Tuesday afternoon, Alabama released its first depth chart of the season and it was revealed which newcomers have caught on to Saban's scheme quickly.
Veteran Dee Milliner had one cornerback spot locked up awhile ago, but the rest were up for grabs. Turns out, JUCO transfer Deion Belue, who has been working with the first team at practice as of late, earned the other starting job.
"He can be a home-run hitter any time," Milliner said of Belue. "When he catches a pick at practice, he can always run it back. When he did that the first couple times, I was like, ‘OK, he got lucky.' Then he made it a thing he does all the time.
"He's progressed very well. He got thrown into the fire with the plays and everything, but he progressively learned the plays and has been a great competitor out there on the field."
Belue came to Alabama last spring from Northeast Mississippi Community College in Tuscambia, Ala. Saban says enrolling early gave him extra time to understand and execute a complicated scheme.
"I think that was a huge advantage for him," Saban said. "He has no problem learning it. He's very instinctive."
Saban also thinks the fact that Belue is only playing one position, cornerback rather than the "star" or "money" positions, which are the nickel and dime packages, respectively, has helped him catch on quickly.
"I think where guys get into the complicated issues is, when they're young players and you try to team them corner and star, or safety and money," he said. "Now you're talking double the multiples, whatever those multiples are. I think some of our younger players this year are in a situation because we don't have a lot of depth in the secondary, where we're having to do that with some of them. I think that probably makes it a more difficult learning curve."
John Fulton will back up Milliner and Geno Smith will come in behind Belue. Fulton, a junior, has been in the system awhile and has impressed Saban this offseason. Smith is a true freshman, so him securing that fourth cornerback spot shows how fast he bought in.
"Geno competes all the time," Mililner said. "Just in the way he goes out there and goes about practice, he wants to get better. He's urging himself, he talks to himself, he comes to me when he needs help."
Smith is an example of a player learning both corner and star. The fact that Saban trusts him enough to put him on the two-deep depth chart for the first game in his first year speaks volumes.
The safeties have a smidge more depth as far as experience goes. Senior Robert Lester, or as his teammates like to call him, "The General," is the leader of the secondary much like Mark Barron was last year.
"He tells everybody what they need to do and how they need to do it," linebacker Nico Johnson said. "He's holding everybody back there to a standard because he feels the DBs aren't getting the respect that they want. So they're going to go out there and earn the respect. He's holding everybody accountable."
Lester, who's entering his fifth year, has paid close attention to the defensive leaders that came before him and observed their leadership styles. He's taken notes and developed his own way.
"There's all different types of leadership," he said. "Dont'a Hightower, he was more of the aggressive type that demanded out of you and I've seen that that worked. I've seen that Mark Barron was the quiet type that led by example and worked. Rashad Johnson was more of a support type guy and that works. There's all types of ways to lead guys and just watching all these guys gives me so much experience and leadership to be able to know how to approach a certain guy if the aggressive style doesn't work, or if he needs to be comforted, I know how."
Despite his nickname, Lester, who said his leadership style is more of a "support type," wouldn't necessarily call this his secondary.
"We all work together," he said. "I'm just doing my role, which is, by me being the most experienced, if there's something I see by being here so long, it's my job to get it right."
"I think [the secondary] can be very good but I also think that their experience or lack of, the impact that that has on their ability to play will certainly determine how well we play," Saban said.
With some new faces back there, and a test coming up this weekend facing dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson, which defensive backs will open our eyes?
"I guess we're going to have to wait until Saturday to find out," Lester said. "I can't wait to see what the guys are capable of and what they can bring to the table."
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