Alabama 2012: Tide Defense Not Quite as Young as It May Appear
The Alabama Crimson Tide will soon enter the 2012 season without seven starters from their defense that helped them win last season's BCS National Championship.
Dont'a Hightower, DeQuan Menzie, Mark Barron, Josh Chapman, Dre Kirkpatrick, Jerrell Harris and Courtney Upshaw will need to be replaced. While losses like these would leave many programs in shambles, head coach Nick Saban has his pantry well stocked with fresh talent—and experienced talent at that.
Yes, there will be new names and faces. But for most 'Bama fans, the newest version of the Alabama defense is not that new at all. While they may not yet be household names, Alabama's defense is much more experienced and game-tested than most people realize.
Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have not become widely recognized as being among the best in their field by being unprepared. The 2011 Crimson Tide defense was arguably the best in the country. It was also one of the deepest.
Linebacker Nico Johnson finished 2011 as the fourth leading tackler for Alabama. He is in line to be Alabama's next great linebacker, following the likes of Rolando McLain and Dont'a Hightower who have preceded him.
The senior enters his third year as a starter and has played in 38 games in his Alabama tenure.
Johnson will be the rock that holds the defense in place. Most likely to be in charge of communication and barking out assignments for the Tide, expect Johnson to be a first-round draft pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
After seeing minimal playing time as a freshman, defensive back Robert Lester is also entering his third year as a starter this season.
As a sophomore in 2010, Lester was second in the nation with eight interceptions. He has finished sixth on the team in tackles for each of the past two seasons and will be the leader of the Alabama secondary after three big departures from last season's backfield.
At 6'2", Lester not only has both size and speed, but he plays with a tenacity that is not often seen in defensive backs. Lester has punishing strength and is a physical force that NFL teams are going to fall in love with.
Junior linebacker C.J. Mosley has appeared in all but two games since coming to Tuscaloosa in 2010. He was third on the team in his freshman season at Alabama with 67 tackles and finished seventh in tackles last season even though he missed two games with a dislocated elbow.
Like Johnson, Mosley has tremendous speed and a nose for the football. His natural instincts and "football smarts" make him one of the most imposing defensive threats in the SEC.
Mosley is yet another Alabama defender who is likely to hear his name called in the first round of either the 2013 or 2014 NFL draft.
After redshirting in 2008, Square blew out his knee in his freshman season. Since then, the rising senior has played in every game for the Tide, totaling 57 tackles, 14 of them for loss, and recording four sacks.
At 6'3, 286 lbs., the defensive lineman is a run-stopping giant, but also has the quickness to get to opposing quarterbacks.
Square really became a big factor in the Alabama defense late in 2011 and will be one of the leaders for the Tide in 2012.
Junior defensive back Dee Milliner will be playing opposite of Lester in the Alabama secondary this season. Milliner has started 17 of 26 games since joining the Tide and has played in every game.
He has recorded 81 tackles, broken up 16 passes and has four interceptions in his brief Alabama career. A member of the freshman All-American team in 2010, Milliner mostly played in nickel and dime situations in 2011.
Maybe best known for his 35-yard interception return for a touchdown in last season's Iron Bowl victory over Auburn, Milliner is likely to garner national attention again this year.
The Rest of the Best
Alabama also returns experienced defenders like sophomore defensive back Vinnie Sunseri, who had 32 tackles as a freshman and quickly became a favorite of the Bryant-Denny Stadium crowd. He will be joined by Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and John Fulton who also were in the backfield rotation last year.
On the defensive line, senior JUCO transfers Quinton Dial and Australian Jesse Williams both saw plenty of action in 2011. Williams started all 13 games for the Tide and is an effective run-stopper. Along with junior Ed Stinson, they will have the defensive line in safe hands.
Adrian Hubbard and Tana Patrick both saw limited action in 2011 as sophomore linebackers. Both are expected to play vital roles for the 'Bama defense this season, though, and expect Hubbard to make huge strides and possibly become the heir apparent to Nico Johnson as leader.
While there are many new parts to the Alabama defense this season, the most important has been kept in place. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is one of the most sought after coaches in the nation.
Smart and his defensive philosophy have not changed. Where the Tide offense is adjusting to a new coordinator (Doug Nussmeier), the defensive system that Alabama plays under remains stable and unchanged.
Smart is possibly the best coordinator in the country and is likely to leave Alabama for a head coach position in the very near future. But for now, he is exactly where Saban wants him and he will have his defense ready to go come September 1st.