Alabama defense embracing '09 comparisons
Comparing the outstanding defenses of Alabama's championship teams is practically a tradition - and the Crimson Tide does cherish its traditions.
The defensive unit from the 2009 title team opened the season amid comparisons to the 1992 championship squad. The current lineup led by All-American safety Mark Barron and linebacker Dont'a Hightower is fielding plenty of questions about whether it can measure up to the `09 champs - or maybe top them.
Hightower & Co. aren't exactly dodging such talk.
''We can be great,'' junior linebacker Nico Johnson said. ''I honestly think we could be better than `09 defense. We've still got a lot of work to do, but I seriously think that.''
The Tide returns 10 starters - eight more than last year - from a defense that ranked third nationally in scoring defense and fifth in total yards allowed despite that inexperience.
''I feel like the defense as a whole has that ability,'' Hightower said, referring to the `09 comparisons.
The linebackers can afford to boast a little. It's probably the one part of the team where there seems to be no doubt about talent, depth or experience.
A secondary led by Barron, safety Robert Lester and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick isn't far behind after being a question mark going into last season.
The defensive line goes into the Sept. 3 opener against Kent State less established after replacing No. 3 NFL draft pick Marcell Dareus and several reserves. The returning linemen accounted for a modest 7.5 sacks last season, led by end Damion Square's three.
But nose guard Josh Chapman is a powerful presence. Like 2009 counterpart Terrence Cody he is a run stopper who doesn't rack up big stats in a defense that often employs a three-man front. Junior college transfer Jesse Williams could play multiple spots on the line.
As for that `09 defense, it finished second nationally in total, scoring, run and pass efficiency defense in a 14-0 season.
It produced first-round picks in Dareus, linebacker Rolando McClain and cornerback Kareem Jackson and a couple of All-American second-rounders in Cody and cornerback Javier Arenas.
Hightower and Barron are the only returning starters from that defense, though the former missed most of the season with a knee injury. They've started 55 games between them.
Lester ranked second nationally with eight interceptions in 2010. Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and C.J. Mosley could be emerging stars. Mosley had 67 tackles and returned two interceptions for touchdowns as a freshman.
Upshaw was limited early in the season by a high ankle sprain but had five of his seven sacks in the final two games against Auburn and in the Capital One Bowl against Michigan State.
Safety Will Lowery calls him ''a beast.'' The guys who have to block the 6-foot-2, 265-pounder in practice speak almost reverently about Upshaw.
''The best rushers in any league are guys who can beat you with speed and power,'' Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones said. ''The thing about Courtney is he is the perfect hybrid of speed and power. He's so fast off the edge and he can beat you with a speed rush. But the second you kind of soft-set him so you set back and handle that speed rush, he'll just run right over you. So he really is an extremely difficult guy to block and we're looking for him to have a great year.''
When tailback Trent Richardson has to take on Upshaw on a blitz, he says, ''It's not pretty. He's one of the strongest and biggest guys you'll ever find on a football field, and he's pretty fast, too. When I look at him and know he's blitzing, I'm like, `Man!'''
Cornerbacks Dee Milliner and DeQuan Menzie combined to log 17 starts in their first season with the Tide, which often started five defensive backs.
So even coach Nick Saban doesn't deny this defense certainly has a lot of potential, though he practically sneers at that word.
''What kind of potential have we got? We don't look at it like that,'' Saban said. ''Last year, we didn't have anybody that had any experience, and every day we went out there and coached them and coached them and coached them and ended up like fourth in the country in defense, with two starters coming back.
''Just because you've got experience, that doesn't mean anything. What are you going to do with it?''