Secondary status report

Some coaches are able to ease into the season slowly, with their players not really being tested until the start of conference play. But Tide Defensive Backs Coach Chris Ball won't have that luxury. <br><br>"We're really going to find out how good we are right off the bat," he said.

Alabama opens its season a week from tomorrow against South Florida, a team that throws the ball all over the field. "We get to open up against a good team that throws the football," Ball said. "South Florida really knows how to throw it. That'll be a great test.

"I'll know a lot more about my players after that game."

Charlie Peprah makes the stop versus the Sooners. (Associated Press)

Since arriving in Tuscaloosa last winter, Ball has worked to build a cohesive pass-stop unit. His players are mostly young, but he likes their talent. He explained, "We don't have a lot of playing experience. We lost three starters (Waine Bacon, Gerald Dixon and Hirchel Bolden) from last year. A few (like Anthony Madison) have started here and there.

"We just need to play. We need to quit making the small mistakes that cost you, and a lot of that is just playing experience. As the year goes along, you'll hopefully see us improving."

Junior cornerback Anthony Madison has had an excellent camp and has sewn up a starting job. But three athletes, Charlie Peprah, Thurman Ward and Ramzee Robinson, are battling for the other cornerback slot.

"Intensity-wise Charlie's got to pick it up a little bit, and he knows that," Ball related. "We've had that talk. Charlie's getting pushed hard by Ramzee and Thurman. They're both competing."

Ward played cornerback as a freshman, then worked on offense last season. Robinson is a redshirt freshman. But the two talented athletes have given last year's Freshman All-American all he's wanted so far this fall.

Ramzee Robinson (#17) and Anthony Madison take a break during practice.

"Thurman is making a move," Ball said. "He's doing a great job. His intensity level is high, and he knows the defense."

Robinson may be young, but he's impressed his coach. "Ramzee is a competitor; that's all," Ball said. "He's just a flat-out competitor. He goes out there and battles. You want players like that in competitive situations."

"Charlie, Ramzee and Thurman, those three are really battling right now," Ball continued. "All four of our top corners are good. (Besides Madison), those other three all deserve playing time. Whoever ends up on top this week will be the starter. If all three continue, then that just makes us that much stronger."

Ball and the other defensive coaches will sit down after practice today and talk about the decision. But as he sees it, competition will only make his unit stronger. "We'll wait and see how it plays out," Ball said. "We want competition all the way up to game week. That makes all three of them better."

In passing situations Alabama will use a fifth defensive back. Ramzee Robinson will most likely end up as the nickel back, but there is competition at that position as well. Ball explained, "Right now Ramzee is the nickel, but he's being pushed by Thurman. It's been a real battle, which has made all of them better. It's been fun."

Roman Harper is set for a big year at strong safety.

In contrast to cornerback, the situation at safety is crystal-clear. Returning starter Charles Jones (free safety) and Roman Harper (strong safety) each has a stranglehold on his starting job.

"Roman has had a great camp," Ball said. "He's doing a terrific job of running the show.

"Charles is the same. He understands the defense. He knows where he's supposed to be and has great speed."

For awhile Ball was worried about depth at safety, but Carlos Andrews has come on the past week.

"The backups have done well," Ball said. "Carlos Andrews and Chris James both had a good scrimmage Tuesday. They did a great job. I told them we needed that, because we've got to have some safeties that can play in our system.

Thurman Ward has had an excellent fall camp.

"As tough as this league is and as much as we demand of our safeties, we've got to have some guys that are quality backups. Both had a good scrimmage, and I expect that to continue."

James will again play a valuable role on special teams, but the senior Andrews will be the first safety off the bench. "Carlos has been racking up the tackles," Ball said. "He's a physical guy. He's got that part of it down. When we fine-tune his pass coverage he's going to be a good player for us. If I had to make a choice, that third safety would be Carlos right now. He's been more consistent."

Ball has yet to coach them on Saturdays, but he's optimistic about the season.

Charles Jones

"My guys play hard, and they care," he said. "They're competitors. The more playing experience this group gets, the better they'll be. I'm excited about the group. They're a great bunch of guys that work hard and enjoy playing football."

NOTE: Seniors David Scott and Roberto McBride will provide experienced depth at cornerback.

Among the true freshmen, cornerback Eric Gray has a chance to play this season on special teams. Cornerback D.J. Chambers and safety Eric Johnson are almost definite redshirts.

Check back with next week for a story including Ball's comments on his true freshmen.

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