An intriguing spring for the secondary

Spring practice is always a time for experimentation with new faces struggling to make a name for themselves, but this year's group of defensive backs is more intriguing than most.

Charles Jones, David Scott and Roberto McBride have all three used up their eligibility and moved on. A steady starter for parts of three years, Jones will be missed. He was a fast, smart athlete who performed reliably at free safety. And Scott and McBride were veteran players capable of providing minutes at cornerback.

But frankly Alabama has plenty of talent still maturing, and there is no reason to think that the unit won't be more talented next year, especially if one or more of some extremely talented incoming freshmen earn playing time.

Athletes listed at cornerback on the spring roster include:

Charlie Peprah returns an interception. Already a proven ball hawk, the junior cornerback needs to improve his every-down consistency. (Butch Dill photograph)

At cornerback the Tide returns both starters from last season, Charlie Peprah and Anthony Madison. Plus, Ramzee Robinson (5-9, 181) learned a lot (sometimes the hard way) as a reserve corner and nickel back.

One redshirt freshman definitely worth watching will be Eric Gray (5-11, 190). The Bama coaches came very close to playing him last season. Special Teams Coordinator Dave Ungerer especially coveted Gray's athleticism, but the decision was ultimately made to hold him out, which should pay dividends soon. More than a few practice observers believe that Gray and Peprah are Bama's two most talented cover cornerbacks on campus now.

Judged the more talented of Bama's starting corners last year, Peprah (5-10, 189) didn't have as many balls thrown his way, but he still tied for the team lead in interceptions with four. Peprah's main problem at this point is consistency. He's proven he's capable of making the spectacular play, now he needs to mature into a reliable, every-down cornerback.

On the other hand, if an offense is avoiding one man then the other cornerback is probably getting picked on, which often happened to Anthony Madison (5-9, 180). He played hard all the time, but his production needs to improve. At times Madison seemed overmatched against taller, stronger receivers, but that may be because he was asked to do too much. An inconsistent pass rush often left Bama's DBs on a lonely island. And it's also possible that Madison's best role would nickel back.

But don't expect a competitor like Madison to give up his starting position without a fight.

Eric Gray may be the best defensive back on the squad that Bama fans have yet to see in action.

Nine athletes are listed at safety on the spring roster, but only three are on scholarship:

Roman Harper (6-0, 191) started all season at strong safety, finishing second on the team in tackles with 111. However, for all that action he managed only one interception and three pass breakups. Relatively tall and still a bit on the slender side, Harper looks more like a traditional free safety. But in Alabama's defensive schemes the safeties are essentially interchangeable, so size is less important than it was 20 years ago.

It's probable that Harper will finish spring with one starting spot, but which one is open to question right now.

Besides Harper, position Coach Chris Ball can look to the talented but inconsistent senior, Carlos Andrews. Redshirt freshman Eric Johnson (6-0, 192) certainly has the physical skills, and he'll be given every chance this spring to earn a spot in the playing rotation.

Several walk-ons will push to get their coach's attention. Steven Allison (6-2, 208), formerly a scholarshipped quarterback at UT-Chattanooga is an interesting option. And junior Bryan Kilpatrick (6-4, 199) creates match-up problems with his height.

In the "Now or Never" category, seniors Thurman Ward (6-1, 186) and Carlos Andrews (5-11, 210) frankly need to attack this spring practice like there is no tomorrow. Because with three super-talented true freshmen arriving in the summer, the next few weeks probably represent the two seniors' last chance to prove to the Tide coaches they can be trusted on the field.

No one questions either Ward's or Andrews' talent, but for whatever reason so far neither athlete has been able live up to his considerable physical potential.

Eric Johnson will be watched closely this spring by the Tide staff, searching for players they can depend on in the fall.

Both Charlie Peprah and Roman Harper have played well at times for the Tide--sometimes extremely well. But 2004 marks their fourth year on campus, and it's frankly time for the two returning starters to step up and take charge of the Alabama secondary.

Both players are relatively tall and run very well. Both are plenty physical when they want to be. And both Charlie and Roman are also as smart as any athlete on the team. But while simplistic, the phrase "playmakers make plays" is brutally true. And it's time for Peprah and Harper to take their play to the next level.

Finally, put Eric Johnson, Eric Gray and Steven Allison in the "Golden Opportunity" category this spring. Their chances are there. The coaches are watching. Now, it's just a matter of proving you can handle the job. Easier said than done, of course, but all three athletes have an invaluable opportunity to etch their name on Bama's depth chart heading into fall.

Frankly, for all of their obvious talent the Tide coaches would like nothing better than to be able to redshirt all four of Simeon Castille, Marcus Carter, Aaron McDaniel and Travis Robinson. But for that to happen, several defensive backs must step up this spring and prove they're ready to compete in the SEC.

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