With both starters set to return to The Capstone in 2009, the cornerback position doesn't look like an area of major concern. The players are both very experienced Southeastern Conference players who have major league talent.
Javier Arenas, who will finish off an outstanding career at Alabama this season, and Kareem Jackson, a starter in 26 games in his first two years at Alabama, man the corners for the Bama defense.
When the Tide enters the Saban staple nickel or dime package (both of which implements a three cornerback scheme), they can call on reliable senior Marquis Johnson.
Staying healthy is a big must because the back-up help is talented but young and inexperienced, two words which get SEC Offensive Coordinators chomping at the bit.
If we were to toss out the Utah game completely, and just focus on the regular season, the Tide secondary only allowed one quarterback to pass for more than 250 yards, and he was the first player selected in the NFL draft, Georgia's Matthew Stafford.
Unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, Brian Johnson played the game of his life and tossed the ball around for 336 yards and three touchdowns through the air, and that's the bad taste that's left in the mouths of the cover guys coming into the '09 season.
Throughout the year the Tide held strong in defense of the pass. In seven games, Tide defenders held opponents to less than 200 yards passing. Although the two starting corners returning are primed for big seasons, a huge part of the secondary and overall defense is gone from last year's squad.
Safety Rashad Johnson, now off to the NFL, was the play caller and team leader. Starting strong safety Justin Woodall will take over those duties and should do fine, but Johnson was a smart, savvy ball player, who knew how to get inside a quarterback's head (think Jarrett Lee) and will be missed.
Reasons for Optimism
Always the special teams juggernaut, in 2008 Arenas really established himself as a top tier SEC corner. He recorded 63 tackles, one interception (which he took to the house 63 yards for a score), 3.5 tackles for a loss, and two sacks blitzing off the corner.
Arenas offers sharp ball skills, solid straight line speed, impressive lateral quickness, and a nose for the ball. Arenas doesn't have the prototypical corner frame (stands only 5-foot-9) but plays with tenacious intensity.
In 2007, you may recall Arenas flailing off Early Doucet in the LSU game, as Doucet pranced in for the tying score. Five minutes prior in the game Javy had returned a punt 61 yards for a TD.
The prevailing theory on Arenas was great return man, but liability on defense. All that changed in 2008. Teams would not throw his way. He earned second team All-SEC as a special teams player, but also as a cornerback.
In the 2008 LSU game, Arenas was all over the place. He was in on nine tackles (five solo), one of the tackles was for a loss, and had a pass break-up to his credit. He has come a long way fast, and the momentum keeps building for Arenas as he was awarded the Sylvester Croom Commitment to Excellence Award after 'Bama's spring practice.
Receivers beat Jackson several times in 2008, but any young player will have growing pains, and he was often lined up against the opposing offense's best receiver. Jackson finished the season with 44 tackles (28 solo), one interception, 10 pass break-ups, and one fumble recovery.
Jackson has legitimate 4.5 speed with solid hips and good instincts. He should flourish with this being his third year under Saban's tutelage.
B.J. Scott started his UA career at wide receiver, but has moved to defensive back in the off-season.
Scott has all the potential in the world to be a great college corner. Once he learns the position, it should become extremely difficult to keep him on the sidelines with his quick bursts and closing speed. He has to be considered one of the front-runners to succeed Javier Arenas as the punt returner next season.
Marquis Johnson should provide quality depth at cornerback in his senior season. He is not the most physically gifted or instinctual cornerback on Alabama's roster, but he has the talent to see the field as a backup corner and an extra defensive back in the Tide's nickel and dime packages.
Johnson had 49 tackles in 2008 to go with two interceptions. He had a pick in the opener against Clemson, and also had one in the Arkansas romp. The young man from Sarasota has had a solid career at The Capstone appearing in 36 games coming into the 2009 season and should bring senior leadership to his role with this year's team.
Johnson was a bright spot in the bowl game leading the team with nine tackles (seven solo) in his third appearance as a starter.
Chris Rogers enters 2009 as a senior with a chip on his shoulder. He enjoys playing time and several blue chip freshmen will challenge Rogers for a spot on the two-deep at corner. Rogers participated in all 14 of Bama's games last season.
Rogers was a factor on special teams play with a touchdown from a blocked punt in the Tulane game. He showed his natural instincts and ability with an impressive interception against Arkansas in 2008.
His experience should earn him minutes in the secondary, but has turned into a monster on special teams play and will probably see a majority of his action there. Rogers is a fifth year senior and a two-time SEC Academic Honor Roll selection.
Alonzo Lawrence came to Tuscaloosa in 2008 from Lucedale, Miss. as highly-touted prospect (honored as a Parade High School All-American) with the ability to break into the corner rotation in a hurry.
At this point it looks like Lawrence could get significant minutes and challenge Marquis Johnson as the guy coach Saban turns to in nickel and dime packages. However, it is conceivable Lawrence could move to safety. (Also published reports that Lawrence is possibly exploring a transfer.)
Lawrence stands 6-foot-1, and weighs 190 pounds. He plays the game both fast and physical and can deliver a knock out blow. If he has the chance to pop a wide receiver, he will. His older brother, Co-Eric Riley, played for Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State.
Incoming freshman Dre Kirkpatrick stands 6-foot-2 which gives Alabama great size at the corner position to go along with a rangy frame, elite ball skills, a strong physical presence, and excellent instincts. Alabama fans shouldn't look for him to redshirt in 2009, nor should they expect him to beat out Arenas or Jackson as a starter.
Obviously, Kirkpatrick has a big future in the Bama secondary. How much he's involved this year will depend on how fast he learns the system. As talented as he is, it will be hard to see him on the bench, but look for Kirkpatrick to learn from the two upperclassmen starters and get valuable in-game experience as the coaches seek to nurture this potential superstar during his freshman campaign.
Causes for Concern
When you have two solid starters returning at cornerback and three players with enormous upside such as Scott, Lawrence, and Kirkpatrick one might think Saban and Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart are not too worried. Indeed, the primary concern seems to be the same as it is at every position on every team: injury. If Jackson or Arenas were to go down, Bama might have to turn to one of these talented, but unproven players.
The experienced players like Marquis Johnson and Chris Rogers have shown flashes of brilliance, but have yet to established themselves as top-tier SEC corners. Kyle Pennington also moves over from wide receiver like Scott to provide added depth to the group.
The big passing game Utah had raises concerns as well. After four interceptions against LSU, the Tide failed to make an interception in the final four games. That kind of momentum changer would have done wonders in altering the game against the hot Johnson, or Tim Tebow for the SEC Championship.
Arenas has evolved into a potential first team all-SEC performer at cornerback. He can mirror a top receiver and rarely misses a tackle. There's no reason to think he'll regress during his senior year.
Kareem Jackson is as solid as they come. Look for both to have big years and for the young guys to gain a better understanding of the position. They'll face some good quarterbacks such as Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor, Arkansas's Ryan Mallett, and Ole Miss's Javon Snead.
If all goes well, a possible meeting with Tebow could happen again in Atlanta. This time more quality depth at corner could pay big dividends against the Florida attack.
They'll also be challenged by a vastly improving LSU passing attack led by Jordan Jefferson and a top receiving core.
It's never easy in the SEC, but this group looks up for any task and should be looked at as a pre-season strong point in surmising the Tide's overall strengths and weaknesses as a team.
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