After one of the best seasons possible for a true freshman relegated to special teams duties for most of the season, Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri looks poised to have an outstanding sophomore campaign as former Tide safety Mark Barron's successor.
This once seemingly impossible step became reality when he overtook former five-star pure safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix as the Tide's best-performing safety in the class of 2011.
The question is not, "Is Sunseri ready for the SEC?" but rather, "Is the SEC ready for Sunseri?"
Sunseri's potential at Alabama is as high as anybody's right now, and higher than most. He showed flashes of potential last season, but it was in during the Alabama A-Day game that he showed his true colors.
He had two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. The second would have also been a touchdown but the game was almost over and already decided, so he took a knee (supposedly Saban's call). He also recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown.
So basically, for all intents and purposes, he accounted for three touchdowns by himself in a low-scoring spring scrimmage.
Some might say, "Well, it's just the spring game, it doesn't account for all that much."
I must remind those with that mindset that Sunseri was playing against the Tide's first-string offense, which is already being raved about by Alabama fans. It includes a veteran, behemoth offensive line as well as the Tide's most promising corps of receivers since Nick Saban arrived in 2007.
In this video from AL.com, Sunseri admitted that the second interception came as a result of him reading quarterback A.J. McCarron's eyes and motions. The ball didn't just fall into his lap, he stalked it like house cats stalk those invisible things that no one can see but them.
While the A-Day game isn't a perfect example of a players potential, it is a good indication as to where they are at.
So what's a better indication of Sunseri's potential? How about comparing him directly to the guy he is replacing as a starter in the exact same system?
Mark Barron is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, and Sunseri has the starting safety position opposite of Robert Lester all but locked down.
The starting positions won't be completely settled until the fall, but the odds are greatly in favor of Sunseri right now, especially since he excelled in spring as a starter on the first-string defense.
Let's take a look at Sunseri's and Barron's similarities as well as differences. But first, here is an article that gives an excellent analysis of Barron as a NFL prospect.
Barron has the ideal size for a safety not only in the SEC but the NFL as well. He's not too big and not too small. He has the perfect combination of height and muscle.
He is 6'1" and 218 lbs., and played at that weight (give or take a couple pounds) since before the 2009 championship season as a sophomore.
Sunseri is 6'1" and 217 lbs.
On paper, they are the same.
To be fair, however, Barron was extremely lean with significantly less body fat, as evidenced by this photo from the Birmingham News, but Sunseri has plenty of time to hit the weight room in the next few years.
Barron didn't make the NFL Combine due to hernia surgery, but he ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at his pro-day when he was almost fully recovered.
Sunseri ran a 4.56 according to ESPN, but that could increase as he gets older because, yes, a player can increase their straight-line speed with training.
But straight-line speed doesn't really tell how "quick" a player is.
Barron and Sunseri are both more quick than fast, with their true strength being reaction time as opposed to sprinting speed.
Am I over-hyping Vinnie Sunseri?
Still yet, 4.5-4.6 40-yard dash times are considered great times for safeties, both in college ball and the NFL.
Throughout his career at Alabama, Barron became known as a strong, sure tackler that could lay some serious wood.
Sunseri doesn't have that proven track record just yet, but check out this video (YouTube) for a pretty good indication (skip to the 5 minute, 35 second marker for the play and look for Sunseri throwing a block). He made several blocks like that throughout the season.
He also made some brutal yet safe and sure tackles on special teams.
"Instincts" are one of those intangibles that can make a player mediocre in appearance but spectacular on the field.
Barron has them, and it seems like Sunseri does to.
As a safety, it's all about feeling out where the ball will go and whether it will go through the air or on the ground.
Both of these players have a keen eye for what's going to ,and they get there to stop the other team's progress.
One of the best ways to gauge instincts for a safety is by looking at their ability to create turnovers, specifically interceptions. Barron was quite proficient at creating turnovers, and Sunseri looks to be just as capable.
The other half of the term "instincts" is about the film room. The majority of the time a player's instincts are a direct result to their dedication to film study.
Which is how quickly Sunseri figured out what his teammates would be doing.
The idea of instincts greatly comes into play when it comes to covering receivers. Half of it is about sticking with your man and anticipating which way he's going to go, while the other half is recognizing the type of passing play.
Is it a post? A slant? A bubble screen? Who is a distraction and who is the target?
Barron was a proven player when it came to coverage, but Sunseri is a bit of a question mark in that department.
In high school, he played middle linebacker and wasn't asked to work in coverage nearly as often as a safety. 2011 was his first season as a safety as well as his first year as a college player in the SEC.
An underrated ability for safeties in coverage is their ability to go toe-to-toe with tight ends. Barron and Sunseri's size, speed and instincts make for a perfect tight end-stopping combo.
Is Sunseri a proficient coverage safety, or will he develop into one? That's a mystery as of now, but chances are he'll do just fine.
Barron is well known as being a brutal run-defender out of the defensive backfield and it made up a good portion of his massive 231 career tackles.
In limited regular time Sunseri looked like a stout run-defender, but it was his ability to get to the ball carrier in return coverage on punts and kickoffs that really make him look like a powerful run-stopper.
Sunseri placed ninth on the team last year in total tackles with 30 with a relatively whopping 18 of them being solo tackles.
Almost all of his tackles were made during punt and kick coverage. In that limited playing time, he eclipsed Alabama's starting Sam linebacker Jerrell Harris who had 29 total tackles and 18 solo, and Harris' main job was to get to running backs running behind tight ends.
That's not a knock on Harris, as he is the most likely former Tide player to make an NFL roster this coming season as an undrafted free agent, but a testament to Sunseri's ability to get to the ball.
When Sunseri knows who has the ball, he can close on them quickly or interfere with possible routes if he can't get there himself.
Alabama's defensive playbook just might be the most difficult to learn for the defensive backs. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart have one of the most confusing and demanding playbooks in the nation.
It takes either a lot of experience or a special breed to grasp it perfectly. There is no in between, as was evidenced by former 5-star cornerback Demarcus Milliner in 2010 when he looked completely boggled at times by the playbook.
Barron mastered it after a year, and Sunseri did so as well when he was selected to be the Tide's primary nickelback in the national championship game, as the Tide's primary nickelback Will Lowery was injured, over all the other candidates, including Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and several others with a lot more experience.
Here is where Sunseri's potential takes a hard hit. He's not the most talented at the vertical jump.
Barron can leap about 36 inches. Sunseri can only leap 29, which is below average for a safety. The difference between seven inches could, quite frankly, be the difference between an interception or pass deflection and a first down for the other team—or worse.
The leaping ability of Barron was infamous, but with Sunseri lacking in that department it could prove to be a liability at times, but likely not so debilitating that it costs the team a game.
At a glance, Sunseri is very comparable to a young, sophomore Mark Barron which is what we saw in 2009.
I won't say that Sunseri is better than Barron, because he's not, but with time that could change, with the exception of the vertical jump. No amount of training can add seven inches to a guy's vertical jump.
So why was Barron considered a 5-star safety in high school and Sunseri was only a 3-star prospect?
It's because Sunseri didn't play safety, as stated earlier.
Sunseri played linebacker in high school and he hadn't hit his college growth spurt yet.
Back when agencies were tossing around star ratings, Sunseri stood at 5'11" and just over 190 lbs.
There's certainly a market for linebackers of that size among some schools, but the demand is quite low.
Sunseri's lack of attention was clearly due to his size, as his stats and on-field performances were outstanding.
As a senior in high school (high school seasons have only 10 regular season games) he racked up 109 tackles, 15 for losses (most of which were tackles on running backs), five interceptions, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Had he been 6'4" and 250 lbs. he would have been a 5-star linebacker prospect.
Other than Alabama, Sunseri had pretty grim list of offers from lower-tier schools including Louisville, Memphis, and Pittsburgh, with Pitt being the biggest.
Nick Saban and Vinnie's father, former Tide linebackers coach Sal Sunseri, thought outside the bun, unlike the rest of the coaches out there.
Undersized middle linebacker that plays with incredibly intensity and football smarts? Sounds like a safety to me!
In this day and age the duties of middle linebackers and safeties are quite comparable, especially at Alabama.
Is Vinnie Sunseri poised to go on a tear in 2012, or will he be just another guy who doesn't meet his potential after one good offseason?
Whether you are an Alabama fan or not, everyone has to admit it certainly looks like the former scenario will play out, and to devastating effect.
He has the perfect combination of size, speed, strength, instincts, and all-around football smarts.
So yes, Vinnie Sunseri is ready for the SEC, but is the SEC ready for Vinnie Sunseri?
I'm expecting him to have a career similar to Barron's, and he will likely be a multiple-time selection to the All-SEC team and earn All-American honors at least once.
Bold statement? Yes. Realistic? Yes. Scary for Alabama's opponents? Oh, hell yeah.
Get to work 'Bama fans, because we are going to need a slick, nifty nickname for this young man (but not Vinnie Badger, that's just a joke).