How Tide Defense May Be Shaping Up

Alabama Coach Nick Saban doesn't make it a habit to make true freshmen available to the media. Imagine the surprise, then, when safety Mark Barron entered the Naylor Stone Media Suite in the Crimson Tide football complex Monday. Barron is one of a few freshmen Saban mentioned following Saturday's scrimmage at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Perhaps everyone should prepare to get over the presence of freshmen in the Alabama football playing rotation. Head Coach Nick Saban said following the scrimmage at Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday that he expected some freshmen, perhaps as many as a dozen, to be in contributing this year. He mentioned Mark Barron and Dont'a Hightower on defense.

(Just for the record, eight true freshmen plays in last year's season-opening game, but that was against Western Carolina, not Clemson. They were starters Rolando McClain at linebacker and Kareen Jackson at cornerback, along with defensive linemen Josh Chapman, Alfred McCullough and Luther Davis; quarterback Nick Fanuzzi; wide receiver Darius Hanks; and offensive lineman William Vlachos.)

Saban doesn't allow media to view much practice work, and the scrimmage was off limits. Saban did, however, point out that the scrimmage was one of the important dates of fall practice as Bama prepares for its season-opening game against Clemson in the Georgia Dome on August 30. Where there may have been groups of men at a position, it is now possible that there are only one or two, perhaps even making semblance of a depth chart.

There are more holes to be filled on the defensive side than on the offense. The scrimmage may have brought the Alabama coaching staff a bit closer to determining which players will get the bulk of the work in the next two-plus weeks as Bama prepares for Clemson.

In deliberating how both the offense and defense may stand following that scrimmage, some consideration must be given to the number of possible positions to be filled. Bama's base defense is called a 3-4, meaning three down linemen and four linebackers (and four defensive backs). But it is possible to have a 4-3 (four linemen and three linebackers) or some lesser number of front players and five or six defensive backs.

As a courtesy to Coach Saban, this is not a discussion of a depth chart, merely a look at some who might be involved in groups at various positions on defense. And as a matter of convenience, the examination is limited to two defensive ends, a nose tackle, four linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties.

Almost anyone vaguely familiar with Alabama would pencil in a handful of players as almost certain starters on defense when the Crimson Tide meets the Clemson Tigers. Rashad Johnson at safety, Kareem Jackson at cornerback and Rolando McClain at middle linebacker are returning starters who have come in for Saban compliments in fall camp.

Regular starters lost from 2007 are defensive end Wallace Gilberry; linebackers Darren Mustin, Ezekial Knight and Keith Saunders; cornerback Simeon Castille; and safety Marcus Carter.

There had been a suspicion that 2007 starting nose tackle Lorenzo Washington might make a move to defensive end, but that has not been the case and Washington continues to hold the number one spot with back-ups Josh Chapman and junior college transfer Terrence Cody in the mix.

Brandon Deaderick also gets nice reviews from Saban and Tide players and is thought to be the leader at one defensive end spot. Alfred McCullough had a big spring game. Bobby Greenwood is the most experienced of the defensive end candidates. Not much is heard about Milton Talbert, Nick Gentry or Michael Williams (which means nothing, since Saban might not mention them without a direct question), but there is a bit of buzz about freshman Marcel Dareus.

In a few weeks, there is a possibility that Prince Hall will return to good graces. The middle linebacker, a co-starter the past two years, has been suspended for three games. Meanwhile, McClain holds down the middle linebacker spot and at last we heard Cory Reamer, the converted safety, was beside him at weakside linebacker. The mention of Hightower on a couple of occasions has sparked interest because of his size, 6-4 and 250 or so. Charles Higgenbotham, who is working at both inside spots, had a strong scrimmage Saturday, and Jennings Hester gets mentioned from time-to-time.

Chavis Williams is reported as having a good fall camp at strongside linebacker, where he is trying to hold off another impressive freshman, Jerrell Harris. And a third freshman linebacker, Courtney Upshaw, is said to be in the fight at jack linebacker, where Brandon Fanney was the 2007 back-up to Saunders. Alex Watkins, Eryk Anders and Charlie Kirschman are other outside linebackers.

Kareen Jackson said Monday that no player has a position sewed up. That's easy for him to say after an all-star freshman season at cornerback. Jackson will be one starter. One of the primary topics of conversation regarding Alabama's defense has been the performance of kick return standout Javier Arenas as the other number one cornerback position. Many expected freshman Alonzo Lawrence to be in the mix, and he may be, but not much has been heard about him except players saying he's going to be a good one after he learns the schemes. Chris Rogers got some nice reviews for his performance in the scrimmage, but otherwise there hasn't been much talk about competition at corner.

Rashad Johnson led the Southeastern Conference in interceptions last year and is a pre-season All-SEC pick this year and a sure bet to start at safety. Justin Woodall finished spring work considered to be the number one at the strong safety position, but at least two names keep cropping up as possibilities to oust Woodall. Ali Sharrief was impressive as a nickel and dime back tackler and he's now working at safety. And as mentioned previously, Mark Barron has been one of the most talked about of the outstanding freshman class. Rumors from summer seven-on-seven work were rampant about the nice job being done by freshman Robert Lester, but he has been mentioned no more than infrequently in fall camp.

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