Alabama's secondary undergoing another makeover
The Alabama secondary is undergoing another makeover after losing three NFL draft picks, including a couple of high selections.
The Crimson Tide navigated a similar situation in 2010. This time Alabama is trying to replace first-rounders Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick and fifth-round pick DeQuan Menzie from the nation's top defense.
''It really reminds me a lot of two years ago when we got a new guy Menzie, Dre's a young player who started,'' coach Nick Saban said. ''It's a work in progress. How quickly those guys develop is going to be really important to how successful we are on defense.''
Defensive backs are Saban's particular area of expertise since he works with them daily in practice, so the Tide has plenty of highly rated recruits vying to join returning starter Robert Lester in the playing rotation.
In 2010, Menzie and Kirkpatrick replaced first-round pick Kareem Jackson and second-rounder Javier Arenas as the starting corners, and seventh-round pick Ramzee Robinson also was gone.
The most experienced defensive back besides Lester is Dee Milliner, who was pressed into action as a starting cornerback his freshman season and led the Tide with three interceptions in 2011. He seems a likely bet for one spot.
Fellow cornerback John Fulton has played in 25 games the last two seasons, largely on special teams.
Sophomores Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri are vying to replace Barron at safety. Freshman Landon Collins, like Clinton-Dix last year, was widely regarded as the nation's top safety prospect and a Top 10 recruit overall.
''The competition's unreal,'' said Sunseri, son of Tennessee defensive coordinator and ex-Alabama assistant Sal Sunseri. ''We've got unbelievable players competing every day. Everybody's taking a lot of reps and everybody's just doing really well right now flying around to the ball and making plays.''
Saban offers a more reserved assessment.
''We've got a ways to go, that's all I can tell you,'' he said. ''There are guys that have some good promise and some guys that have played really good football for us here. They're trying to provide some of the leadership we need to develop some other players. To me, that's a challenge for us right now to see how rapidly we can get some of those young guys to develop with the consistency.''
The other newcomers include junior college cornerback Deion Belue and one of the nation's top-rated prep corners in Geno Smith. The depth took a hit over the weekend with JUCO transfer Travell Dixon, who like Belue participated in spring practice, announcing Friday that he was leaving the program and reserve safety Jarrick Williams sustaining a torn ACL the same day. Williams will miss the season.
''We are going to have some young guys in the secondary who are going to have to be backup players,'' Saban said. ''And they're probably going to have to have some roles.''
Freshman Eddie Williams had been working at receiver but has been logging practice time at safety with that injury.
Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said Smith ''is going to be able to help us.''
''We have the bodies there, we have the body types we want,'' Smart said. ''We just have to give those guys some experience.''
So far, Saban and Smart have been able to keep a revolving door of strong defensive backs each season. Seven Alabama DBs have been drafted in the last four years, including three first-rounders and a second-rounder.
The challenge now is to do it again.
''Any time you've got the back end of your defense, those are the areas the rest of the world sees,'' Smart said. ''You don't see a guy mess up up front, you don't see a linebacker mess up sometimes. When that guy on the back end, which I played back there, messes up, everybody knows your number, everybody knows your name.''