Defensive Backs Must Be Found

Alabama begins spring football practice Friday, March 12. The Crimson Tide will have its annual A-Day Game at 2 p.m. CDT Saturday, April 17, a game that will be nationally televised by ESPN. Here is a look at one of the positions as spring practice approaches.

Alabama is one of those few college football teams that attracts national interest, even in the off-season. When the Crimson Tide is the national champion, as was the case in 2009, the examination of Bama football is even greater.

It is the nature of big-time college athletics that the season almost never ends. Thus it is for Alabama football, whose players had a short break following the BCS Championship Game victory over Texas at the Rose Bowl and who have been involved in the Fourth Quarter Program, the off-season work of strength, conditioning, and drills expressly designed for each position.

Spring football practice is a more high profile segment of the process of building a football team.

Just to answer some questions, Alabama Coach Nick Saban will not have any player-specific expectations about what is to be accomplished in the spring. Work will be to make every player better, which will make the team better.

It is primarily on defense where Alabama will be a much different football team from the standpoint of personnel in 2010 than was the case last season. When spring practice begins there will be one starting linebacker and one starting defensive back returning from the unit that started at the end of 2009.

Here is a look at what players might fit into the defensive backfield slots.

It is almost impossible to say precisely which players might be leaders at any of the secondary positions. First the positions must be defined. Alabama lost both starting cornerbacks, Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson; one safety, Justin Woodall; and the man who played when Bama was in nickel with five defensive backs, Marquis Johnson.

Last year, Saban said that Alabama had gone to a left and right safety formation rather than a strongside and weakside so that both Woodall and Mark Barron had the responsibilities of both strong and weak.

Barron, a 6-2, 214-pound upcoming junior, is the lone returning starter among the five "normal" secondary positions.

It could be there is even some question about coaching in addition to guessing which players might fit into which spots. Alabama lost James Willis, who coached inside linebackers, at the end of last season. His position has been filled by Jeremy Pruitt, a former defensive back who has been introduced only as a "defensive assistant coach." Kirby Smart, who has been coaching safeties, is the defensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide. It is well known that Bama cornerbacks get particularly special attention, coached by Saban, whose reputation as a defensive tactician, and specifically as a cornerbacks coach, is extraordinary. It doesn't seem likely Saban will change. The question is whether Smart will remain with safeties and Pruitt take over inside linebackers; or will Smart move to coach linebackers with Pruitt handling safeties; or some other configuration.

The secondary situation has also been complicated by the indefinite suspension of upcoming junior Robby Green. Green could have been penciled in at any of the five defensive back positions, though most expected him to be either a safety of nickel back.

The issue in the secondary seems to be experience rather than talent.

Oh, to have a handful of Mark Barrons. Barron's first year as a starter was magnificent as he earned All-America mention and was first team All-Southeastern Conference. He was first in the SEC and tied for seventh in the nation with seven interceptions, and was first in the conference and sixth in the nation in passes defended with 18 (seven interceptions, 11 break-ups). He was second on the nation's top –ranked defense with 69 tackles and 40 solo stops. He returned interceptions 125 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown return against South Carolina.

It is very much tentative to suggest the possibilities, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that Barron will be joined in the competition for the two positions at safety by sophomores Rod Woodson, 5-11, 200; Robert Lester, 6-2, 210; and Wesley Neighbors, 6-1, 210. Woodson and Lester have seen some playing time, primarily on special teams.

There are intriguing names in the cornerbacks competition. On the few occasions when reporters were allowed to watch Alabama football practice last fall, it couldn't be missed that Saban gave much individual attention to Dre Kirkpatrick (6-3, 185), which could mean the upcoming soph has a very bright future. In 2009, B.J. Scott was a freshman performer for Bama on offense as a slot receiver. Prior to last fall the decision was made to move him to defense, where he has long been considered a better prospect. Scott, 5-11, 196, redshirted last year while learning the position. Phelon Jones transferred to Alabama prior to last season after having started two games for LSU in 2008. He is a 5-11, 195-pounder who will be a junior in eligibility after having sat out last season.

There are also two outstanding cornerbacks who are members of the 2010 signing class who entered The University in January. Demarcus Milliner, a 6-1, 185-pounder from Millbrook Stanhope-Elmore, is considered the number one signee in Bama's latest class. Also highly regarded is 6-0, 175-pound John Fulton of Manning, South Carolina.

The secondary will be well-tested by veteran Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy and outstanding receivers, including Julio Jones, Marquis Maze, and Darius Hanks.

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