With SEC Media days just ahead of us, it’s time to look ahead to the coming season as the reigning National Champions begin their follow-up campaign.
Over the next few days we’ll look at the defense, the offense, special teams and some newcomers that could make an immediate impact.
Today we look at the Tide defense, as the nation lets out a sigh of relief that last year’s unit is no longer intact.
At times last year it wasn’t even fair. Arguably the best defensive unit in college football history…or at least at the forefront of that conversation…Alabama allowed just nine offensive touchdowns in the entire thirteen game season. Dabo Swinney’s Clemson gave that up in one half in their bowl game. Several offenses, including LSU, Auburn and Tennessee never found the endzone.
Anticipating a drop off from 2012’s defense is an easy conclusion, but fantasizing too great a gap may just be wishful thinking. At Alabama, losing starters means something entirely different from other schools. Relentless recruiting has planted the Tide in the top five recruiting classes the last five years, so it isn’t a coincidence that Bama’s defense is an immovable force…in any year.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban is at the top of his game, recruiting and scheming better than anybody in the country. His 2012 unit will be inexperienced at some spots, but potent, requiring the kind of complexity and mental toughness that drives lesser, weaker minded players to enroll elsewhere. In terms of comparison, this unit may not reach the heights of 2011’s edition, but should be every bit as good as 2008-2009’s defenses.
First, let’s look at the returning starters, though Nick Saban hates that word. So, these are some players who “started” last season:
We’ll start in the secondary, with Robert Lester (37) beginning his third season as a starter. Lester recorded 41 tackles in Bama’s National Title season last year, adding a pair of INT’s as well. But it’s Lester’s presence and command of Saban’s complicated defensive backfield that takes away the middle of the field.
Selected to the 2nd team, All-SEC preseason team by the SEC coaches for this season, and an All-American honorable mention last year, Lester is big (6’2″, 210), resembling a linebacker in the defensive backfield. With a young secondary, Lester’s presence is key to helping the talent around him be in position to make a play. After weighing his options to enter the NFL draft, Lester chose to return for his senior season to vie for his third National Championship ring. If he does so he’d be on an extremely short list of Bama players to have that distinction.
Dee Milliner (28) earned eleven starts as a freshman, and six last season. However, starts in the secondary at Alabama are deceptive, as the Tide plays so much nickel and dime coverage which they easily roll into run support, five and six defensive backs find their way onto the field all the time. Nevertheless, Dee begins 2012 slated at one corner, playing now in his third season in Saban’s system.
Milliner recorded 27 tackles in 2011 and logged three INT’s on the year, including an electrifying interception for a touchdown in the Iron Bowl. With his quicks Dee also seems to fit the bill that former Bama cornback Javier Arenas filled, coming off the corner to give opposing quartbacks something to worry about. Milliner is the kind of tough, heady player in the secondary that Coach Saban loves. Milliner was a selection to the 3rd All-SEC defensive team.
At linebacker, Bama returns a three year starter. Nico Johnson (35) has been a constant in the starting line-up since he was a freshman, and was selected by the SEC coaches to the 1st team, All-SEC Team. In fact, he’s the only remaining player that was on the field for the now famous “Rocky Block,” securing the win against Tennessee in 2009. He has started at Will linebacker each of the last two seasons, based on the opponent’s beginning formation.
One of the better run stoppers in the game, Nico has the cognitive skills needed to master Nick Saban’s defense, changing the defenses calls based on the offense’s formations and adjustments. At 6’3″, 245, Johnson was the fourth leading tackler on the team last season with 47 and also recorded a pick. Johnson’s specialty has been stopping the run, but look for Johnson’s influence to expand to passing situations this year as well.
An upcoming junior, CJ Mosley (32) has shared the starting Will linebacker spot with Nico Johnson. Another 1st Team All-SEC team selection, Mosley recorded 36 tackles in ’11, including 3.5 for loss and two sacks, and was most widely known for his grotesque interception of Jordan Jefferson in the National Championship game. The dislocated hip was healed within weeks of the game, not hampering participation in spring drills.
Mosley was among the class that signed after Coach Saban’s first Alabama National Championship team, seeing action in all 13 games as a true freshman. He is another “Nick Saban” type backer, having the smarts to digest and direct one of the most complicated defenses in the land. Most think Mosley will have a decision to make following this season regarding the NFL draft.
Jesse Williams (54) begins the second of his two years as a staple in the middle. The 6’4″, 320lb JUCO defensive lineman got to know opposing SEC backfields well, stopping the run and pushing the pocket last season. Williams, a 2nd ALL SEC Team selection, logged 22 tackles, 3 QB hurries and a pass deflection.
Hailing from Brisbane, Australia, Williams didn’t play football until he was 15. But he caught on well, earning a spot with one of the foremost programs in America; a school that contends for the National Championship yearly. He earned the starting job at the 5-technique defensive end while moving inside to tackle in passing downs in a four-man front, and will continue his display of Aussie power this season for Bama.
The final of Alabama’s six returning “starters” on defense (remember, “starting” at Alabama under Nick Saban is situational) is senior Damion Square (92). In 2011 Square started all 13 games, recording 30 tackles, 7 tackles for loss (-15 yards), one sack (-5 yards), three quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.
Square was part of the highly regarded signing class of 2008, one of Bama’s strongest ever. Of course, every year seems to be better than before in that department, but Damion’s class redefined Alabama football following a dismal debut season (with Mike Shula’s players) for Coach Saban in 2007. The 2008 class helped establish “Nick Saban” football at Alabama, and hasn’t looked back since. After an ACL setback at the beginning of the 2009 season, Square has been a dominant force for Alabama, and part of the reason the Tide is at the top of most defensive categories year in and year out.
So if you’re doing the math at home, of the six returning starters on defense for the Tide, five are seniors, and all six were major parts of defensive puzzle that left opposing offenses puzzled all last season.
Now, let’s look at a few players who will step in to fill the gaps this season.
Quinton Dial (90) is hardly a back-up. The upcoming JUCO senior recorded 24 tackles in 2011, including a 5 tackle performance on the road against the Nittany Lions and a career best 8 tackles against Georgia Southern. An imposing presence along the defensive line, Dial saw action in every game last season, providing excellent pass rushing off the end as well as run support.
At Sam Linebacker sophomore Adrian Hubbard (42) is a good candidate to step into the slot vacated by Jerrell Harris. At 6’6″, 248lbs, and high regarded by all prep recruiting services, Hubbard is a dangerous pass rusher off the edge, recording nine tackles in reserve duty last season.
The 6’2″, 284lb Ed Stinson (49) is one of my personal favorite returners for the coming season. A junior from South Dade high school, Stinson recorded 17 tackles in 12 games last season as a reserve, including his first sack in the Swamp and his first forced fumble against rival Auburn. Stinson has the physical prowess to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower. He plays with the same mean aggression as those players, and will definitely be a reason Saturdays are not fun for Bama’s opponents in 2012.
Xzavier Dickson (47), 6’3″, 262, was one of seven true freshmen to see action for Alabama in its National Championship run last season, making his first tackle against North Texas and his first sack against Ole Miss. His credentials out of high school are too long to list, but in short, everybody wanted this player who will be lining up at the Jack Linebacker spot in Crimson as a sophomore this season.
At Mike Linebacker, Trey DePriest (33) will hear his name called early and often in 2012. He quickly made a name for himself as a big hitter on special teams, tallying 23 tackles in 12 games…13 of those coming on kick-off coverage. Scout’s No. 1 middle linebacker prospect in America in 2011’s class, DePriest backed up the best in the business last season in Hightower, and now looks to step into that Mike role himself as a sophomore.
Junior John Fulton (10) looks to secure the corner spot opposite Dee Milliner. Fulton has been a solid contributor on special teams each of the last two seasons, seeing action in every game. Fulton had a tremendous spring, and struck me at how he blanketed Bama’s receiving corp in the spring game. Replacing Dre Kirkpatrick will be a challenge, but Fulton just may be the next great corner under Nick Saban, and will likely make a lot of money in the NFL after the 2013 season.
On the defensive line, expect Brandon Ivory (62) and DJ Pettway (57) to introduce themselves this season. Both were highly sought after defensive linemen in their respective classes. Ivory, topping 300lbs., is a plug in the middle that’s hard to get around.
If I could be a college football player, I would want to be Vinnie Sunseri (3). Sunseri made his name as a special teams demon as a true freshman last season, and also saw extensive playing time in the nickel and dime packages on passing downs. In his first game of his college football career, Sunseri recorded six tackles against Kent State. He was named special teams player of the week by the ‘Bama coaching staff half a dozen times last season, and looks to step into the free safety or strong safety role as a sophomore this season. His biggest challenge may be keeping his father at bay, as Sal Sunseri left his linebacker coaching spot at Bama to become Tennessee’s defensive coordinator after last season. Regardless, Vinnie is one Italian you don’t want to meet on a football field. At 6’0″, 215, Sunseri is another DB that plays like a linebacker in the secondary.
Another demon you’ll get to know quickly in the defensive backfield is Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix (6). The No. 1 safety prospect by Scout and Rivals will step immediately into action, and plays with the same kind of bad humor Bama fans came to love about Mark Barron. At 6’1″, 209, “Ha-Ha” as he’s called is no laughing matter. He runs like a gazell but sticks you like rhino. Dix will definitely be playing Sundays one day. In 2011 he recorded 11 tackles, including 5 solo stops and 2 passes broken up as a reserve safety. Ha-Ha also saw time on special teams.
Jeoffrey Pagan (8) was another of the few true freshman seeing action last season, recording four tackles on the year. Those in-the-know in Tuscaloosa are most excited about this 6’4″, 285lb. defensive end who most recruiting services listed as the number 4 defensive end prospect in America. Pagan is quick as a cat for his size, and packs a stiff punch from the outside as a run stopper and pass rusher.
Deion Belue (13), a JUCO transfer, will also be a major contributor in the secondary, and was one of the top JUCO gets in the 2012 signing class. Belue was brought in to help immediately with gaps left by the departing Dre Kirkpatrick and Mark Barron. It will be a marriage made in Heaven as Nick Saban gets him ready for the NFL and Belue makes teams think twice about putting the ball in the air.
My guess is you’ll see Brent Calloway (21) begin to make some noise this season, probably at first on special teams. The infamous player who spurned Auburn in high definition to come to Alabama (despite their best, dirty efforts…allegedly), will break into the action in a reserve role this year.
Other names you’re likely to hear this year are true freshman Ryan Anderson (7), who appears to be a 6’2″, 244lb freak at linebacker, as well as Travell Dixon (9), another JUCO transfer in the secondary. Many of the true freshman we’ll cover in the coming days when we feature newcomers to the Capstone. But don’t be surprised if you see freshmen Landon Collins, LaMichael Fanning, Denzell Devall or Geno Smith seeing action on defense this season, or special teams.
But then I didn’t even mention linebacker Tana Patrick (2), defensive backs Jabriel Washington (23) and Jarrick Williams (20), or defensive linemen William Ming (56) and Chris Bonds (93). There’s simply talent everywhere on the defensive side of the ball. Young talent that has to be honed, but young talent in the hands of the best defensive mind in the land.
Again, we’ll cover the incoming class in a few days, but the bottom line is, if you want to believe Bama’s defense will not be formidable this season, it’s simply a case of wishful thinking. The Crimson Tide defense is loaded, but faces challenges in getting its talented players ready for a marquee match up September 1st in the Jerry Dome. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson will test the young defense early, but my guess is the Wolverines have not seen lateral speed like they’ll face in prime time to open the season.
If the Bama defense stymies Michigan in Dallas (very possible), and then continues its dominance of Arkansas on the road later that month, 2012 could be another stellar year for Nick Saban’s sixth version of the Crimson Tide.
(Look for a preview of the 2012 Bama Offense, coming soon.)