1992 Secondary Was Good As It Gets

The secondary is considered the last line of defense. Alabama's defensive backs, Chris Donnelly, George Teague, Sam Shade and Antonio Langham were rarely challenged during the 1992 championship season. No opponent topped the 300-yard net passing mark against the stingy quartet of defenders known for their aggressive and smart play.

In this third of four parts, defensive players from the 1992 Alabama national championship team talk about the 2009 Crimson Tide defense. 

Chris Donnelly is a Medical Sales Manager for Stryker in Birmingham.  He also is a Volunteer Secondary Coach at Briarwood Christian High School.  The starting middle linebacker is the son of Sam Shade, Justin. 

Donnelly's comparison of 1992 and 2009 UA defensive teams - "Obviously we had great athletes.  That is evident by the number that played in the NFL.  The second thing was we had great senior leadership between Derrick Oden, George Teague, Copeland, Curry and those guys.  Thirdly, everyone had a role, understood their role and played their role which helped the cohesiveness of everything.  When I look at the 2009 defense, obviously they've got a lot of talent.  I think they've got 4-5 guys that will play on Sundays.  It appears to me they have good leadership whether it's coming from McClain or Javier Arenas.  I think they've got good leadership on that unit.  I actually think they have some role players too that helps them meld together.  I think there a lot of comparisons with the 1992 defense.  I've been extremely impressed with the 2009 team." 

Donnelly recalling the adversity faced by the 1992 UA defense - "Our offense struggled so much during the beginning of the year that we were asked to take on a stronger role.  Instead of going for it on fourth and one, we might punt to put the game back on the defense.  On a third and 8 our offense might have run the ball as opposed to throwing it deep.  We didn't take many gambles.  We relied on the defense.  That was the way Coach Stallings played.  Run the ball and rely on his defense and special teams.  All of a sudden you start believing in it and acting on it." 

Donnelly recalling the similar defensive efforts displayed by the 1992 team against Auburn and the 2009 team against Tennessee – "In the first half our defense played great but our offense struggled.  Auburn had less than maybe 30-40 yards rushing in the first half but our offense struggled just as bad.  At halftime we couldn't have possibly played any better than we did on defense in the first half but the score was 0-0.  We had a lot on the line – the Western division, SEC and National Championship.  Separating the two teams, offense and defense, in the locker room was a tradition. 

"Defensive Coordinator, Bill Oliver said, ‘I can't ask you to play any better than you are now.  You're doing everything great and playing hard but you have got to do more than just be a great defense.  You're going to have to help the offense.  You're going to have to create a turnover.'

"As I was watching the game (Tennessee) in the stands I said if this defense (2009) is as great as people say they are, they will find a way.  When I saw them block the kick it reminded me of the Auburn game whenever we had to find a way.  What do they do when their backs are against the wall?  That's what I wanted to see.  They found a way."     

Donnelly's assessment of the 2009 secondary – "I really like the two corners.  They provide a lot of leadership.  When I watched the Virginia Tech game to where they are now, I think one of the keys to the defensive backfield is Mark Barron has improved which is making a difference in the secondary.  I thought at times in the Virginia Tech game he was confused and out of position.  Back in 1992 we didn't have many busted coverages or people out of place.  We never really gave up a big play.  If you were going to score on us you were going to have to methodically drive the ball down the field.  My impression from the stands is the corners have been solid all year and the safeties have been better with their play, recognition of formations and their alignment.  I think that has really helped down the stretch." 

Donnelly on standout players - "Obviously, McClain stands out to me and not just because of his physical attributes.  He has leadership skills.  The players feed off of him.  The reason I say Javier is because not only does he bring a lot of excitement and energy but watching him go down in the LSU game it looked like all ten of the defensive players were standing around him.  That showed me that each player knew he was important.  It was on a punt return.  They could have easily walked off the field.  I think Arenas and McClain standout with their leadership." 

George Teague is an Athletic Director/Head Football Coach at Carrollton Christian Academy in Texas. 

Teague's impression of the 2009 UA defensive unit -"They look very good. They play physical and fast.  They are making a lot of plays. It's good to see the Bama D back on track." 

Teague's assessment of the 2009 UA secondary – "The secondary is playing pretty solid.  I'm always remembering the days of Antonio Langham and the rest of the guys.  It's just impressive to watch everyone - the linebackers, the lineman which also helps the secondary.  Size wise in the future I think we'll probably be a little bit bigger. They're making a lot of plays and not giving up any big plays. The secondary is good.  I guess and I'm not trying to talk bad about anybody but I think we could definitely enhance ourselves there at corner. The safeties seem to be doing a good job but I think there's one corner spot that I think we can do a little bit better at so we're not getting picked on." 

Teague on standout players – "I do like Arenas and McClain a lot.  They are always around the ball and they're always making a play when it definitely matters.  One of the things we always talked about is when are you going to step up and make the play at the most critical point in the game.  They seem to be doing that. 

"Overall as a team, no slight to the offense we had in 1992, but I think we are in a better position to score points now than we were then whether that's because of players, coaching staff or whatever.  With guys like Julio Jones, Maze and Hanks, there are a lot of weapons that we have and with the quarterback playing as good as he is now we have a very complete unit.  You always talk about defenses winning championships but this group has the ability to have big plays on offense not just in the running game but the passing game also.  I think that is a very big positive for us going into the national championship game." 

Teague on the 2009 defensive team being considered in the same category as the 1992 defensive team – "I think comparing the two what you see is attitude which I think we've lacked for a while. Coach Saban has given the defense a touch of confidence and nastiness which is comparable I think. The strength up front which we had with John Copeland and Eric Curry is very similar. Having a very strong middle with Terence Cody is good. The linebackers can just sit back there sit back there and make plays. It's very similar because you've got playmakers everywhere on the field which we had. You had speed which this team has and I just think you have the hunger.

"This is just a great year. Everything is similar to the way the year went, some close calls which we had. They played Florida at the end winning that one and now you're going to play one versus two. It's very identical to what we had back in the 1992 season. There is a whole lot to do before they measure up to where we were. It is the definitely fun to watch. It's exciting to watch as a former player.  Just to be able to watch them and say man they look good, they look like us.  We're back kind of thing. As long as they win this game on January 7th, I think they'll have their own legacy. 

Teague on the unfinished business for the 2009 team – "The first thing they have to do is have about 4 or 5 interceptions in the game.  The second thing they have to do is score on defense.  The last thing they have to do is pretty much knock out Colt McCoy.  They are going to have to put some hats on him early and often and actually have complete control and domination of the game similar to what they did against Florida.  If they do that again then I think you can call me back and ask me how I feel about it."  

Sam Shade just completed his first year as a Samford University Assistant Football Coach/cornerbacks. 

Shade's impressions of the 2009 UA defensive unit - "They are talented not just the starters but they have backups who can play.  They make you earn everything." 

Shades comparison of the 1992 and 2009 UA defensive teams - "I think it's too hard to compare the teams because things have changed so much in football since 1992.  For one thing the offenses are different now.  Back then (Steve) Spurrier was ahead of the game.  What Miami was doing down there was ahead of the game.  Now offenses have caught so this defense has to deal with a lot more week in and week out.  I just feel like our unit for a lot of reasons was special besides just the stat sheet."

Before the days of scout.com's rating system, the 1992 defense was a collection of good football players who developed during their careers into NFL draftees. "We really had a family type of atmosphere.  We were one of the last schools to get rid of the athletic dorms.  We spent so much time living together that it made us like a close knit family.  Most people will do anything for their family members.  That's how that group was on and off the field.  You take David Palmer.  He wasn't a defensive guy but when you were out there on that punt return team you blocked your butt off.  I think that just made a big difference on the entire 1992 team not just defensively but on special teams.    It's hard to duplicate in today's college football." 

Shade discussing the 2009 UA standouts - "Which group?  The D-Line, the linebackers or the secondary?  They all standout.  It's just an impressive group. It's starts up front with Cody and the kid from Huffman, Marcel Dareus and then the backups like Chapman and the guys coming off the bench.  Rolando McClain is playing great, probably better than any backer in the country.  The cornerbacks have really been the surprise of the entire season just the way they've performed week-in and week-out.  They are out there on the island and they've been tested and they've showed up.  I think Mark Barron has shown everybody what type of player he is and Woodall's been real steady for them.  It's hard to point a guy out.  That whole unit has been great.  It kind of reminds you of '92 because we had the bookends up front and that's where it started.  At the same time we had a solid group of linebackers.  Not one guy stood out as a star of that group but three of them played in the NFL.  George Teague and Antonio Langham were the stars of the secondary.  I was a young pup then, my first year starting.  I fed off of the older guys. When they played well I wanted to play well. 

"That makes a big difference.  You take a guy like Mark Barron.  He's probably feeding off of Justin Woodall like I did off of George Teague.  He's probably watching a guy like Rolando McClain and saying I don't want to let these guys down.  I need to make some plays for my buddies."

Antonio Langham is currently pondering a few business ventures.  The defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns Langham's rookie season was Nick Saban

Langham's impressions of the 2009 UA defensive unit - "I think they are very solid in a lot of areas.  Up front they are solid with the All-American Terrence Cody and all the guys that rotate in and out.  I like number 57 up front, Marcel Dareus.  He's got a high motor on him.  As far as the linebackers, you've got Rolando McClain.  I think Cory Reamer has done a great job for them defensively.  Losing Dont'a Hightower was a big loss but I think they've managed to maintain well.

"They've continued to play with a high level of intensity.  I like the fact that they've played with an attitude.  When you decide that you want to do a contrast and comparison between two defenses in two different eras I think you leave yourself open to a situation where it's hard to compare the two.  You could talk to some of them and they may feel like there are some guys on our defense that could have played with them now and some guys on their defense that we probably felt could've played on our defense.  I love the comparison because if the '09 defense is being mentioned with the 1992 defense that means we are that much closer to winning a national championship.

"Offensively they have the squad that could put 30-40 points on the board at any moment.  As the old saying goes offense sells tickets and defense wins championships.  If you're able to shut teams down like for instance late in the game against LSU they probably had 10-11 three downs and out.  That's amazing against a team like LSU.

"I would be very reluctant to try and compare the two but I would say that most comparisons I have seen put the 1992 defense a little bit ahead of the 2009 defense.  Looking at this and not being biased to the fact I was a part of the '92 defense I think right now as a whole unit, the front seven and the secondary – I think we may have been just a little more stacked than they are.  In certain areas like in the secondary I don't know if they have enough guys that if a starter went down, do they have enough good players to replace them and not lose a beat.  On our team we had T. P. Johnson and Willie Gaston.  We had a lot of guys who could step in and play if one of us went down and not lose a beat on defense."         Langham's assessment of the 2009 UA secondary - "In the beginning of the season I had some questions.  I had some reservations about our unit early not saying the guys aren't good because they are.  Javier, Marquis, Kareem, Mark and Justin have done a superb job.  I didn't know if they would be able to come together and gel because sometimes they can give up some big plays.  We didn't really give up a lot of big plays or big touchdowns.  As the season has progressed and the more that they've played the more I've grown too truly like those guys because they have stepped their games up and that's all you can really ask of someone.  I commend them on that." 

Langham speaking on left cornerback Marquis Johnson - "If you compared his game against mine and questioned ten people, they would probably say it's not a comparison.  I would love to work with the kid.  Early on in his career like last year especially against Florida in the SEC championship game he was exposed real bad.  I don't know if it was due to nerves or they saw something on film.  They went at him. The last couple of years prior to this one he struggled at times. I like the way he stepped his game up lately.  As far as me speaking badly of these guys (cornerbacks) I couldn't because I've been in there position before.  There are only two people on the football field for the most part that people know are doing good or doing bad – the quarterback and the cornerback.  People know when the quarterback makes a good throw and when he throws an interception.  People know when a cornerback makes a play on the football and when he's beat for a pass or a touchdown.  My heart goes out to any cornerback on any level."   Langham on the 2009 defensive team being considered in the same category as the 1992 defensive team – "Our defense could have finished number one in every category there was in college football but without a championship to show for it we would have been just a good defense but not a great defense because we didn't win it all. This team and their defense will be held in the same regard. They will be considered good but if they win it all they will be considered great. They will be put in the upper echelon with the 1992 defense but if they don't go all the way and win they will be considered good not great.  We finished number one in a lot of categories but we were considered a great defense because we ended up 13-0. 

"People said we carried our offense and we ended up winning a national championship so that is where you get separated between good and great.  If they win it all this year sportscasters will say the 2009 Alabama Crimson Tide National Champions were led by a good offense and a great defense. Looking at it as a player and looking at it the way I looked at our '92 team their team measures up to our team in a sense they are just 11 guys playing football together. 

"They don't consider one person as a superstar on this defense.  They see it as eleven great guys playing together for a common goal and that is the same thing we did.  If they never ever compare to us in any defensive category just the fact that they play together as eleven men, one unit, one common goal, that is how I will always say they measured up to us.  They don't put themselves in a situation where they give up a lot of big plays because of busted assignments.  They are a disciplined defensive unit and we were the same way."

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