Arenas Coming Up Big In Secondary

Suppose Alabama football had a depth chart (which, protestations notwithstanding, Bama surely does). Javier Arenas would have been listed at the top of kickoff return and punt return categories going into spring practice. Halfway through spring drills, he is number one at cornerback. And Arenas is in the minority who is not surprised.

Javier Arenas is in the Alabama football records book for his work as a kick return specialist. Now the upcoming junior is preparing to make a name for himself as a defensive back, where his previous work has involved special situations.

Probably two things kept the press and public from being able to envision Arenas as a star cornerback. The first is his size, only 5-9 in an era when there is an emphasis on finding tall corners to match up against tall wide receivers. The second reason is Arenas' dazzling style on punt and kickoff returns inspires visions of a David Palmer-type player for the Crimson Tide offense. Indeed, Alabama Coach Nick Saban once hinted that Arenas might be able to get some work on offense, but Arenas doesn't seem to want any part of it.

"From the get-go, I knew I was a great defensive back," said Arenas, who didn't bother to answer a later question as to whether he had enough confidence to be a starting cornerback. "In my head, I was a defensive back first and a kick returner second."

Going into his sophomore season, Saban and Secondary Coach Kirby Smart told the Tide that there would be a lot of defensive backs playing, Arenas said. "I knew that I would have a chance to play," he said. "Five and six defensive backs--that's our defense."

Although listed as a back-up safety last year, Arenas' primary playing time on defense came in Bama's nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) packages. His defensive statistics included 20 tackles (two for lost yardage) and a pass break-up.

Those defensive stats got secondary notice to Arenas' work as a kick return man. He had 27 kickoff returns for 657 yards, both figures ranking second in all-time Bama history. He had eight kickoff returns (an Alabama record) for 168 yards against LSU. Arenas retuned 21 punts for 323 yards, the 15.4 yards per return average ranking second in Bama history. That ranked second in the Southeastern Conference and 12th in the nation. His most memorable play of 2007 was his 61-yard punt return for a touchdown that gave Alabama a 34-27 lead with half a quarter to play against the eventual national champions.

Last Saturday, the defense got the best of it against the offense in an Alabama scrimmage at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Among the seven interceptions were two by Arenas. But just so no one forgets, he also had a kick return for a touchdown.

Arenas began his move from safety to cornerback during Alabama's practice for last season's Independence Bowl game. Saban said, "We thought he was our fifth cornerback (at the beginning of the 2007 season) and we thought he would have a better opportunity to play at safety. We played him at star (Alabama's term for the nickel back). But as the year went on, we were impressed with his coverage. We wanted to move him back to cornrer and the first opportunity to do that was during bowl preparation.

"He's had a really good spring so far," Saban said following Wednesday's Alabama football practice.

Arenas is forthcoming with his performance. "I've got them crying," he said of Alabama's receivers. "I love it."

He added that he works hard in practice in order to make himself better, but also to make the Tide's wide receivers better. And though he admits to "trash talk," he said it's all in good fun with his friends.

Arenas said the defense "was happy with some of the plays we made, but not satisfied" with the scrimmage last Saturday. When you are satisfied, you may begin to take it easy, he explained. "The defense had a lot of good plays, but we've got a lot of room to improve."

He also expects the offense to do better when Alabama has its scrimmage on Saturday.

Arenas said moving up to first team has a psychological effect on the receivers going against him. "There's a different respect level when I'm with the Ones," he said. "When I was with the Twos and Threes, they may have thought they could get past me. When I'm with the Ones, they know there is a reason for that and that I'm going to be tougher."

The muscular (he weighs 196) Arenas considers his speed to be his best natural asset and the coaching of Nick Saban to be the most important aspect of cornerback play. "A lot of guys--including me--are starting to get it," he said. "When you do things right, when you do what he says, the play comes to you. You are in good position to make the play."

Arenas said that all of Alabama's receivers "bring something," from the speed of much talked-about redshirt freshman Darius Hanks to the physical power of Earl Alexander. "All of them release, try to make a move off the ball to get past me," he said. "All but Earl Alexander. He comes off right at your chest and tries to flatten you."

As a team, Arenas said, the defense needs "to finish plays. And we can't have mental busts. I had one or two last week."

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