What A Difference A Year Can Make

This time a year ago, there had to be a bit of concern about the safety spot alongside Mark Barron. Robert Lester, a third-year sophomore, was taking over for Justin Woodall, who had started every game in Bama's 2009 undefeated national championship season.

In August of 2010, Robert Lester was known primarily as the man who had come from Foley High School with All-America wide receiver Julio Jones. By January, Lester had earned second team All-Southeastern Conference and second team All-America honors as he led the SEC and was second in the nation with eight interceptions. This year he's a pre-season candidate for the Bednarik and Nagurski awards for the nation's best defensive player and the Thorpe Award for the nation's best defensive back.

Not only was Lester a first-year starter in the secondary, he was joined by rookie cornerbacks in Dre Kirkpatrick and Demarcus Milliner (Dee). It is understandable that Lester thinks the confidence level will be higher this year as he approaches his junior season.

Lester, 6-2, 210, was sporting a bandaged ear following Wednesday morning's practice, the first of two Bama had scheduled; and the last two-a-day practice of fall camp. The ear injury was the result of his helmet catching it. "It's nothing," Lester said. "Just a couple of stitches."

He said that practice was going well and that "guys are working hard, trying to get on the field. A lot of guys got redshirted (last year) and they are pushing their way up the depth chart. Everyone is working to get better."

Lester thinks that practice this year is much as it was last year. "We worked hard last year and we're working hard this year," he said. "I'd say there isn't too much difference. We're going to keep trying to find ways to get better."

He said the youth of last year's defense meant "We had to buckle down and learn. This year we know the defense, so we just have to execute it, make plays, and cut out the mental errors. And," he added, "pick up somebody who is struggling."

Alabama is working towards the season-opening game against Kent State on September 3 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. But two weeks before that, this Saturday, the Crimson Tide will be going to Bryant-Denny for the second and final scrimmage of fall camp.

"The coaches have a point of emphasis of what they want us to work on," Lester said. "I'm pretty sure this scrimmage he is going to work on our tackling and finishing the plays and executing and having fewer mental errors."

Tackling is key for Alabama safeties. Last year Mark Barron led Bama with 75 tackles and Lester was sixth on the team with 52. His big numbers, though, were in interceptions, eight of them returned for 102 yards.

Lester was also part of one of the most unusual plays in college football last season. Penn State was driving on Bama when Barron forced a fumble. Lester picked the ball up at the Alabama 12 and returned it to the Penn State 16, where he was separated from the ball. It rolled to the Penn State 2, where the Nittany Lions recovered. Lester was given credit for an 89-yard fumble return.

Lester doesn't expect a major difference in the scrimmage Saturday from the scrimmage last Saturday.

"The first scrimmage, the new guys are kind of new to the defense and the playbook," Lester said. "[The coaches] are looking for effort and toughness and going out there and playing fast and knowing what they have to do. I think this scrimmage [Coach Nick Saban] wants us to cut down on the mental errors. We've had two weeks of practice. So cut down on the mental errors and be able to make plays.

"I think all the scrimmages are about the same. He's teaching us how he wants to play in a game."

Asked how the defense did in the first scrimmage, Lester said , "We always have room to improve."

He said tackling is a point of emphasis. "You never want to miss a tackle," Lester said. "Being able to play missed-tackle-free, that's the best way to play the game."

Although Lester and Barron are both the quiet type, Lester said it is not a factor in them being able to make the defensive calls required of the safety position. "We're going to do our job," he said. "We've got a lot of chemistry. I can look at Dee (Milliner) and he can look at me and we can know what coverage we're playing. If they don't know the call, they are going to ask. But we are giving the calls and doing our job."

Lester complimented the work of two true freshmen working at safety – Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri. "I trust the coaches to bring in great players," Lester said. "They are always trying to bring in a player who is better than you. They both look good. They are going to keep getting better."

Also in the mix is junior Will Lowery, a walk-on who became a regular in the rotation and on special teams last year.

Lester smiled. "Hey, he's a hard worker," Lester said. "You keep working hard, it's going to pay off for you."

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