Alabama Football: Changes Tide Must Make to Remain Nation's Top Defense
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Despite losing six starters on the best defense in the BCS era, Alabama enters the 2012 season with high expectations—perhaps because most observers around the country expect Nick Saban to reload on that side of the ball, and with good reason.
Since Saban's first year with Alabama in 2007, the Crimson Tide have fielded a defensive unit that has finished atop the SEC in total defense in each of his last four years (finished in the top five nationally in that same time span).
However, with so much experience and talent departing and last year’s unit being the best in the country, there’s nowhere to go but down—regardless of how slight of a retreat it may be.
I highly doubt anyone expects Alabama’s defense to fall too far, but what changes—if any—will Saban and his staff have to make in order for the Crimson Tide to maintain their dominance on that side of the line of scrimmage?
I will break down one area that each level of the defense can tweak, plus highlight one player that can make a difference at several positions to help his team’s quest to stay on top.
Here are four adjustments the Crimson Tide can make to remain the nation’s top defense.
Unleash the Defensive Line Unit
The defensive line will be the most experienced unit on the defense, led by DE Damion Square.
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One place where Alabama does return experience is on their defensive line—with a trio of seniors expected to man the trenches (Quinton Dial, Jesse Williams and Damion Square) as starters.
Alabama’s scheme typically uses defensive linemen to occupy offensive linemen and clear the way for their linebackers to be free to wreak havoc—which means that they are not usually counted on to be dominant pass-rushers (Alabama defensive linemen accounted for one-third of the team’s sacks last season).
This season’s unit should fare well against the run considering the combination of experience and depth they possess—but do not be surprised to see them turn up the heat in getting after the quarterback.
Find a Bigger Role for CJ Mosley
Mosley is a difference maker at linebacker because of his ability in coverage.
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For all of the star power that garnered the headlines for Alabama’s play on defense last season, linebacker CJ Mosley was a player that flashed across the screen whenever he’s been in the lineup over his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa.
His ability to cover running backs and tight ends is what makes him special (his interception return for a touchdown as a freshman against Florida and his pick in the BCS title game in January come to mind).
Injuries have hampered him (although he looked to be recovered from the nasty leg injury he suffered in the clip linked above), but when he’s been healthy, he still splits time at the will linebacker spot with senior Nico Johnson.
Considering his experience and his playmaking ability, it may not be a bad idea to increase his role with the loss of several leaders from last year’s unit gone.
Protect the Secondary
Lester is the unquestioned leader of a secondary that will see many changes this fall.
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Perhaps the primary reason Alabama was able to be so dominant last season was that the fact that they possessed the best secondary in the country—as evidenced by the unit only allowing a nation-best 111.5 passing yards per contest.
With safety Robert Lester as the only full-time returning starter (although corner Dee Milliner started six games last season), he will be counted on to take on more of a leadership role with several new faces lining up with him this season.
The last time Alabama had as much turnover in the secondary was the 2010 season—and while the Crimson Tide was still one of the better pass defenses in the country (finished 13th nationally), the secondary had critical breakdowns in losses to South Carolina and Auburn that season.
There will be plenty of talent on hand, and it will be coached by two of the best defensive minds in the nation in Saban and Smart—but expect them to keep things simple until the new starters get more comfortable.
Use Vinnie Sunseri's Versatility
Vinnie Sunseri could lineup at several different spots this season.
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Vinnie Sunseri followed up a freshman campaign that saw him earn a spot on the All-SEC freshman team with a strong spring—evidenced by him accounting for two turnovers in Alabama’s spring game.
The former prep linebacker found himself taking reps at free safety and linebacker, as well as at corner in nickel and dime formations during the spring—and that versatility could allow him to be a wild card for the Crimson Tide this season.
His ability to drop down closer to the line of scrimmage provides Saban with several intriguing options because of skills as a ball-hawking safety in coverage and his linebacker-like mentality against the run.
Considering his ability to play many positions—and his penchant for making big plays—Sunseri’s flexibility can bring an added dimension to a defense looking for new stars to emerge.