Many recruiting observers had already penciled heralded recruits Simeon Castille and Marcus Carter in for starting jobs, while the hand-wringing commenced over returning cornerbacks Ramzee Robinson and Anthony Madison, who were feared too small to do the job asked of them.
So what did Alabama's defensive backs do? Nothing but lead the nation in pass defense, finish 2nd in pass efficiency defense, and help their teammates finish 2nd in total defense, 7th in scoring defense and rank 25th in turnover margin. The best news of all, perhaps, is that only two players – reserve strong safety Carlos Andrews and free safety/cornerback Chris James – were lost to graduation.
To be fair, part of the success of Alabama in 2004 was attributable to scheduling and the problems of the Tide's opposition to field competent quarterbacks. But it would be unfair to Alabama's players to discount their accomplishments in any event.
The 2004 season might be considered not just the emergence of a strong pass defense, but the emergence of free safety Roman Harper in particular. Prior to 2004, Charlie Peprah, who was moving from cornerback to strong safety, was thought to be the most effective defensive back. Peprah had a solid 2004 season, but it was Harper that turned into the ballhawking center fielder. Harper also improved his run defense significantly, and he is rarely out of position. It's no accident that Harper is among the top free safeties expected to enter the NFL next year.
Peprah did a good job at strong safety, but he has the potential to do so much more. He's got better ball skills than most safeties, and can cover one-on-one. But he needs to make more plays on his own in 2005.
Cornerbacks Ramzee Robinson and Anthony Madison are loved by many, and reviled by others. Robinson is the bigger of the two, but neither are really big men. Madison's barely-5'9" frame causes a lot of deep breaths when deep balls go in the air, but Madison was productive in 2004: Of the 21 passes broken up that the entire Alabama defense recorded, Madison had 10 of them. It gets even more impressive when you consider he played much of the season with a cast on one hand.
Both men play the run well despite their size. Robinson may be one of Alabama's most disciplined defenders, always being where he is taught to be and playing with determination, grit and intelligence. Madison plays fearlessly, and his desire can't be questioned. The reason Madison is even around in 2005 was that he graduated college in four years and won back the year he lost as a partial qualifier coming out of high school.
Both men have room for improvement, however. Both struggle a bit with taller receivers – Madison more so than Robinson – and Robinson had no interceptions last year.
They'll get help in 2005 from Simeon Castille, who broke onto the scene in a big way in 2004. Castille may be a better pure cover man than either Robinson or Madison, but he needs to add some weight and, especially, get better against the run. Castille looked to improve in the latter area during the spring.
Speaking of good springs, sophomore Eric Gray answered a difficult freshman campaign with perhaps the best spring of any Tide defensive back before getting injured at the end. He'll see a lot more playing time in 2005 than he did in 2004. The other reserve cornerback spot figures to elicit a close battle between Travis Robinson, who is recovering from a broken back; redshirt freshman Aaron McDaniel, and grayshirt signee Lionel Mitchell, who had a strong spring. Only Robinson has experience, although he looked overmatched in nearly every outing last year.
Depth at safety is a concern. Jeffery Dukes had a slow start to his first season, but he was a playmaker of the first order during spring drills. Alabama has hinted at using a 3-3-5 defensive alignment for more than just situational downs in 2005, and the fifth man in the "5" figures to be Dukes. At nearly 6'4" and 210 pounds, Dukes could be an enforcer in the secondary. Marcus Carter will back up Peprah at strong safety; like Travis Robinson, Carter's freshman campaign was a mixed bag, but he had a strong spring. Walk-ons Bryan Kilpatrick and Justin Ballard both have experience, but Alabama would probably prefer not have to rely on either in key situations.
Alabama signed a deep group of defensive back prospects in the offseason. Lionel Mitchell heads that list among the players who could play early. Chris Rogers was a playmaker in high school and has the trademark attitude of a shutdown corner. Cory Reamer opened a lot of eyes during high school playoffs and could contend for a reserve job at safety. Travis Sikes, who may start out at wide receiver, and Sam Burnthall are two other safety prospects who are likely to grayshirt and delay joining the team.
The man most recruiting observers are watching, though, is Chris Keys. Alabama stole Keys away from LSU late in the recruiting process, and he figures to play early either at strong safety or linebacker. The smart money has Keys starting out in the secondary this year, and moving to linebacker as conditioning allows.
If last year was the truth and not a fluke, Alabama will make a lot of quarterbacks and wide receivers miserable in 2005. Alabama needs to identify at least two reserve safeties who the coaches can trust to play in key situations, and Charlie Peprah needs to take his game to the next level. Castille needs to simply age and garner experience, while Madison and Ramzee Robinson need to make a few more big plays while still doing the little things right. There isn't much this group didn't do well in 2004. Just doing the same things again would give Alabama a chance to win every game it plays.
FS Roman Harper (12 games, 45 solo, 32 assists, 7 TFL, 1 sack, 3 INT, 4 PBU, 1 QB hurry, 2 FR, 1 FC), SS Charlie Peprah (12 games, 34 solo, 17 assists, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU), CB Ramzee Robinson (12 games, 27 solo, 18 assists, 1 TFL, 4 PBU), CB Anthony Madison (12 games, 15 solo, 11 assists, 2 TFL, 4 INT, 10 PBU, 1 BK), CB Simeon Castille (11 games, 7 solo, 7 assists, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 2 INT, 4 PBU), SS Carlos Andrews (11 games, 5 solo, 5 assists), FS Jeffery Dukes (12 games, 6 solo, 1 assist, 2 FC), Eric Gray (9 games, 3 solo, 1 assist, 1 TFL, 1 FR), SS Marcus Carter (11 games, 2 solo, 1 assist), CB Travis Robinson (5 games, 1 solo), SS Justin Ballard (7 games, 1 assist), SS Bryan Kilpatrick (no stats), CB Chris James (no stats)