Saban has given some hints as to what to expect, but circumstances add to the mystery. In all probability, Bama's head coach and his staff have worked hard to make it a guessing game for opponents, too.
Over the past two years the Tide has lost almost every defensive starter. Recruiting for the past few years has been heavy on defensive back types but lacking in numbers of linebackers, defensive ends and defensive tackles.
As for those hints from Saban: he said that Alabama's base defense will be a 3-4 (three defensive linemen, four linebackers). But he also points out that the Jack linebacker (one of two outside linebackers, the other being strongside) can be on the line of scrimmage, making a 4-3 look.
Add to the equation that he has said that Alabama will frequently have a nickel back ("Money" is the name of the position in Saban nomenclature). Three plus four (or four plus three) plus five equals 12. That's one over the limit.
So when Alabama has five defensive backs, what will be missing? One of the three defensive linemen? Alabama has two ends and one tackle in its 3-4. Or one of the linebackers?
Will Alabama become a 2-4 or a 3-3 front? Or a 4-2?
Just as the offense will be multiple, expect the same from the defense. There will probably be a lot of different looks.
A case can be made that six defensive starters return from last year, although two of those returning starters alternated at one of the end spots. That problem was solved by moving one of those first team ends – Keith Saunders – to the newly created linebacker position, Jack. With Saunders and Brandon Fanney (also a former defensive lineman) manning the Jack position, it can be a fourth line spot.
Defensive end is a spot where at least one true freshman – Luther Davis – is expected to be in the playing rotation. Jeremy Elder is another true freshman who could be a defensive end back-up, along with soph Brandon Deaderick and redshirt freshmen Milton Talbert and Charlie Kirschman.
An early surprise could come at middle linebacker (or Mike), where Prince Hall returns after having earned Freshman All-America honors last year. This year he could be a back-up, because true freshman Rolando McClain has been one of the pleasant surprises of fall camp. Charlie Higgenbotham is also in the mix.
The other inside linebacker position, weakside linebacker (Will), is likely to go to hard-working senior Darren Mustin, the former Middle Tennessee State back-up who walked on at Bama. Veteran back-up Demarcus Waldrop has had a good fall camp and moved ahead of Marcel Stamps and Eryk Anders for the back-up position.
The other outside linebacker spot, strongside (Sam), has been won by the much-traveled veteran Ezekial Knight. The former wide receiver and defensive end got a year of eligibility back and is a junior after undergoing surgery for a heart murmur last year. Zach Schreiber and former defensive back Cory Reamer are likely back-ups.
Alabama has only one tackle in its scheme, and that position took a hit from graduation (two starting defensive tackles from last year, Dominic Lee and Jeremy Clark) and from injury as Byron Walton had to give up football this fall and redshirt freshman Brian Motley, a former offensive lineman who finished spring as first team, missed work after undergoing hand surgery.
Alabama returns two starters in the secondary. Simeon Castille, formerly a right cornerback, has been listed as the left cornerback. His off-the-field problems aside, he'll be starting again this year. Most expect him to be the money back, meaning two others will start at the cornerback positions. Junior Lionel Mitchell gets a lot of mention and is expected to be at right corner. When Castille is the money, look for true freshman Kareem Jackson, who entered The University last January, to be at left cornerback. Others in the mix include Marquis Johnson and Eric Gray.
Senior Marcus Carter is back as a starter at one of the safety positions and junior Rashad Johnson is listed number one at the other safety spot. There is good competition at these positions from the likes of former cornerbacks sophs Chris Rogers and Javier Arenas (best known as a kick return man) and from sophs Sam Burnthall and Ali Sharrief. The biggest surprise may be that a name not heard much is one of the team's supposed best athletes, Justin Woodall.