Yielding 180.25 yards per game through the air, Alabama comes in 23rd out of all Division 1A schools, sixth in the SEC. Those ratings are certainly not as good as Defensive Coordinator Carl Torbush would like, but compared to last season they're nirvana. "They've made a lot of improvement," Torbush acknowledged. "I think they're playing with great self-confidence. We're still not perfect, but we're getting better."
At times last season Alabama was simply inept on pass defense, and the improvement has been startling. "I think you have to admire those guys back there," said Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione. "Coach (Chris) Thurmond and Coach (Melvin) Smith and Coach (Carl) Torbush and the job they have done in improving the secondary."
For a Crimson Tide defense, 23rd may not seem like anything write home about. But contrast that with last seasons' final rank of 95th and the progress becomes evident. "I think the change can be chalked up to a better understanding (of our defense) and more confidence," Torbush said. "The players got a lot of experience last year. I saw the improvement the last four games of last year. I saw it during spring practice and during fall two-a-days."
Looking back over this season, Bama's second game in which the second-ranked Sooners passed for 304 yards can almost be viewed as an aberration. "Even the games we didn't play as well, the improvement was there," Torbush explained. "The Oklahoma game was basically just three plays. If it hadn't been for those three plays, then our pass defense played outstanding during that game as well."
When faced with superior athletes, the Bama secondary can sometimes still struggle. Oklahoma's Mark Clayton victimized Bama's Hirchel Bolden for four receptions, 129 yards and two touchdowns. And Georgia's Fred Gibson and Terrence Edwards played like All-Americans in the Bulldog's close win.
"There have been a few plays here and there that we've had a problem," Franchione acknowledged. "But we've faced some very good receivers from time to time. In college football today I think you're going to have some plays made against you with the ability that teams have to throw the football and with the great receivers that we have in today's game and the great passers. The key is to make one or two more plays.
"Certainly I think that our unit--other than just a handful of plays--has played pretty solid back there this year. And they have gotten better and better and better."
Last season Bama's DBs couldn't seem to intercept the football--sometimes even if it hit them in the hands. As a unit the 2001 defense garnered just six interceptions, two of which were credited to defensive linemen.
But the Tide INT total this year is already at 10, fifth-best in the conference. "I think our group has done a great job of disguising, moving around," Franchione said, "keeping people guessing as to where the spot was to throw the football and for the most part covered pretty well lately."
Across the board the Tide defensive backs are performing better. Charles Jones and Gerald Dixon especially have improved their play. And though Bolden has given up a few passes this season that have hurt, his coaches credit him with overall consistent play.
Torbush commented. "You've got to do it every week. Those defensive backs are a whole lot like your quarterback on offense. They're going to get criticized, because if they give up the deep ball then everybody sees it. Fans don't always remember the other 70 plays they may have played well."
The veterans are playing better, and the Alabama secondary has also benefited from an influx of young talent. Charlie Peprah is starting at one cornerback slot, and fellow redshirt freshmen Roman Harper and Anthony Madison have been valuable coming off the bench.
"We've got some depth," Torbush acknowledged. "We've got a bunch of guys that can play. If Charlie Peprah has a bad series, then we can put Hirchel Bolden in there and vice versa. Anthony Madison is still there, and we've got Carlos Andrews."
Torbush credits Cornerbacks Coach Chris Thurmond and Safeties Coach Melvin Smith for developing the secondary depth chart. "The depth that we've created in the secondary is a great compliment to Coach Thurmond and also Coach Smith. They've done a good job with those guys. Both of them are such positive people that their kids believe in them. That creates that self-confidence."
If the Tide is "pretty good" on pass defense, Bama's stop unit is excellent versus the run. Overall Alabama is second in the SEC in Total Defense and fourth nationally. Only LSU, Oklahoma and Texas sport higher-rated defenses than the Tide's.
"There's no question that our secondary is playing well," Torbush said. "All of them have been beat up when things didn't go as well as they should. So I'm happy for them, and I'm happy for the coaches as well."