08 August 2008
Off-season was not kind to this defense.
Cornerback Lionel Mitchell has left the team for medical reasons. Mitchell seems to have spent a lot of time in Saban’s doghouse, but he was an adequate cornerback and I’m not sure we have another one of those coming back to stick across from Kareem Jackson (who is more than adequate). We'll miss Mitchell more than we'll miss a couple of the five senior defensive starters who graduated.
But the really bad news is at LB, and here, when it pours it comes down in buckets.
Start with returning starter Ezekiel Knight, one of our best bets for all-star status on defense, a force who became more and more disruptive as the season wore on and he learned his trade.. Knight has apparently experienced a return of the coronary irregularities that sidelined him temporarily in ’06, and this time has been disqualified from football at Alabama for good.
Next, returning starter Prince Hall, a guy who has also spent a fair bit of time in Saban’s doghouse, but has done pretty damn well on the field the rest of the time, was kicked off the team. The good news is that Hall has worked his way back on. The bad news is that he missed spring practice, and also that he will start the season with a three-game suspension.
A couple of those three games are against patsies, but we could use Hall against Clemson. But sometimes team rules and discipline just have to trump short-term needs, and apparently this is one of those timtes.
Finally, senior running back Jimmy Johns, who was moved to linebacker in the spring, embarrassed the program by being arrested on five counts of selling cocaine. He will not be back. Johns was thought to have a good chance to get in the mix, and in fact started out the spring as the starter at the sam linebacker.
Yikes. One of the strengths at D, linebacker, has suddenly become a quilt with more holes in it than cloth. We have young talent on hand, but much will be asked of them.
With five seniors graduating from an already fairly-thin squad, plus the departure of LB Knight and CB Mitchell for health reasons, there are a lot of holes to fill. In fact, this year looks a lot like last year, with more questions than answers regarding the front seven. If there’s a difference, it’s that the talent level is probably a bit advanced up front this year.
The defensive coaching staff is definitely a reason for optimism. Saban’s recognized strengths are recruiting and defense, and he has already shown at Bama why he has those reps. Last year’s defensive coaching job was particularly impressive to this observer. Saban and his defensive coaches were replacing Joe Kines and his staff, a group known to be quite effective, yet despite the loss of six starters, the newcomers managed to implement a very different new defense and put a group on the field that was about as solid as the defense the year before had been.
Fortunately, the staff that pulled that off returns intact. Nevertheless, it’s nervous-making to rely as much on youth as Bama’s D will have to do this year. The good part is that the kids will have some experience by the time we hit the annual meat part of the schedule late in the season. The bad part is that, this year, we have to play Clemson and UGA fairly early on.
Overall, I wouldn’t get my hopes too high on this unit, but I wouldn’t be too down in the dumps about them, either. I’m expecting solid D, if well short of the shutdown Ds Bama has fielded a few times in the past. (And I’m really looking forward to the ’09 D, but that’s another story.)
There are so many different ways this could turn out that it’s hard to know where to start. Making the problem more complex is the abundance of young talent that either hasn’t quite proven itself on the field or is only gradually growing into the (jumbo) size that Saban likes for his defensive linemen. So I’ll just list a few guys I expect to be key.
The only really proven DL returning, IMO, is nose tackle Lorenzo Washington. Washington played at 280 last year, definitely on the small side for a Saban DT, but that’s not so bad when you consider that he was at 240 when he showed up on campus two years previously. The weight Lorenzo shows up at this year might determine what position he winds up at.
A lot of internet prognosticators have already moved Washington out to DE because of his size, but I’m not so sure about that. His strength last year was his ability to get off the snap quickly and jam the center before he could get into blocking position, a technique that can really throw a kink into a running play but one that isn’t quite possible anywhere except on the nose. Washington will be interesting to watch.
Redshirt freshman Josh Chapman is reportedly giving Washington a run for his money, and juco incomer Terrance Cody--or Mount Cody, as some call this rather largish young gentleman--is almost certain to see some time, at least in short-yardage situations. If Chapman is indeed blossoming, that probably increases the likelihood of Washington heading outside.
You would figure Bobby Greenwood and Brandon Deaderick to be the starting DEs. Greenwood is a returning starter who has seen significant action in each of his three years at the Capstone, while Deaderick stepped in last year when Greenwood was injured and IMO was a slight improvement. So far, I have been underwhelmed by these guys. Greenwood is a senior, and it’s now or never for him. Deaderick probably has more potential to blossom.
I would not write either of those names on the lineup card in ink. I’ve already mentioned incoming true freshman Marcel Dareus, who is my pick as the most likely true freshman lineman on either side of the ball to see significant playing time. Another guy to look at is 317-pound sophomore freshman Alfred McCulloch, who won the spring practice A-Day award as the most improved defensive lineman, and had a big game at A-Day.
Although those are the first few names I’m throwing out, there is a lot of other young talent, like Luther Davis, Damian Square, Undra Billingsley, Milton Talbert, Michael Williams, and Nick Gentry, all of whom were more or less highly recruited. With so much talent competing for only three positions, I feel good about our DL this year. Despite the departure of Wallace Gilberry, who was by far our leading defensive lineman last year, I think we’ll be improved.
It would not be shocking if Alabama had as many as three true freshmen starting this year at linebacker, at least by the end of the year, and it’s probably about even money that two or more will at least get starts at some point during the year. While it’s true that we have a talented group of linebackers coming in, it’s not good news that we will be forced to rely on them so much.
However, we do have Rolando McClain. He was fourth on the team in tackles as a true freshman with 75 tackles, and that doesn’t quite tell the tale, since he was limited by injury mid-season, missing two games and barely participating in two others. In the nine games in which he played a substantial amount, he had 73 tackles. Carry that average through all 13 games and McClain would’ve had 106 tackles, easily a team best (Rashad Johnson actually led the team with 94 tackles). Further, Rolando finished strong, with 20 tackles and 2 picks against Auburn and Colorado. I’m personally looking for this guy to come out of the gate strong this year. The onus is on him to lead the interior D, and I think he’s up to the task. I predict him to play at an All-American level this year—not that he has much of a chance to actually achieve such an honor, given that our Sports Information Department tends to be a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to promoting emerging stars. Hopefully relative newcomers Doug Walker & Jeff Purinton will do better at this.
Also returning—once his three-game season-opening suspension is lifted, that is—is two-year starter (or at least part-time starter) Prince Hall. Hall is a solid run-stopper who can lay the wood, a decent blitzer, and has a nice knack for getting in passing lanes in zone D, although he has trouble covering speedy backs in man. Hall will probably man the other middle position next to McClain.
Corey Reamer, a junior who is just know growing into real linebacker size, at 6’4” 223, is holding down the will position for now, but my money says it's Hall's when he returns.
Brandon Fanney is the designated favorite to start at “jack,” the Saban-centric super-sized outside linebacker who usually plays with his hand down as an extra DE but can also fall back into coverage. We got very little production last year at jack from senior Keith Saunders, and Fanney never pushed him, so that’s not real confidence-building.
Supposedly, Fanney had a decent spring, which is much to be hoped, because the guys on the team who are tagged as future jacks—Alex Watkins, Chavis Williams, and incoming freshman Courtney Upshaw—haven’t quite grown into the position. The only backer we have, other than McClain or Hall, with the requisite size is incoming freshman Don'ta Hightower, but word is Hightower starts in the middle.
Watkins is said to be having a strong fall camp.
Finally, the leading candidate for the other outside backer position may be true freshman Jerrell Harris. This guy was awfully good in high school and looks like a real talent, but I’ve got my concerns about counting on him as a starter. His competition is probably redshirt freshman Chavis Williams or Reamer, another guy who supposedly looked better than expected in the spring.
Linebacker recruiting was probably Mike Shula’s weakest suit—they went after plenty of good ones, but whoever was handling that recruiting could just never close the deal—and although Saban is making up ground fast, we’re in a very uncomfortable position there right now in terms of veteran talent. Hopefully, one of Shula’s signees who has failed to make waves so far—like Charlie Higginbotham, Jennings Hester, Eryk Anders, or Reamer—will step up. It could be a long year, defensively, otherwise.
Even though we graduated two starters and another part-time starter left the team due to a lingering injury, we’ve got a big talent infusion here and look to be improved. That’s partly because the starters we graduated may not have been of the highest quality.
It’s also partly because the two starters who return are. Senior safety Rashad Johnson may be a former walk-on, but he is an NFL talent, reputedly the fastest player on the team. Last year he had six picks, led the team in tackles, and was first-team all-SEC. This is a great story, and it could be even greater if Rashad improves during the off-season as he has consistently done so far during his career.
Also back is Kareem Jackson, who stepped in as a true freshman last year and quickly became our top cover corner. He’s not flashy, but he is very solid against both the pass and the run.
If there is to be a weakness at DB this year, it will be at the other corner. Returnees Marquis Johnson and Chris Rogers didn’t really get the job done, and the starter in the spring was Javier Arenas, who probably isn’t quite the full 5’9” he is listed at.
I like watching the short guys play, being one myself, but I have to get a little nervous seeing Javy on an island with some of the big receivers the SEC is full of. One thing is for sure, the guy is a real athlete, so don’t rule out the possibility that he will be the man.
His strongest competition will be from true freshman Alonzo Lawrence, who is several inches taller than Arenas, and wowed scouts down the stretch last season, as well as in post-season all-star play, to finish as a top 50 national recruit. It probably depends on how long it takes Lawrence to learn the schemes, but he has to be a 50-50 bet to be in the starting lineup by the end of the year.
Safety across from Johnson is shaping up to be a battle royale. Neither of the two guys likely to be involved is a proven college safety, but they are both flat-out stud athletes. The starter in spring practice was Justin Woodall. This is his third year on the team, and according to all reports, the light bulb has finally come on for this talent. Baseball America, the last word in amateur baseball talent evaluation, had Woodall listed as the best baseball athlete available in the draft when he was coming out of high school, but he chose the Crimson Tide. This spring he completely passed on baseball in order to be able to concentrate on football. Woodall is a speedy 227 and could be the hardest-hitting safety we’ve had in years.
But he will have to beat out true freshman Mark Barron, a top 50 national recruit. Like Woodall, Barron is big and fast, and his high school films show him to be a heat-seeking missile that not only explodes on ball carriers, but brings them down with solid tackling technique. If Barron doesn’t win this competition, don’t be surprised to see him at linebacker, wideout, or even running back. He’s one of those guys you want to get on the field.
Also, while you’re focusing on the battle between Woodall and Barron? Don’t forget true freshman Robert Lester, a 4-star who may have more experience actually playing safety than either of those guys.