Trying To Pin Down 'Other' Safety

Alabama has two safety positions. At one, the Crimson Tide has the returning Southeastern Conference interception leader, Mark Barron. At the other? That remains to be seen.

Alabama has a new man coaching the safeties this year. Jeremy Pruitt is the Crimson Tide's newest assistant coach, and he's working with the deep backs. Kirby Smart, Alabama's defensive coordinator and longtime safeties coach, is now working with linebackers. The man coaching safeties has the benefit of Head Coach Nick Saban being close by since Saban works with cornerbacks.

In Alabama's 2009 undefeated national championship season, Mark Barron and Justin Woodall were the starting safeties in every game. Woodall has graduated and the outstanding athlete is pursuing a professional baseball career.

Although Barron is frequently referred to as the strong safety (and Woodall was usually called the free safety), the Bama defensive system actually has them as left and right safeties. That means on one play a safety might be the strong safety (playing on the side of the opponent's strong side, usually identified by the location of the tight end), and the next playing on the weak side. Saban has said this makes it more difficult for the players, but makes them more complete players. It also makes them interchangeable, which improves depth.

Safety is no longer just the line of last defense. Safeties in Alabama's system are involved in run defense. Last year Barron was first in interceptions with seven and Woodall was third on the team with three. But Barron was also second only to All-America linebacker Rolando McClain in tackles with 76, and Woodall added another 45.

In this year's A-Day Game, Robert Lester, a 6-2, 207-pound sophomore from Foley, was the number one man at the position alongside Barron. He didn't disappoint with a game-high eight tackles. Most of his previous experience has been on Tide special teams.

Rod Woodson, a 5-11, 200-pound sophomore, was the starter for the second defense in the A-Day Game and led his team with six tackles.

Wesley Neighbors, a rare third-generation Crimson Tide player, is a 6-1, 205-pound sophomore who has yet to see varsity action.

There was some experimentation at safety in the spring with a couple of wide receivers working in the secondary. Brandon Gibson (6-2, 192, junior) and Kendall Kelly (6-3, 216, redshirt freshman) split time on offense and defense. Saban has frequently pointed out that these experiments don't necessarily mean anything. Gibson had a very fine spring as a receiver and would be considered likely to be on offense when fall camp begins. Kelly may continue in the safety mix.

It's not easy for a walk-on to make it, but it happens. Two who were impressive in the spring at safety are Hunter Bush (5-11, 181, soph, Wetumpka) and Will Lowery (5-9, 188, junior, Hoover).

Saban doesn't allow himself to be distracted, so he won't be worrying about what could have been. Robby Green would have been an upcoming junior and a leading candidate for a starting safety job. In his first two years he had played in 26 games, including six starts as a nickel back. His last start was against Texas in the BCS National Championship Game. But Green won't be a part of the 2010 Crimson Tide. He's sitting out an NCAA-mandated one-season suspension.

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