5 Spring Break Defense Questions

Alabama football players are on spring break this week, probably thinking as little as possible about football. But one suspects they can't really get it out of their heads. And does anyone believe that Nick Saban isn't thinking about football? Well, we're not at the beach, either.

Before Alabama started spring practice, Saban pointed out that the Crimson Tide defense had been pretty good if one looked at the statistics over the past few years. No one could question that. Bama didn't win three national championships in four years without a good defense. Indeed, the Tide stop troops were at or near the top in all areas through that stretch.

Still, there are always questions about Alabama football. It is notable that the Crimson Tide, even without an established returning quarterback, is being picked at or near the top in 2014 pre-season polls. That's in great part because of Saban's reputation for producing great defensive teams.

This is the time of year when we often ask Five Questions About Alabama's Defense.

We could probably ask five questions just on Vinnie Sunseri, beginning with, "What the hell was Vinnie Sunseri thinking?" when he decided to pass up his final year of Crimson Tide football to make himself eligible for the NFL draft.

There are some explanations, though really not one that screams, ‘That makes sense!'. Remember, Sunseri missed the last half of the season after suffering a knee injury that required surgery. Since then he has said his rehabilitation is ahead of schedule. He also said he felt he had an "All-America first half of the season." Umm, he had two interceptions and returns for touchdowns, including a most memorable runback against Texas A&M. But if he wanted to see an All-America, all he had to do was look over his shoulder at HaHa Clinton-Dix, who had an All-America FULL season. There is also the theory that this is not a good year for safeties in the draft. Well, maybe some pro team will draft a safety who doesn't really measure up. Maybe.

Who replaces Vinnie Sunseri? Actually, someone already has. Landon Collins was probably going to get plenty of playing time in any event, but when Sunseri suffered his season-ending knee injury, Collins moved in. That experience should pay benefits for Alabama this year. Bama still has to have another safety or two or three, and Saban has pointed out that Nick Perry is coming back from injury and that Jarrick Williams have safety experience, though primarily in the nickel and dime packages. Also, Laurence Jones – we'll all call him "Hootie" – is a 6-2, 215-pound freshman who is taking part in spring practice.

Vinnie Sunseri was fabulous on special teams. Who takes his place on kick coverage?

Alabama uses a lot of true freshmen on special teams, and the Crimson Tide signs men – fast men – who are well-suited to that task. We don't know for sure, but look for another local lad – Keith Holcombe. The son of former Tider Danny Holcombe, Keith is 6-3, 215, and one of those fast guys with a nose for the football. He's our bet for special teams newcomer of the year not counting kickers.

So Vinnie Sunseri won't be missed?

Absolutely, he will be missed. Sunseri has been a leader and was a slam dunk to be a Crimson Tide captain in his final season had he returned. Never underestimate leadership from the players on a team.

Despite what you may have heard, sportswriters who cover Alabama football on a daily basis have a very good understanding of what is going on with the Crimson Tide, including who the leaders are. We knew that men like Barrett Jones and C.J. Mosley were going to be Alabama captains. If you asked those reporters to vote on who will be Bama's defensive captain in 2014, Trey DePriest would get just about every vote. Maybe every vote.

Was there some unknown dynamic involving the Sunseri family, notably father Sal Sunseri?

Don't ever expect to know the answer to this question. Sal left Nick Saban's staff for a promotion, defensive coordinator at Tennessee under Derek Dooley. Saban approves of assistants moving on for promotions. Dooley got fired, Sunseri moved to Florida State (where he was subservient to Jeremy Pruitt, who had left the Tide staff for the DC job at FSU). When Pruitt left for Georgia after one year, Sunseri did not get the defensive coordinator position. Saban has been known to take back assistants, i.e. Lance Thompson, Bo Davis, Kevin Steele.

What the hell was Vinnie Sunseri thinking?

We already asked that. And we still don't have a reasonable answer.

Let's consider all the Vinnie Sunseri questions as one. Here are four more questions regarding the 2014 Alabama defense:

Is the 3-4 dead?

Really, it's been nothing more than a designated alignment of convenience. Alabama is almost never in a 3-4 defense – three down linemen and four linebackers. Alabama is almost always in nickel (five defensive backs), sometimes in dime (six defensive backs), and the Tide is as likely to hve four down linemen as three. So Alabama's defense? It's as multiple and as complicated as any NFL defense. Yes, Bama's defense got lit up last year against hurry-up offenses from Texas A&M, Auburn, and Oklahoma. Coach Nick Saban and his staff have to address that, but indications are that the plan is to do it with execution, not scheme.

When did D.J. Pettway become a linebacker?

One answer might be "When Alabama signed A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen." Robinson and Allen showed as true freshmen last year that they would make Tide fans forget what's his name and what's his name. Actually, Ed Stinson may make it in the NFL and Jeoffrey Pagan is going to try. But we digress. Pettway is a big man, 6-3, 265. Remember that 3-4 question? Look for Pettway to be up on the line alongside Robinson, Allen, and nose tackle Brandon Ivory in a 4-3 look.

Who replaces C.J. Mosley at weakside linebacker?

There are two inside linebacker positions, weakside and middle. DePriest was the middle linebacker last year, but more important than the nomenclature is that DePriest joined Mosley in calling defenses and he has emerged as the early bet to replace Mosley as defensive leader. But there will be another inside linebacker. It won't be a surprise if Reggie Ragland, who has been in the program a couple of years, moves up to starter. But our hunch is that it will be sophomore Reuben Foster. In brief appearances last year, Foster looked like a missile. The key will be if he looks like a GUIDED missile.

Nick Saban is the hands-on position coach for cornerbacks, but there were times last year when it looked as though no one was coaching cornerbacks. What's the key to improvement?

The biggest problems with the cornerbacks have been guys like Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner, men who left early for the NFL after very fine seasons at Alabama. Additionally, the leader of last year's group, Deion Belue, was beset with injuries. Senior John Fulton was a starter early last year, but soon fell behind. The problem, then, was that Bama was playing with inexperienced cornerbacks. There are two main ingredients for good cornerback play: athletic ability and experience.

The men who will be competing for that job who got a little bit of experience last year include Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve, Maurice Smith, and Eddie Jackson. Anthony Averett and Jonathan Cook were redshirted last year, and it's possible one or both of them could be in the cornerback mix.

Additionally, Alabama signed two of the nation's best cornerbacks. Tony Brown, ranked the number two cornerback in last year's national signing class, is already enrolled and practicing with the Tide. In the fall, he'll be joined by Marlon Humphrey, the fourth-ranked cornerback in the nation.

And don't worry. Nick Saban has not forgotten how to coach cornerbacks.

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