Murphy On The Defense

I was optimistic last week in assessing The University of Alabama's offensive prospects for 2007. Yes, I believe it has record-setting capabilities with John Parker Wilson chucking balls to DJ Hall and Keith Brown, and handing off to a stable of motivated running backs behind what has to be a (read: better be) an improved offensive line.

Now, on to the not-so-positive segment of the Crimson Tide.

The defense.

Any SEC defensive coordinator who's being honest will tell you step one in outfitting a competitive defensive unit is putting together a run-stopping force. It helps to have some Anthony Bryant-type pluggers on the front, burly linebackers in the middle and rangy head hunters at the safety spots.

Right now, Alabama is below average in all three of those body types, and is quite simply short on guys with much experience at those positions.

Nick Saban and his coaching staff know this. They use terms like ``thin'' in numbers and size to describe their defensive limitations and they're dead right.

Saban openly worried about his defensive tackles ``holding the point'' during spring drills. The situation was dire enough that converted offensive center Brian Motley, a redshirt freshman mind you, rose to the top of the depth chart at the nose.

Of course, that was partly due to injuries to others, but it points out the lack of veteran talent at the position. Quite frankly, it's time for Lorenzo Washington and Byron Walton and Brandon Fanney, who practiced at outside linebacker this spring, to start backing up their recruiting reputations.

Now surely the defense will be able to finagle some run stopping with schemes. In Saban and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele alone, there are dozens of years of adapting systems to fit the talent and in tweaking schemes in-game to tighten up leaks. The Crimson Tide will not have a big, rugged defense to rely on this fall, so sharp adjustments and crafy utilizations of personnel will be of the utmost importance for Saban's first 'Bama team.

The defensive ends will have to be more versatile. The Jack and the Sam positions at outside linebacker, guys like Keith Saunders, Zeke Knight and Fanney, will have to handle the run and be fleet in pursuit.

Cornerbacks will have to play the run more than a lot of systems demand. Simeon Castille has already proved to be suited in that department, based on his outstanding tackle total from last season. And, of course, the crew of safeties led by Marcus Carter and Rashad Johnson will have to read and react to the run and be drop-dead tacklers better than ever.

Injuries must be avoided at the middle linebacker slots, where still-learning sophomore Prince Hall and one-time transfer Darren Mustin are the would-be starters, but have few behind them that look the part of the standard SEC middle linebacker.

Against the pass, I believe this unit should be better than average, and part of that is due to Saban's notorious blitz packages.

It has speed. Certainly the new schemes will allow Wallace Gilberry to recapture the form that made him the team sack leader as a freshman. I wonder if Gilberry led the league in near-sacks last season?

Castille is solid in man coverage and is one of the nation's best in the nickel role, so if more corners emerge as cover aces (Lionel Mitchell, Kareem Jackson, Eric Gray?), the decorated senior can wreak havoc as a center field type when five and six defensive backs are employed.

It's going to be strange to see guys like Saunders, Knight and Fanney dropping into coverage, but we all know the Saban system is a proven winner.

However, I'll consider it a major accomplishment if Alabama finishes in the top four of the SEC in total defense this season, and it'll be a solid year's work if the Crimson Tide lands in the top six in the league in defense.

Editor's Note: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register and a contributor to 'BAMA Magazine and

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