Alabama Football Preview 2011: Experience on defense

Part 3: Avoiding errors is easier when you have experienced defensive backs

In Part one of this preview, we examined what Nick Saban brings to the Alabama Crimson Tide and how he now is the second longest serving Alabama head football coach in the post-Bear Bryant era. In Part two, we examined how the quarterback battle could shake out and what to expect from the offense this season. Today we examine the defense.

In 2010, Alabama was close to a loss at Arkansas. Very close. Alabama trailed 17-7 at halftime, and in the third quarter the deficit increased to 20-7. A young, inexperienced defense was part of the problem. There were breakdowns and missed coverage in the secondary. At times the young players looked like the complicated Nick Saban defense was too much for them.

However, it was a different defense in the later games of the season. Defensive players, particularly in the secondary, were playing with confidence. The Alabama defense grabbed 22 interceptions; the defense surrendered 13.5 points per game.

There were some problems on defense.

The inexplicable game against LSU—where inept quarterback Jordan Jefferson torched the secondary—provides a cautionary tale. Even with confidence the 2010 defense was vulnerable to both the run and pass. Jefferson was an impressive 10 of 13 for 141 yards and one touchdown. Combine that strong performance with 225 yards rushing from the LSU ground game. It was a difficult day.

Les Miles has produced some impressive game plans against Saban’s Alabama football team. To say Miles is motivated would be an understatement. Whatever the motivation, the numbers present an important lesson—even with experience a defense is vulnerable to SEC caliber athletes.

It is tempting to say Alabama can rest on the defense.

It would be a mistake—as the LSU game illustrates. Alabama must score points in 2011—something the 2010 offense at times lacked the ability to do in critical situations. You can insert the typical football is a team sport truism here about needing to score to win. But it is true.

The defense is expected to superb. If you doubt that just ask the SEC coaches who released the preseason All-SEC team. Alabama placed Josh Chapman, Dont’a Hightower, Mark Barron and Robert Lester on the Coaches’ First-Team ALL-SEC Defense. On the second team is one of the most dynamic Alabama defensive players, Courtney Upshaw. On the third team is C.J. Mosley and Dre’ Kirkpatrick.

The player I expect to define the Alabama 2011 defense is Courtney Upshaw. Upshaw has shown the ability to change games by making big plays. He can move and is almost unblockable—when healthy.

Upshaw posted his best numbers later in the season as his health improved. He missed the Penn State game and the Duke game, but really started to shine in the LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn games. Upshaw had six tackles against LSU, eight tackle and a sack against Mississippi State, 10 tackles and three sacks against Auburn and five tackles and two sacks in the Capital One Bowl against Michigan State.

Upshaw provides a dynamic spark on an already dynamic defense. With a superb linebacker corps the team should be able to provide a level of pressure on the quarterback that is improved this year over last year. With Dont’a Hightower quarterbacking the defense, there is a reason for the enormous optimism that the team will have players in the correct spots.

“I feel like I am very comfortable with the defense,” Hightower said during the Alabama Crimson Tide’s spring practice.

The extra year has paid dividends as Hightower appears more confident with himself and the surrounding cast on defense.

And you need confidence playing in a Nick Saban defense.

“Dont’a (Hightower) has assumed a leadership role on this team,” Saban said at the conclusion of spring practice.

As for the defensive backs, everyone knows how good Alabama is at the safety position. Everyone praises corner Dre Kirkpatrick. But one person who should be watched and will have a much improved 2011 is DeMarcus Milliner. Milliner played as a freshman and was much stronger later in the season. College Football News placed Milliner on its Freshman All-American team. CFN had this to say about the Alabama defensive back: “One of the nation’s top recruits of 2010, he broke into the lineup early on in Tuscaloosa and never looked back. Possessing a rare and coveted combination of size and speed, he has the potential to be the SEC’s top cover corner before too long. Not afraid to fill lanes and support the run, he has 52 tackles, including four for loss, and has broken up five passes.”

The defensive line is a bit of a mystery at this point. Alabama’s best player on the line in 2010 was Marcel Dareus, and Dareus now resides in the NFL. There is talent on the line, and Saban has bolstered it by bringing in junior Jesse Williams. Williams was described by Alabama players as “versatile” and quick on the run.

Saban offered an analysis of where the defensive line stood at the end of Spring Practice. Saban said, “I think we also made a tremendous amount of progress with the defensive line. Damion Square had a good spring. Ed Stinson has gotten better. The junior college guys have made a significant amount of improvement, learning the system and getting more comfortable trying to play things the way we want to play them here.”

Saban went on to say what everyone thinks: that development of the defensive line will be one of the “critical” areas for this year’s Alabama team. Watch for hints during Fall Camp about what is happening on the defensive line.

One big positive for Alabama is that the defense looked good in the spring. Overall, Saban praised the team’s attitude and the way the defense worked in spring.

“Defensively we seemed to play well in the spring,” Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said in a teleconference. “We have most of our specialists back. We are kind of excited about the future.”

Looking for one other clue about the 2011 Alabama team and the defense? Hightower said this year’s team is more together than the 2010 version. Hightower said the team chemistry is different than this time last year. Players are more together and this goes beyond school into things like hanging out together.

Good signs for the 2011 Alabama Crimson Tide.