Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide will bring back at least seven players on defense with starting experience in 2013.
The foundation of the Alabama football program’s recent run of success has been on the defensive side of the ball, and Nick Saban should field another loaded unit capable of fueling another title run in 2013.
The biggest losses will be felt up front, with three of the top six defensive linemen playing their last game in next week’s BCS National Championship Game against Notre Dame.
Veterans such as safety Robert Lester and linebacker Nico Johnson are significant contributors that will be missed, but the linebacker and secondary units appear to be stacked. Assuming All-American corner Dee Milliner turns pro, that position will be the biggest area of concern for Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart in the spring.
The 2013 defensive unit got a huge boost with the announcement that Butkus Award finalist C.J. Mosley would return for his senior season (h/t Chris Low and Alex Scarborough, ESPN).
This year’s defense was personified by talented young players enduring some growing pains, which mirrors some of the tribulations experienced in the 2010 season—albeit to a lesser degree considering they will line up next week with a chance to repeat as national champions.
Next year, sophomores like Adrian Hubbard, Xzavier Dickson and Trey DePriest at linebacker, plus safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, will all be juniors primed to take the next step in becoming a dominant unit.
Which backups from this season could be in line to start in 2013, and which positions could see a host of talented newcomers make a jump into the two-deep?
Find out as we take an early look the potential changes on defense for Alabama, and project the Tide’s 2013 depth chart on defense.
*Class distinction is reflected to show class as of next season.
DE Ed Stinson had three sackes and 8.5 tackles for loss in 2012.
Junior Ed Stinson is slated to be the front three’s only returning starter next season, and the only senior projected to be in the rotation.
A host of younger linemen such as sophomores LaMichael Fanning, D.J. Pettway and incoming freshman DeMarcus Walker are candidates that could jump into the mix to back up Stinson.
Pettway, who appeared in 12 games this season and looked active when he got his opportunity, may hold a slight edge for that role heading into the spring.
Starter—Ed Stinson, Senior
Backup—D.J. Pettway, Sophomore
Brandon Ivory recorded 21 tackles as the backup to Jesse Williams at nose guard this season.
The loss of Jesse Williams will be one of the toughest pieces to replace, but sophomore Brandon Ivory gained extensive playing time this season as Williams’ understudy.
Ivory will get first crack at the job, but freshman Darren Lake plus a handful of talented prospects that redshirted last season (touted class of 2012 recruits Korren Kirven, Dakota Ball and Dalvin Tomlinson amongst others) will enter the fray in the spring.
Also, it would not be a shock if there’s some shuffling done where an end moves over to tackle—similar to the shift Jesse Williams made before this season began.
However, Ivory and Lake each possess the size (each weigh 315 pounds) and strength necessary to become the space-eaters that excel in the middle of Alabama’s defensive line.
Starter—Brandon Ivory, Junior
Backup—Darren Lake, Sophomore
The 6'4", 285-pound Pagan is a potential new starter that could have a huge impact next year.
With dependable seniors Damion Square and Quinton Dial graduating, the spot opposite Stinson will become an open competition.
Sophomore Jeoffrey Pagan has shown glimpses of becoming the next dominant lineman groomed by Saban. The 6’4”, 285-pounder has played in all 13 games this season, and his 22 tackles finishes only behind the three starters up front amongst Tide defensive linemen this season.
Fanning—who measures in at 6’7”, 298 pounds—is one of the more physically imposing defensive linemen in the entire country, and he has already shown that he can play with a mean streak on the field.
This spring is critical for his development, and he has the ability to push Pagan (and/or Pettway) for the starting spot if the light bulb comes on.
Starter—Jeoffrey Pagan, Junior
Backup—LaMichael Fanning, Sophomore
Hubbard had three forced fumbles this season and could become a pass-rushing force in 2013.
Sophomore Adrian Hubbard entered the season as one of the newcomers most pundits across the nation picked to break out and become a star for the Tide’s defense this season.
Hubbard showed flashes of brilliance—particularly, his strong play in the LSU game—and finished as the team leader in tackles for loss (10) and sacks (six).
His potential is limitless, but the Tide will count on him to step his game up a notch and become more consistent in order for him to reach that potential next season.
Veteran backup Jonathan Atchison will be pushed by freshmen Denzel Devall and Dillon Lee for the right to spell Hubbard.
Starter—Adrian Hubbard, Junior
Backup—Dillon Lee, Sophomore
DePriest will transition into a full-time starting position with the graduation of Nico Johnson.
With Johnson moving on to the next level, DePriest—whose 56 tackles were second-most on the team—will step into his shoes in a full-time role after splitting time with him this season.
Freshman Reggie Ragland—one of the top inside linebackers in the 2012 class—appeared in 10 games this season and has the makings of becoming a special player for the Tide’s defense in the years to come.
That duo should continue the trend of providing an imposing physical presence in the middle level that has been present throughout Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s tenure at the Capstone.
Starter—Trey DePriest, Junior
Backup—Reggie Ragland, Sophomore
Mosley, a potential first-round draft pick, surprisingly spurned the NFL to return for his senior season.
Johnson shared time at both inside linebacker positions, with Mosley inheriting the same scenario as DePriest with Johnson’s departure.
The first-team All-SEC selection is in the middle of a sensational junior campaign, and his return gives this unit a veteran anchor and a seasoned playmaker that will be one of the nation’s top linebackers.
Veteran Tana Patrick is another experienced contributor that has logged playing time the last three seasons, but look for freshman Tyler Hayes to push Patrick for the right to spell Mosley.
Another possibility at this spot would be former running back and H-back Brent Calloway.
Starter—C.J. Mosley, Senior
Backup—Tana Patrick, Senior
Tide fans are hoping Dickson's play against Georgia in the SEC title game is a sign of things to come for 2013.
Dickson had a solid season debuting in the "Jack" linebacker role that functions as a hybrid position between a defensive end and a linebacker—with his best effort coming in the SEC title win over Georgia where he notched five tackles and two sacks against the Bulldogs.
Devall was the most productive linebacker from a decorated crop of prospects brought in during last season’s recruiting class, as he finished the season with 17 tackles and two sacks.
Devall will likely push Dickson for the starting role, with redshirt freshman Ryan Anderson and incoming recruit Jonathan Allen other possibilities to compete for playing time.
Saban has shown the tendency to experiment in the spring by having players switch positions, and Pettway may fall into that category after working at the Jack spot during preparations for the BCS title game, according to Don Kausler, Jr. of al.com.
Starter—Xzavier Dickson, Junior
Backup—Denzel Devall, Sophomore
Fulton recorded four pass break ups in the Tide's loss to Texas A&M.
With Milliner projected to be a lock as a first-round draft choice, both corner positions will undoubtedly become topics of discussion for the spring amongst Tide supporters.
Junior John Fulton played well spelling Milliner this season, and his experience gives him a leg up on the race to replace him.
Sophomore Geno Smith is another candidate to push for the starting job considering his strong finish to 2012.
Other options that will enter the competition at corner include fellow sophomores Jabriel Washington and Bradley Sylve.
Starter—John Fulton, Senior
Backup—Jabriel Washington, Sophomore
Sunseri's versatility will be a valuable asset for Alabama's defense next season.
The departure of three-year starter Robert Lester will open up a spot that may just become one of the spring’s biggest discussion points amongst Tide supporters.
That is due to the intriguing young talents on hand that will vie for the right to take over Lester’s role.
Sophomore Vinnie Sunseri is listed as Lester’s primary backup, and he has played extensively in his two years at the Capstone and will likely be a significant presence at a number of positions on the field next season.
The crown jewel of the 2012 recruiting class—safety Landon Collins—is a candidate to slide over to the other safety spot to push Sunseri for the starting job.
Much like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix before this season, Collins could prove to be too talented to keep off the field.
Starter—Vinnie Sunseri, Junior
Backup—Landon Collins, Sophomore
Clinton-Dix picked off three passes this season, good for second-most on the team.
Clinton-Dix endured some bumps through his first full season logging heavy minutes, but like several sophomore starters this season, he is a player that has the potential to be one of the best in the SEC at his position if he improves as expected.
Junior Nick Perry is a physical presence at safety that split the duties with Clinton-Dix this season, and he will figure into the rotation heavily regardless of who wins the starting job.
Jarrick Williams—another player recovering from a torn ACL—and redshirt freshman Eddie Williams are other possibilities that could emerge at either safety position this spring.
Starter—Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Junior
Backup—Nick Perry, Senior
Belue is hoping to put his late-season struggles behind him in 2013.
Belue’s first season at the Capstone has been an adventurous one, and he is a player that struggled mightily over the final month of the season.
However, his numbers (36 tackles, two interceptions, six pass breakups and a fumble returned for a touchdown) were solid, and he will undoubtedly become more comfortable in his second full season in Saban’s system.
Sylve and Washington will have to fend off hotshot incoming corner commitments Maurice Smith and Jonathan Cook.
Geno Smith is another candidate to push Belue for the right to start, and those battles could cause some shuffling between positions in an effort to get the best players on the field.
Starter—Deion Belue, Senior
Backup—Bradley Sylve, Sophomore
Smith is another young player that stepped up against Georgia, and he will have a bigger role in the 2013 defense.
Assuming the status quo holds, and Fulton and Belue hold onto the starting positions, Geno Smith would slide into the nickel spot and give the Tide a trio of quality corners they can put on the field in nickel situations.
Given that Saban and Smart crave versatility amongst their defensive backs, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for one of the safeties (Collins and Sunseri are prime candidates in this case) to slide down into the role in certain situations.
This is another potential spot where the two incoming corner recruits can get on the field, with both Maurice Smith and Cook giving Saban a pair of big corners with the necessary speed and agility to keep up with speedy slot receivers.
Starter—Geno Smith, Sophomore
Backup—Landon Collins, Sophomore