Position Analysis: Tide Safeties

Nick Saban has coached defensive backs both professionally (with the Houston Oilers in the late 1980s) and at the college level (at Ohio State and Michigan State). Although he knows the game of football inside and out in all areas of the game, coaching the secondary is his specialty. It's also the position he played while in college at Kent State from 1970-1972.


An Alabama player who best exemplified the Nick Saban work ethic and became field general on defense for the Tide last season was Rashad Johnson, a true rags-to-riches story.  While Johnson created some interest as a running back in high school at 3A Sulligent he didn't receive a single scholarship offer before deciding to walk-on with the Tide.  

The free safety became a two-time All-SEC performer and was selected by Saban as defensive play-caller. In his senior season he racked up 89 tackles and five interceptions including a three interception game against LSU which sent the Crimson Tide to Atlanta to play for the SEC championship.

Johnson was selected in the third round of the 2009 draft by the Arizona Cardinals.  There's no question Saban will dearly miss a player like Rashad Johnson.

The Skinny

Justin Woodall
The positive news is strong safety Justin Woodall will return for his senior season.  Woodall, a native of Oxford, Miss., turned down big bucks from the New York Mets to join the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2006.  

Woodall had a strong spring and won the Bobby Johns Most Improved Defensive Back Award as selected by the coaching staff.  He hits hard forcing two fumbles, breaking up eight passes, and having 47 tackles a year ago.  

Woodall made four interceptions in '08, including one from the number one overall pick in the NFL draft, Matthew Stafford of Georgia.  He's poised for a sensational senior season and would be an excellent choice to fill the role of play-caller given his experience in understanding of the defense.

Woodall (listed at 6-2, 220) can ball-hawk with the best of them, so don't be surprised to see him grab many post-season accolades as well as a few more interceptions in '09.

As Woodall replaces Johnson as leader of the secondary, who replaces Rashad at the other safety spot remains to be seen.


Robby Green
(Alabama has traditionally been a team with two safeties, a strongside safety and a free or weakside safety. Saban said last spring that the Tide would be using a left safety and a right safety this year. Woodson was at left safety in the A-Day Game. Players think it has been beneficial to learn both safety roles in the "left" and "right" form, but expect to revert to strong safety and weak safety when game preparation begins.) 

Robby Green, from John Curtis Christian outside of New Orleans in River Ridge, La., enters his sophomore campaign coming off a great spring which saw him switch from cornerback to safety and rise quickly up the depth chart.  

Green won the Ozzie Newsome Most Improved Freshman Award after his strong showing in spring practice.  Green was used almost exclusively on special teams last season.  Although most projected him at the corner position in college, Green is an excellent tackler (as seen during his stellar play on special teams) and can close ground in a hurry.  He'll head into camp with a slight edge over equally talented Mark Barron for the starting job opposite Woodall.


Mark Barron
Barron, a St. Paul's of Mobile product, had a pretty good spring himself.  He excelled during the A-Day game with five tackles and an interception.  One would think at 6-2, 215 he'd be a good fit as Woodall's replacement in 2010. Some even projected him as an outside linebacker coming out of high school.

Barron also made an impact on special teams play last season, but saw a more active role in reserve duty than Green.  He's a big, rangy guy with quickness and a solid tackler.  Even if Green does end up as the starter, Barron will likely see plenty of action in the secondary.

Senior Ali Sharrief did The University proud in 2008 making the SEC Academic honor roll. Sharrief has been an outstanding citizen at Tuscaloosa and has done what the coaching staff has asked of him such as making the switch from running back to defensive back in '07.  

When 'Bama sets up in the nickel or dime Sharrief is on the field  (both packages call for extra defensive backs).  He'll certainly be there this year, as well as special teams, but he's out to seize the open free safety position for himself.  

Last year, Sharrief was in on 31 tackles, started the Sugar Bowl and played well making four individual tackles.  He'll add maturity, leadership, and a workman-like attitude to a relatively young secondary unit.  


Tyrone King
It's easy for a player like Sharrief to go unheralded because he hasn't really made that "signature play" yet, but he's certainly helped others make them with his disruptive presence in the dime.

Another senior expected to make a big contribution is Tyrone King.  Like Sharrief, he has yet to make a big interception but has been a solid contributor to Tide football during his time at The Capstone.  His father, the late Tyrone Sr., played for Coach Paul Bryant and his son decided to walk-on after a year spent at Grambling State.  

With exceptional play on special teams, King was awarded a scholarship last season.  He had a good spring and should challenge for more playing time.  King's been a staple of special teams and will probably still see a majority of his action there, but expect to see him involved in nickel and dime packages, possibly more.


Robert Lester
Robert Lester may surprise people this season. He took a redshirt in his first year with the Tide. Lester enjoyed a fantastic high school career at Foley, ranked as one of the top safeties nationally.  He'll probably be used more on special teams units this season.  

At 6-2, 207, Lester has good size with nice speed and leaping ability.  He's at his best when being disruptive on a deep ball. He could see the field in prevent defenses, or in the nickel and dimes. He is definitely one the coaches hope to mature during the season with in-game experience.

Wesley Neighbors is more in the strong safety mold.  With that position being wrapped up with Woodall this season, expect Neighbors to see some duty in special teams.  The Huntsville native's grandfather, Billy, was part of the 1961 National Championship team at Alabama.  His father, Wes, also played for 'Bama during the Ray Perkins era.


Wesley Neighbors
Neighbors is a hard hitter and could learn a lot with a season on special teams.  Savvy with a good football I.Q. Neighbors could earn more playing time as the season progresses with heady play.  

Rod Woodson comes to The Capstone out of Olive Branch High School in Mississippi.  Woodson is a ferocious hitter.  If he doesn't work his way into the rotation right away then you're more than likely to see him on special teams.  

Woodson plays the position with a linebacker's mentality.  Look for him in safety blitz packages and look for him to come hard at opposing quarterbacks.  Woodson comes in at 5-11, 200.  

  Woodson could eventually be placed at outside linebacker, but strong safety seems ideal for his game.  They'll try to get as much use out of Woodson his freshman year as possible, and he should be ready to battle it out with Barron for a staring role in '10.

  Cause for Concern
Losing Rashad Johnson certainly hurts.  His understanding of what Coach Saban wants to do and helping make that happen on the field was a huge part of the Tide's success defensive in '08. Barron and Green are both underclassmen who contributed quite a bit on special teams, but haven't seen a lot of action in the secondary.  

The two seniors, Sharrief and King, will play significant roles and know them well.  They'll both need to stay healthy and assist in bringing along Lester, Neighbors, and the true freshman, Woodson.  

Alonzo Lawrence, a cornerback who could have been easily converted to safety if need be, is no longer with the Alabama team and transferred to Southern Miss, taking away from the quality depth for the overall unit.  


Rod Woodson
Cause for Optimism
Woodall should be able to step into the leadership role fairly easily.  Backing him up is Barron or Woodson.  If Woodall were to go down, they'd definitely lose his leadership, but both back-ups are immense talents.  

Green seems ready to break out and show the SEC what he's all about.  If he fails to live up to the off-season billing, Barron could step over into the role as could the veterans Sharrief or King.  With a season of learning the system under their belts, Lester and Neighbors have the potential to land significant minutes.  

Conclusion
This group should be solid for the Tide despite some question marks.  As a whole they're tall, rangy, physical ball players with a good bit of on-the-field meanness in them.  Saban should love them.  

  Woodall's the constant, and the Barron-Green duel should resolve itself during late summer sessions.  Sharrief and King have both been positive influences on the entire team.  It will be nice to see them do well in their final year in Tuscaloosa.  

Lester and Neighbors will need to make big strides this season, as Woodson will come on strong, and next year prep star Jarrick Williams is set to join in the fray.  

This unit has lots of potential and will need to make some big plays (sacks and turnovers) to help ensure Tide success in '09.

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