A Closer Look at Alabama’s Secondary Heading into Spring Practice
A primary focus for Saban this off-season will be the restructuring of an Alabama secondary that struggled throughout the 2013 season. Injuries plagued last year's group, which opened the door for a number of younger players to step up. Those players now have valuable SEC experience and that will come in handy under a new secondary coach.
Secondary coach Greg Brown left the program for the same position at Louisville, and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is now in charge of the safeties and cornerbacks. He'll have Saban at his side throughout spring practice to help him evaluate the secondary as it looks to fill a number of holes.
Here is a look at what Saban and Kirby Smart will be dealing as spring practice begins:
Injuries and suspensions throughout the course of the season lead to a shortage of resources in the secondary. Experience is vital, and although injuries are unfortunate, Alabama now brings back a more experienced core.
Freshman Eddie Jackson and sophomore Geno Smith each saw playing time last season and figure to be a big part of this year's unit. Jackson, maybe best known for being the victim of one Saban's verbal attacks on a 60 Minutes special, recorded nine tackles in a loss to Oklahoma and intercepted a Bo Wallace pass in his first start against Ole Miss. Smith stayed in rotation with other players to help keep fresh legs in games where opponents ran no-huddle offenses.
Bradley Sylve, Jabriel Washington, and Maurice Smith are three other younger players that gained valuable experience when depth in the secondary became thin. All players played in at least seven games and will likely see more snaps this season.
The most notable returnees this season will be safeties Landon Collins, Jarrick Williams, and Nick Perry along with cornerback Cyrus Jones. Collins lead the secondary in tackles last season and saw more playing time after safety Vinnie Sunseri suffered a season ending knee injury.
Sunseri's injury also allowed Jarrick Williams to see more action. Despite battling an eye injury suffered against Texas A&M, Williams still played in 12 games. Nick Perry missed all of the 2013 season following a shoulder injury but played every game in 2012. Cyrus Jones made the transition from wide receiver to cornerback and brings the most experience back to his position.
Alabama only loses four players, two cornerbacks and two safeties, to graduation or the NFL Draft, but they are significant losses.
Junior college transfer Deion Belue is a key loss despite not being 100% for the 2013 season. John Fulton might not have played the most minutes, but he was the only cornerback to play in all 13 games last year, and his leadership was valued in a secondary that featured many young players.
Both departing safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will be difficult players to replace defensively. Sunseri was a brute force whose season was cut short because of a torn ACL. Before his injury, the junior was listed as a mid-season All-American. He still managed to finish tied for the most interceptions on the team, including a momentum-changing pick in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M. Sunseri unexpectedly announced that he would forego his senior year to enter the NFL Draft, a decision that has been questioned by many.
Clinton-Dix also chose to enter the draft after being projected as a first-round pick. Despite missing two games from a suspension, he earned First Team All-SEC and Second Team All-American honors, making him the first Alabama safety since Mark Barron to achieve that honor.
Top Candidates to Step Up
Injuries to players Sunseri and Belue allowed Landon Collins, Jarrick Williams, and Cyrus Jones to step up and play a larger role in the secondary, but who can step up make play a larger role this season?
Along with the names already mentioned, there are a few guys that you should keep an eye on during camp. Cornerback Jonathan Cook and safety Jai Miller have yet to see the field, but that could all change following the conclusion of spring practice.
Cook was a long time Nebraska commit before making the switch to Alabama following a late scholarship offer. Cook was redshirted in his first season, but the work ethic and athleticism that was shown to earn a late scholarship offer proves that he could see playing time this year. Miller is a 29-year-old former MLB player who ended his professional baseball career and decided to walk-on at Alabama. Miller may lack the experience, but he has had a year to learn the system and could be a sleeper candidate this season.
It would be unfair to not mention incoming freshmen as potential candidates. Tony Brown and Laurence "Hootie" Jones are already on campus and will participate in practice, giving them a great opportunity to jump into the starting rotation in a rebuilding year for Alabama's secondary. Brown is a track star with blazing speed and was one of the most sought after defensive backs in the country. Jones was highly recruited and tends to be overlooked because of Brown, but he has just as much potential.
This secondary is in the process of a long overhaul. Many pieces need to be put together, but Saban has proven he can form and develop successful groups. Starting positions are not limited to one player and all candidates have an equal opportunity to emerge before the season begins.
The next great quarterback may be the most talked about topic of the off-season, but don't forget about the position where Saban spends a majority of his time on the practice field.