For a defense that loses players at every level to the NFL and graduation, it is the cornerback position where the Alabama Crimson Tide have to improve for their defense to return to form in 2014. The Tide need a return to dominance at the cornerback spot, and that starts this spring as players try to prove they can be consistent performers.
Corner is not the only place where Alabama will have a major position battle and young players attempting to step into larger roles. C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard are gone out of the linebacking corps, and that means some of the talented youth will have to fill the void. Vinnie Sunseri moving to the NFL leaves Landon Collins as the only safety back. Someone will have to replace Ha Ha Clinton-Dix opposite Collins.
As Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson move on, the defensive line looks around to find new starters. However, there is plenty of depth, and athletes like A'Shawn Robinson have shown they can get the job done. Cornerback is not the only job up in the air for Nick Saban's team, but it is the most critical to the health of the defense.
Deion Belue is the only true starter to leave the position, although John Fulton also contributed. Both players are moving on after exhausting their eligibility. Four players return who have started at least one game for the Crimson Tide: Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones, both rising juniors, as well as rising sophomores Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson.
Those four players, each talented and with the skill set to contribute, will be competing to lock down the cornerback spot. Tony Brown, a 5-star athlete per 247Sports and an early enrollee, will also find himself in the mix, battling for the spot.
Alabama's defense needs the cornerback position to be reliable. More importantly, it needs the position to stand on its own, without constant attention from the safeties and the need to overcompensate.
The Tide need the corners to work because the defense is a machine, a Voltron of sorts. Every position has its role and if one piece does not, or cannot, perform consistently, the entire defensive robot that Alabama has become falls apart.
In real terms, the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the cornerback position in 2013 forced the safety position to be more mindful of the corners and provide more help. That changes the defenses that are called and shifts the safeties' role. Altering the safeties' role puts added pressure on the linebackers to cover all the alleys in run support. That increased pressure also means that a misstep can result in a big gain for the opponents as the safeties hold to thwart a play-action or run-action pass.
Alabama is tied to its system and its disciplined approach. When it works, it acts as a boa constrictor that suffocates an opponent and snuffs out all of its offensive life. However, when pieces fail, as the corners did a season ago, there are avenues for success, and good teams can take advantage of the Tide on the ground and through the air.
That is why the cornerback battle is the most critical for the Crimson Tide. This team needs those corners in place with true confidence. This spring is not just about winning the position, it is about securing capable cornerback play on an every-snap basis; something that 2013's turnstile nature of the position was clearly lacking.
With Texas A&M and Auburn on the schedule, getting good cornerback play is a must to be successful. If safeties are worried about the corners, that means they are not focused on the seams, intermediate areas or flowing hard to make run fits. Jones, Sylve, Smith, Jackson and Brown will have to rise to the occasion.
If those players, plus summer enrollee Marlon Humphrey—another 5-star talent according to 247Sports—can get the job done, Alabama's defense should be up to the task of handling its SEC schedule.