Time to step up

Alabama's secondary, a unit that was expected to see major drop off after losing key players to the NFL last year, is losing more veterans this year in Dee Milliner and Robert Lester. So which youngsters will take on bigger roles?

The secondary was supposed to be Alabama's weakest link this season. After losing starting defensive backs Mark Barron and Dre' Kirkpatrick to the NFL—both of whom were first-round draft picks last April—the Crimson Tide wasn't expected to be as productive.

Statistically speaking, this group was not as good as last year's, but that point becomes moot when you win a national championship.

This year's secondary finished the season ranked seventh in the country in passing defense, allowing opponents 173.6 yards per game. As a basis of comparison, 2011's unit finished the season ranked No. 1 in the category, allowing opponents just 111.5 ypg. Regardless, the Crimson Tide is once again losing some key pieces that will need to be replaced.

Cornerback Dee Milliner, who announced last week that he will forgo his senior season and head to the NFL (he's a projected first-round pick), said that despite his departure, there are several guys he's been grooming to take his spot.

"You've got Geno [Smith], Bradley Sylve … you've always got people behind you that can make plays and do different things," he said. "You've got people behind them that are going to do the same thing when their time comes. We've got people standing in line ready to go out there and make plays."

Milliner has mentioned that he sees similarities between himself and Smith, who played in every game for the Tide this season. Though it took awhile, in fact Smith said it took all of camp and through the Tide's bye week, the true freshman has grasped coach Nick Saban's complex nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six DBs) packages. As a cornerback, Smith plays the Star position when there are six guys in the game, whether that's a sub linebacker or as an extra defensive back.

"Geno's a young player, like I was, that comes out and does different things for the team, makes plays for us," Milliner said. "He's doing a great job stepping up, making plays, being more mature there on the field and listening up to the leadership and the leaders on the team on the defensive side of the ball. Just making plays and working hard."

Cornerback Deion Belue is expected to keep his starting position, but Saban will look at Smith, Sylve and John Fulton to replace Milliner.

Smith, who saw his playing time increase as the season went on and started several of the Tide's last games, is probably first in line to assume the starting position, but will get competition from Sylve and Fulton, who might have gotten more playing time this year if it hadn't been for injuries.

At safety Alabama loses senior Robert Lester, which provides an opportunity for Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins, Nick Perry, Vinnie Sunseri and Jarrick Williams to battle for starting spots.

Clinton-Dix has the most experience of the aforementioned and saw his role increase down the final stretch of the season. He had interceptions in Alabama's final three games (had a total of four this season), including the acrobatic grab he made in the national championship following a tip by Milliner. Collins, a former five-star recruit, is a workhorse in the weight room according to strength coach Scott Cochran and also made strides as the season progressed. Perry, Sunseri and Williams could also be in line for more work.

At a glance, Alabama's 2013 secondary looks green in terms of experience, but then again, at this time last year, so did the group that helped the Tide win its second national championship in a row.

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