Alabama lost some key defenders to the NFL draft after last year's championship run, and this young team has a lot to prove going forward this season.
From my point of view, this is the single, most important reason that USC took the No. 1 overall spot atop the latest AP preseason poll. If Bama didn't have question marks on defense, they'd easily be the top team in the NCAA.
Consider this: Nick Saban has to replace Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont'a Hightower, Jerrell Harris and Courtney Upshaw. Thankfully, Saban is one of the premier recruiters in college football, and he's continually reloading his team with A-plus talent at every position.
Let's take a look at some of the young defenders who will need to step up and play big in 2012 in order for Alabama to continue.
Xzavier Dickson, Jack Linebacker
Dickson has the biggest shoes to fill, as he's playing the exact same position as Upshaw did. He's certainly built for the job, at 6'3" and 270 pounds, and he learned from the best.
Will Dickson be able to continue where Upshaw left off, or will he struggle?
Dickson is a true sophomore this year, and he understands the pressure he's under to keep the high standards that Upshaw set in years past. According to AL.com, he said: "I just try to play to my potential and try to get better and better. Courtney was a great player. I just try to do what I do best."
What he does best is get to the quarterback. His scouting report coming out of high school reads much like the ones we saw from Upshaw during the scouting process leading up to the NFL draft last year (h/t ESPN.com).
If Dickson can produce consistent pressure as a pass-rusher and stays disciplined on the edge in the running game, Alabama will have an outstanding chance to continue their dominating ways on defense in 2012.
Vinnie Sunseri, Strong Safety
Sunseri is going to take over where Barron left off last year, or at least that's the plan. Barron was for Alabama's secondary what Upshaw was to the front seven, and he's not easily replaceable.
Sunseri was a linebacker in high school, but he has the size of a strong safety. He isn't quite as fast as Barron, but his instincts are superb, according to ESPN.com's scouting report:
[Sunseri] demonstrates great natural instincts and football intelligence; sniffs the play out quickly and consistently plays downhill with few false steps...A great ball-hawk...Closes the cushion fast in coverage and does a great job blanketing his underneath zone but would need to polish up his drop, crossover footwork and coverage technique to play a true safety position.
From what we've seen out of him in the spring and summer, Sunseri has taken the necessary steps to become a better coverage man in space. He has the big-hit abilities of a linebacker and the speed and technique of a safety, and I'm looking forward to seeing him perform in real games this fall.
Deion Belue, Cornerback
Belue is a JUCO transfer from Northeast Mississippi Community College.
According to AL.com, he's making the transition to big-time college ball look easy. Saban talked about the talented young man, saying:
He has done a nice job of developing this spring. He's a really good man-to-man cover guy. At times, he gets a little bit unsure of himself in terms of what he's supposed to do. I think he's definitely going to be a player that contributes and has the potential to be a starter on our team next year.
Going forward, we're going to see Belue become one of the team's go-to guys in coverage, and I predict we'll see him matching up against the best receivers in the NCAA by the time the 2012 season is finished.
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