In the wake of a joyous national championship follows anxiety about which players will be leaving early for the NFL. Safety Robert Lester had been on the fence, but it has been confirmed that Lester will return for his senior season.
AL.com confirmed the decision, and it could be the best news for the Tide's upcoming 2012 football season.
Every unit on the team will suffer personnel losses, but, thus far the defensive secondary appears to have taken the worst blow. Both starting cornerbacks, DeQuan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick, are certainly NFL-bound, and key backup Phelon Jones is graduating, as is senior Mark Barron, the top safety in the upcoming draft.
Were Lester to leave as well, the entire starting secondary would be virtually unidentifiable next season, with the exception of backup Will Lowery. Lowery is a great player and a solid contributor (as well as my favorite in a crimson jersey), but he's not quite an every-down safety in the SEC.
Don't get me wrong, Alabama has a long line of talented safeties on the roster, but they lack experience. Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri seem to have sky-high potential, but are they ready?
Sunseri in particular looks like a logical choice to become a starter, and he could play well. But who will guide him? The coaches on the sideline can only do so much, and players look to one of their own for leadership.
In the recent past that has been Mark Barron in the secondary. He had the experience, the trials by fire, and the hours of film study under his belt. He could put his guys where they needed to be.
As talented as guys like Sunseri are, they just aren't ready for that. But Lester is.
He will be a third-year starter under Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. He knows the defense in, out, backwards and upside down.
Again, talent and playmaking ability only goes so far. We saw this in 2010 when Dont'a Hightower wasn't quite ready to take the leadership reigns passed on by linebacker Rolando McClain.
Teams need leadership not just on the sideline, but on the field as well. When you have just a few seconds before the ball is snapped, it's too late for coaches to make adjustments without burning precious timeouts.
A player has to do that. It takes a guy like Mark Barron. It takes a guy like Robert Lester.
They are what I call "Greybeards" (a name taken from a popular video game, Skyrim). They are the kind of guys that have been around a while, and the guys who know how things work. They can teach in ways coaches can't.
Coach leadership and player leadership is a symbiotic relationship. They are both valuable in their own right, but the benefits are multiplicative rather than additive.
Alabama will be losing one field general on defense, Dont'a Hightower, and his successor is unclear. Nico Johnson looks to be a prime candidate, but it's still uncertain.
Mark Barron's successor is crystal football-clear—it is Robert Lester.
Losing two field generals on defense would be quite crippling early in the season, but Tide fans can breathe a sigh of relief as they will not have to witness that happen to Alabama.
I had previously said Robert Lester should head for the NFL. Some draft pundits, including WalterFootball.com, consider him the second-best safety (only to Mark Barron) in the upcoming 2012 draft. But safeties are rarely a high priority for teams, and sometimes, even the top safety could drop to the second round.
That left Lester possibly facing a second- or third-round selection. He knows he can be first-round quality, as do Alabama fans.
Lester's return dramatically increases Alabama's chances at a BCS title repeat. As good as running back Trent Richardson is, losing him is negligible in terms of offensive firepower. It is the defensive losses that critics say spells doom for the Tide in 2012.
Lester may have just made himself the most important defensive player heading into the 2012 season, and though I think he should declare for the NFL, I'm much happier to have him stay.
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is certainly not happy with this bit of news.