Defense Rebuilt Successfully

In this brief series examining how Alabama has gone from a .500 team in 2007 to the number one team in the nation in Coach Nick Saban's second season, we have looked at the improvement in offense and special teams. To be honest, there were not major surprises in those areas. Defense, our third installment, is a different story.

Alabama returned nine starters on offense and basically all specialists on the kicking teams from 2007. But the defense had to be rebuilt with over half the starters from 2007 having departed. Bama was a decent defense in 2007 and only four starters from that team have been starters this season.

When Alabama plays its final regular season game against Auburn Saturday (kickoff at 2:30 p.m. CST and television coverage by CBS), the men who started last year and will be starting against the Tigers are defensive end Brandon Deaderick, middle linebacker Rolando McClain, safety Rashad Johnson, and cornerback Kareem Jackson.

Among those who are gone from last year are end Wallace Gilberry, linebacker Darren Mustin, and cornerback Simeon Castille.

The Crimson Tide of Coach Nick Saban has two new linemen, three new linebackers and two new backs in its base (3-4) starting lineup.

There were two men who started last year whose eligibility did not expire. Strongside linebacker Ezekial Knight was forced to give up football for medical reasons. Lorenzo Washington had played out of position last year, having to fill the nose tackle spot. This year he's at his natural position, defensive end, where he is a solid back-up performer.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban takes a hands-on approach with the defense, actually coaching cornerbacks in practice. He went to extremes to keep his defensive staff intact following last season, elevating Kevin Steele, who coaches inside linebackers, from defensive coordinator to defensive head coach, and making Kirby Smart, who coaches the secondary, defensive coordinator.

How good has Alabama been on defense? In fashioning its 11-0 record (7-0 in Southeastern Conference play), Bama has been the SEC's best defensive team.

Alabama is allowing 255.6 yards per game, which ranks first in the SEC. Teams attempting to run the football against Bama average only 75.1 yards per game on the ground, also first in the conference. The Crimson Tide ranks only sixth in pass defense, allowing 180.5 yards per game, but there is a caveat: if an opponent can't run, it has to try to pass. Tide foes have tried more passes (381) against Alabama than have been attempted against any other SEC team. The percentage of completions against the Tide is only 51.4 (second in the league) and the average yards-per-attempt is only 5.2, which is best in the conference. In pass defense efficiency, Alabama is number one. The Tide is best in the league in first downs allowed and in third down conversions allowed. Bama gives up 12.5 points per game, which is second best in the conference.

It starts up front, and Alabama used something old and something new to solidify the defensive line. The something old is Bobby Greenwood, who had experience (including half a dozen starts) as a defensive end in his previous three seasons. The something new is one of the most intriguing players in college football, junior college transfer Terrence Cody. The 6-5, 365-pound nose tackle has earned hero status as he has dominated centers and guards, almost always at least two at a time. Along with Deaderick, and with the likes of Washington, Josh Chapman, and freshmen Marcel Dareus and Undra Billingsley in back-up roles, the defensive line has been solid.

When Alabama lists its defense as a 3-4 (three defensive linemen, four linebackers, and, therefore, four defensive backs), it is somewhat false advertising. Saban has pointed out that depending on the opponent, Bama is likely to have five or six defensive backs in the game on many snaps. In passing situations, Cody is replaced with a quicker, pass-rush type nose tackle, Washington slipping inside or Dareus, and with six defensive backs there may be no nose tackle. When there is a nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six secondary men), strongside linebacker Cory Reamer comes out. Sometimes he's replaced by pass rushing specialist Eryk Anders.

Alabama had to replace two starters in the secondary and did so with Justin Woodall taking over for the graduated Marcus Carter at strong safety and Javier Arenas (best known as a kick return specialist, but the nickel back much of last season) taking over for Castille at cornerback. The nickel and dime slots have been filled with Ali Sharrief (as he did sometimes in 2007), Marquis Johnson, Chris Rogers, and true freshmen Robby Green and Mark Barron filling in.

The secondary has been solid. Arenas has been as good at cornerback (he's particularly impressive as a sure tackler) as he is at kick returner. Woodall has always had the promise of excellence and has delivered in his junior year. The leader, of course, is Rashad Johnson, one of the best stories in college football anywhere. Johnson walked on at Alabama as a running back. Now he's an all-conference safety and will be a two-year captain (along with center Antoine Caldwell) of the Crimson Tide.

The performances of defensive linemen and defensive backs have been impressive. But the big news on the defensive side has been the play of the linebacker corps.

Things were manageable when 2007 ended and it was known that weakside linebacker Darren Mustin and jack linebacker Keith Saunders were moving on. The loss of Ezekial Knight at strongside linebacker was a blow. Meanwhile, time was spent with former tailback Jimmy Johns at both weakside (and inside position) and strongside (an outside linebacker spot) in the spring. That time was wasted because Johns tossed away the opportunity with a summer arrest for selling illegal drugs. Additionally, Prince Hall, who had split starting time at middle linebacker over the past two years, was suspended for the spring and the first few games of 2008. Baron Huber was tried at linebacker, but moved back to fullback.

Rolando McClain, who had earned the starting job at middle linebacker as a true freshman, was back, but even he had an issue. McClain had suffered serious injuries in a summer motorcycle accident.
It is an understatement to suggest there were questions about linebacker. The performance of that group has been key to Alabama's 2008 success.

Most important to the corps, McClain made a full recovery. He is important for both brawn and brains as he's the man who calls the defensive front schemes.

When Brandon Fanney signed with Alabama, many expected him to be a defensive tackle. It was soon obvious he was not a tackle. The jack linebacker position—a hybrid linebacker/end—proved to be a good fit for him.

In the spring and early fall camp practices, Cory Reamer had worked at weakside linebacker, an inside position. When true freshman Don'ta Hightower arrived, he showed that he would be able to do the job at weakside. That enabled Reamer to move to strongside linebacker, a much better position for him. As Saban put it, Hightower being able to start as a freshman improved Alabama at two positions.

Limited back-up play at linebacker has come from Anders and freshman Courtney Upshaw on the outside, Charlie Higgenbotham and Prince Hall inside.

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