick Saban arrived at Alabama, Jackson was at a prep school about seven hundred miles from Tuscaloosa, and more importantly about seven hundred light years beyond Alabama's radar screen. Saban saw him, however, and once Jackson arrived in Tuscaloosa for a visit, he shortly thereafter called his Mother and told her that he would not be returning home. He parlayed a good showing in Spring practice into a starting job at cornerback in the Fall -- very much a rarity for a true freshman these days, particularly in a league with so many top-flight wide receivers -- and he did extremely well. It's really hard to understate how well we played. While many loved to yap about Simeon Castille, Jackson was easily the best cornerback on the roster, and his 2007 campaign is the best performance we've seen by a cornerback at Alabama in ages. And unlike in previous years, he wasn't playing easy zone coverages, he was often locked man-to-man in unforgiving match-ups with no safety help, where the slightest misstep would have resulted in a big play for the opposing team.
The surprising emergence of Jackson has not only created a potential star in the making, it has also solidified things a good bit at cornerback. As long as Jackson can stay healthy, at the very least we know we can put one effective corner on the field at all times.
The task of finding a solid cornerback opposite Jackson, and a nickel cornerback, is a bit more of a dubious task. Several players are vying for the jobs, and Lionell Mitchell is probably the leading candidate to come out of the Spring leading the way. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that just shows Mitchell is the best of an otherwise unimpressive group. In all fairness, it's not like he has to pull off a gargantuan feat to get the job done given the quality of his competition. Marquis Johnson hasn't done anything special in his entire time at Alabama, and his chance on gameday was ruined this past Fall against Florida State. Everyone remembers the one really bad play of his from that game, but it wasn't just one play, he struggled the entire game. After him, you have Tremayne Coger, who was actually pretty highly-touted coming out of high school. Unfortunately, he has yet to play a single snap at Alabama in all of two years. Then you have Tyrone King, Jr., but he's really more of a special teams player who will rarely see the field at corner unless it is in garbage time. Finally, there is Chris Lett, but as we all know he had to give up football for medical reasons. At the end of the day, Mitchell, for all of his shortcomings, will probably be able to beat out the rest and secure the spot. In all likelihood, he'll edge out Johnson to win the starting job opposite Jackson, and Mitchell will settle into the nickel corner role.
The good news is that with the recent good news on the academic front, Mitchell / Johnson will probably hold the starting job for all of, maybe, one week this Fall once Alonzo Lawrence arrives in Tuscaloosa. He may very well be the best corner we've signed since Antonio Langham, and he'll probably beat out both Mitchell and Johnson with no real trouble. The way he dominated at the high school level -- don't forget, he shut down both Julio Jones and DeAndre Brown -- is almost too impressive to describe, and it's only a matter of time before he shoots to the top of the depth chart. With that in mind, the likely scenario is that Lawrence starts opposite Jackson, and Mitchell and Johnson provide depth as the nickel and dime corners.
Much like with Kareem Jackson at cornerback, 2007 brought another pleasant surprise with the emergence of Rashad Johnson at safety. I wrote after the 2006 season that he wasn't so much a bad player as he was one that just didn't generate any positive production, but that changed in a huge way in 2007 as Johnson blossomed into an all-conference safety. His return makes for a very nice addition to the defensive backfield, and as long as he stays healthy we will be assured of a playmaker at the safety position.
We do, however, lose Marcus Carter to graduation. Now, I'm not usually one to overly criticize Alabama players, but I've got to quote Bob Uecker in Major League on the "loss" of Carter: "Thank God." From all I could tell Carter was a good kid off the field and a hard worker, but on the field it was ugly. He is easily the worst open field tackler I've seen Alabama have in ages, and it was very, very common to see him miss tackles so bad that he would not even literally touch the opposing player in the slightest sense. In the running game, too, he really didn't provide very much help because he often took bad pursuit angles and found himself out of position. And as a factor in pass defense, he was just non-existent at best. He started twenty-three games the past two years -- a time span in which opponents had approximately 800 passing attempts against the Tide -- and yet Carter combined to have zero interceptions, and only one pass broken up. In all honesty, he was only on the field because depth was so terrible. With the loss of Carter, I think we're all going to get a lesson demonstrating the concept of addition by subtraction.
For purposes of Spring practice, five players are going to vie for the starting job at safety, and they include: Ali Sharrief, Justin Woodall, Chris Rogers, Javier Arenas, and Tarence Farmer. From the outset, Sharrief and Arenas seem the two most likely to win the job. After all, they played the most in the defensive backfield last year, so it only seems right. Justin Woodall, however, may be the one to watch. He was highly-touted coming out of high school, but has yet to see the field in any legitimate capacity. Most expected he would go the baseball route this Spring, but he surprisingly turned it down and decided to focus on baseball. This newfound focus may drive a surge in his performance. Moving on, Chris Rogers is probably pretty similar to Woodall in terms of upside.
The real concern is this: As bad as Marcus Carter was the past two years, if none of these guys could beat him out, exactly what does that say about them? Don't get me wrong, players can improve drastically from one year to the next (see Johnson), but that has to be a major concern.
Just as with cornerback, however, all of the Spring battles may very well end up being a moot point. This past year we signed Mark Barron, easily the best safety prospect we've signed in ages -- notice the trend in that? -- and unless someone makes a major move this Spring, I imagine that Barron seizes the open safety spot about the same time that Alonzo Lawrence is staking his claim on the open cornerback spot. It will be interesting to see how all of the young depth develops at safety this Spring, but the likely scenario is that, regardless of who wins the job now, Mark Barron will come into Fall camp and end up as the starter by the time we take off for the Georgia Dome.