Alabama Spring Camp Preview: Players to Watch on Defense
After looking at some of the questions hanging over the offensive side of the ball this spring, the overview of the defense is much simpler. In fact, considering the Tide returns nine of its 11 starters from the 2008 squad, Alabama finds itself in a position it hasn't enjoyed in a long time.
Yet, even with so much experience returning, there are still a few areas of interest...a lot of interest when taking into account that the leader of last year's defense, Rashad Johnson, looks to play on Sundays this fall.
Who fills the role vacated by Rashad's graduation?
In the defensive backfield, the way the Tide leaves spring camp could mean very little when summer camp starts in August. While it would almost be amiss not to think ahead about how a player like Dre Kirkpatrick may impact the rotation, it serves little purpose when considering the spring.
If we consider the amount of time Bama has spent in their nickel package the last two seasons, one could say the Tide starts three corner backs. Two of those positions, the true corner positions, feature returning starters Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson. There, you won't find a question as to who leaves spring in the starting role.
When Alabama moves to the nickel package the first guy on the field in 2008, Marquis Johnson, returns for his senior season. If there is a position battle, it's found in who fills the role of the "first guy off the bench."
It would be to Bama's benefit if one guy could step up and become that true nickel back. Last season, when the Tide went into the nickel package, Javy Arenas moved from his corner position into the STAR (nickel back) position and Johnson took his corner back role, a position where Arenas was more consistent than Johnson.
Here we have a battle of seniors, as Chris Rogers is entering his final year of eligibility with both Alonzo Lawrence and Robby Green looking to challenge as well.
The unknown this spring is how well B.J. Scott will make the transition to defense. He's was slated to start working with the safeties, but when practice commenced, he was getting his first look in the STAR position, as well as a true cornerback.
Who lines up alongside Justin Woodall will draw the majority of the attention.
Right now, based on who saw action last year, the player most likely to fill that position is Ali Sharrief.
While Sharrief didn't see a lot of action last season with the safeties in regular downs, he was a contributor when the Tide moved into its dime package.
Mark Barron is certainly going to push Ali for playing time in the role. Barron spent the majority of his time last year on special teams, although he did get some time in the secondary as well.
Ali, when forced into action at the end of last season, didn't perform as well as the defensive coaching staff would like, which led to Barron taking his place. While it's easy to assume Ali has the edge due to his age and experience, Barron is likely to take as many reps as Ali throughout the spring.
In a nutshell, the open safety position may not be answered until the fall of '09.
The linebacking corps returns fully intact from 2008.
Considering how vital the unit is in Coach Saban's 3-4 defense just because the Tide returns their four starters, doesn't mean it's an area we can dismiss as settled.
Realistically, the unit could be described as "filled" when they have eight or more players who can come in with little to no drop in productivity.
The majority of the attention will go to Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris.
Brandon Fanney had a solid season in 2008, but hardly spectacular when one considers the need for the JACK linebacker to be able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback from his down position.
Upshaw turned many heads last season with his special teams play, and a lot of Bama fans are hoping he's the missing ingredient for that position.
Now, with the announcement that Fanney has been suspended for a period of time, the door is wide open for Upshaw to make his presence known.
The move of Jerrell Harris to inside linebacker was a small shock to a lot of Bama fans who expected him to contribute last year from the outside. While it's still labeled as "an experiment" by the staff, Harris will provide a lot of speed and athleticism to the inside.
By no means should anyone discount the production from Eryk Anders last year who seemed to be coming into his own as the season progressed. We'd be making a mistake in thinking that Chris Jordan won't compete for his share of playing time as well.
The best we can hope for is the Tide is able to leave spring camp with a solid two-deep rotation and then have the luxury of being able to add a few of the incoming freshman to the mix in August.
The decision Terrance Cody made to return for his senior season means that the defensive tackle position for the spring is practically determined. The combination of Cody and Chapman last year enabled Alabama to be one of the better rushing defenses in the NCAA and that should only improve throughout the spring and fall.
Given that Cody has reported to spring camp in the best shape he's been in his career, the chances have grown he'll be seen on more than just "rushing downs."
It's the defensive ends that'll garner the speculation as Alabama looks to replace one of its best pass rushers from 2008, Bobby Greenwood.
It's odd to say the leading candidate to replace last year's starter was actually a full-time starter on the defensive line two years ago.
But, with Lorenzo Washington, that is precisely the situation. With Brandon Deaderick also returning, the starting three along the line looks to be solid, if not dominant.
We mentioned Chapman, who is serving as the primary back up for Cody. The second team defensive ends bring the same trait Chapman does, experience and talent with very little drop off, if any, in ability.
The upperclassman of the group, Milton Talbert, will get his opportunity to earn a back up role but he's not what one would consider the prototypical defensive end in Saban's scheme.
He's likely to find himself in the same position as he did before Greenwood graduated; running with the third-team defensive ends. In fact, there's the chance that he'll have a battle on his hands for that role with Undra Billingsley and Nick Gentry.
Two of "Saban's recruits," Luther Davis and Marcel Dareus, should be considered the odds-on favorites to secure their positions backing up Deaderick and Washington. Both have seen a decent amount of playing time early in their career.
As you can see, not a lot of questions over this unit for the spring. A few, but they are primarily centered on what players will see reserve roles for 2009.
Coach Saban has commented time and time again how much he loves the teaching aspect of college football. With this group, he should have a heck of a good time this spring.
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