Sharrief Working To Replace Rashad

Do you remember last February as Alabama was sweating out a half dozen or so high school football prospects who weren't going to announce their intentions until signing day? There was, for instance, Tana Patrick, the number seven strongside linebacker prospect in the nation from North Jackson High School. As we all know, he became part of the outstanding signing class at Bama.

Do you think maybe his cousin had a hint? Alabama defensive back Ali Sharrief is "looking forward to having my little cousin down here." Hello? Tana Patrick, the Army All-American and all-everything in the world of recruiting is the cousin of Sharrief, and no one knew it? It's a good bet that Alabama Coach Nick Saban knew it.

As for being "the little cousin," Patrick will check into Crimson Tide football practices in August at 6-3, 235 pounds. Sharrief is 5-9 and 205, but he's big-time. Any Saban mention of the safety situation seems always to start with Sharrief.

Alabama has most of the defensive starters back from last season, but there is a critical replacement to be made in the secondary. Rashad Johnson was Bama's free safety and the acknowledged leader of the defense, the secondary quarterback when it came to making calls. He was not only an All-America player, Johnson was a two-time Crimson Tide captain.

Sharrief is almost respectful when speaking of the role Johnson played and the work going on to replace him. Sharrief, a senior who has been primarily a special situations player in nickel and dime defensive schemes in the past, is not making any assumptions. "It might be anyone, not necessarily me," Sharrief said.

Alabama is going about the replacement policy in a somewhat unorthodox manner. Instead of a strong safety and free safety, this spring Saban is working the safeties as left and right. That means the offense determines which is the strong safety and which is the free safety. The safety candidates are learning the assignments of both.

"I think it's a good thing," said Sharrief. Although Alabama's defensive playbook is legendary thick, Sharrief said it gets easier as the players go through the process. This spring the safeties have a little more to learn, which Sharrief said "is more challenging."

"If you get stuck on one side, you know what to do," Sharrief said. "If one safety doesn't pick something up, the other one probably will. It makes us be more vocal."

He said that Justin Woodall, a returning starter who worked alongside Johnson last year, "knows the defense as well as Rashad did. But Rashad and Rolando McClain react so quickly. They recognize it and respond so quick. Last year there was no question Rashad was going to be the free safety. This spring we're all rotating around.

"The coaches are trying to find the right fit and we're working hard to make it best for the team. I'm taking everything day-by-day, trying to become a better person and a better player for my teammates."

In addition to Sharrief and Woodall, the safety candidates include Mark Barron, Robby Green, Tyrone King, Wesley Neighbors, and Robert Lester.

Sharreif said he continues to play the "money" position when the Tide is in dime package with six defensive back types. In that position, he is in the box, near the line of scrimmage, and almost a linebacker. "I like that, because I was a linebacker in high school," he said.

Sharrief was also an outstanding running back at North Jackson High School. He has speed. He was a two-time state champion in the 55-meter dash. After a redshirt season in 2005, he was a back-up running back and special teams player in 2006. Sharrief converted to defensive back in 2007 and played as a nickel back and on special teams.

Last year he continued as a key special teams player and as a reserve safety and had two starts when Bama opened games in the dime package. He was in on 31 tackles and had five pass break-ups. His most memorable play was a tipped pass that was intercepted by McClain.

He was Academic All-SEC.

One aspect of working at safety in the spring is going against Alabama's receiving corps. Sharrief thinks the group is going to take a lot of pressure off Julio Jones. "He's always going to make an impact, and teams have to be conscious of Julio," Sharrief said. "But Marquis Maze, Darius Hanks, Brandon Gibson, Earl Alexander, Mike McCoy, all those guys are working strong. Maze and Hanks are real quick guys."

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