24 August 2008
Chris Rogers - #8 – JR – 6-0 – 195 lbs – 2 Varsity Letters
Marquis Johnson - #24 – JR – 5-11 – 192 lbs – 2 Varsity Letters
Javier Arenas - #28 – JR – 5-9 – 198 lbs – 2 Varsity Letters
Kareem Jackson - #3 – SO – 5-11 – 192 lbs – 1 Varsity Letter
Demetrius Goode - #6 – FR – 5-10 – 190 lbs – Redshirt Freshman
Alonzo Lawrence - #15 – FR – 6-1 – 190 lbs – True Freshman
Robby Green - #23 – FR - 6-0- 180 lbs – True Freshman
Rashad Johnson - #49 – SR – 6-0 – 187 lbs – 3 Varsity Letters
Tyrone King - #20 – JR – 5-11 – 198 lbs – 1 Varsity Letter
Ali Sharrief - #26 – JR – 5-9 – 205 lbs – 2 Varsity Letters
Justin Woodall - #27 – 6-2 – 220 lbs – 2 Varsity Letters
Mark Barron - #4 – 6-2 – 215 lbs – True Freshman
Robert Lester - #37 – FR – 6-2 – 210 lbs – True Freshman
Wesley Neighbors - #46 – FR – 6-1 – 200 lbs – True Freshman
Who are the starters?
Kareem Jackson and Javier Arenas have the corner spots while Rashad Johnson and Justin Woodall are the safeties.
Looking at backups at this position isn’t really the way to go because defensive backs tend to see a lot of time in various packages. Bama will use the nickel formation (5 DBs) a lot. That creates the “star” position. The Tide will also feature the dime package (6 DBs), which creates the “money” position.
This is the part of the defense that I worry about the least headed into the season. It’s not that I think the Tide is abundantly talented; though there is some talent on hand. My lack of concern has to do with two people – Nick Saban and Kirby Smart.
Nick Saban is a defensive guru and his specialty is defensive backs. At almost every practice you will see him spend the majority of his “hands on” coaching time with the DBs. He thinks highly enough of Kirby Smart as a defensive back coach that he has hired him more than once. He was scared of losing the talented young coach this off season, so he restructured his coaching staff to make Smart the Defensive Coordinator.
Simply put, Bama has the best defensive backfield coaching in the nation. Period.
It might not be the case next year, but everything with the Tide defense this season will begin with Rashad Johnson. In an almost Hollywood storyline the senior has gone from being a walk-on running back to an all-SEC free safety, and will almost certainly be a 2-time permanent captain for Alabama’s football team.
Ideally you want to have one of your safeties make any pre-snap changes for the secondary while the Mike linebacker takes care of things for the front 7. For Alabama last year, and almost certainly this year, those changes are from Johnson. For lack of a better way of putting it, he is the “quarterback” of the defense.
He does it with mind and body, too. He is arguably the fastest player on the team, and definitely the fastest on the defense. He is strong, always a leader among the skill position players in the weight room. He is smart, shown on virtually every play when he positions not only himself, but usually one or two other guys.
He led the Tide in 2007 with six interceptions. Hearing that total you might assume that he is like a vulture, simply hanging back, 15 or 20 yards from the line of scrimmage waiting for bad throws. The fact that he was second on the team in passes broken up with eight might further lead you to that conclusion.
You would be wrong if you thought that, though. Rashad led the team in tackles with 94. That was 14 more than anyone else. He was also 5th on the team in tackles for a loss with 5.5. He also added two quarterback hurries just for good measure.
Simply put, if you watched the ball during a game last year, you probably saw Rashad Johnson factor into the end of the play a lot.
He has also taken over a role as a pseudo team spokesman, at least for the defensive side of the ball (Antoine Caldwell is handling things for the offense). Coach Saban trusts him implicitly, with the media and with the on-field welfare of his secondary.
As difficult as it will be to replace John Parker Wilson, Antoine Caldwell, and probably Andre Smith, it isn’t much of a stretch to say that Rashad will be the toughest player to replace, on and off the field, for the Tide next season.
I say all of these things so that you will understand that Nick Saban loves Rashad Johnson so much because he is absolutely what he is looking for in a defensive back. He wants a guy who can play tough, physical football. He wants a guy who can quickly read run or pass and adjust accordingly. He wants a guy who is proficient at coming up to the line of scrimmage and stopping the run, but also capable of using his speed to pursue downfield.
Those lofty desires are also why I have some optimism for Justin Woodall in 2008. He has been a quiet performer thus far in his career. Normally I would point out that he was passed for playing time early last year by walk-on Tyrone King, but King was just awarded a scholarship, making that not quite so embarrassing.
Woodall is a physical specimen. He is big, rangy, strong and fast. The problem for him has always been the mental aspect of the game. He has struggled to not only pick up the complexities of the defense, but also to force himself to use his physicality to his advantage. A faster way of saying that is that he has played soft.
But something changed for Justin in Alabama’s bowl practice. Coach Saban started mentioning that the light had come on and that he was starting to assert himself. Then the announcement came that he would not play baseball this spring – quite a sacrifice when you consider that he is a left-handed pitcher with a mid-90s fastball. A solid spring has carried over into a solid summer and a great fall camp.
Normally I would reserve my optimism until he proves it on the field, but with a defensive back I’ve come to the conclusion that if Nick Saban is happy, then I’m happy.
You can say that sentence again as it relates to Javier Arenas. Typically the thought of a 5’9 cornerback gives me nightmares – think Anthony Madison having his receiver brilliantly covered only to see a 6’2 guy simply out-jump him for the ball. But, again, Coach Saban simply loves the guy.
Part of the reason for that with Javier is that pound for pound he is one of the strongest players on the team. That hasn’t necessarily been obvious when watching him juke his way around the field returning punts for the last two seasons, though it probably should have been. Think about how many times you saw Javier take a huge hit without fumbling. Think about how many times you saw him bounce off of a tackle. Or how many times you saw him pull away from a leg tackle. The kid is strong.
That plays right into Nick Saban’s hands, because he loves strong, physical defensive backs. The reason is that he loves to play press coverage. It’s a risky way of playing corner because you open yourself up for some big plays. This requires:
- You have to have defensive backs capable of jamming the receiver at the line of scrimmage.
- If that fails then you have to have safeties that can make up for the blown coverage (see Johnson, Rashad).
- And ideally you want to have an intense pass rush that can keep the quarterback from having time to scan the field.
With Arenas and Kareem Jackson (more on him in a minute) Bama has #1 taken care of. These guys should be capable of forcing opposing receivers to work hard to get off of the line. With Johnson and Woodall the Tide should also have #2 taken care of. The problem could potentially lie with #3, but we’ve gone into that in our defensive line and linebackers profiles.
The need for a corner to be physical doesn’t end at the line of scrimmage either. Coach Saban teaches being physical with the receiver at the point of the catch, also. There’s a fine line between that and committing pass interference, which adds “needs good judgment” to the list of things that he looks for in a corner.
Javier has the ability to fight with his guy downfield, and I doubt we’ll see too many receivers this year who have the ability to simply shake him; he is one of the most agile guys I’ve seen. His height will hurt him at times, but he also has the mental toughness to shake off of a circus catch being made over his head – something that Madison also excelled at.
The other side of the field is locked down by Kareem Jackson. This kid quietly went about his business last year for the first half of the season. There was some talk about a true freshman starting at defensive back, but he wasn’t involved in a lot of plays. The problem with using that logic when judging a corner is that when you are very good at covering your man teams tend to throw the ball elsewhere.
It happened somewhat quietly until Tennessee. For some reason the Vols decided that they would be the team to try to pick on Jackson. The result was two huge interceptions, one of which might have turned the momentum of the game for good.
You have to remember that Kareem was not on Alabama’s radar (and vice versa) until Nick Saban was hired. He came for a visit just two weeks after the coach was hired and never went home. He and Coach Saban clicked so much that he enrolled on Monday and had his things brought to him. It took all of about three practices in the spring for him to take over the left corner spot, and he’s simply never let go of it.
Kareem will have the “pleasure” of guarding the opponent’s best receiver every week. That’s nothing new since he did it for most of last season also. Sophomore slumps happen, so I could be setting him up for a huge failure. But I feel pretty confident in saying that he should be All-SEC this year. Well, if anyone throws the ball in his direction.
Some people estimated that Alabama spent as much as 40% of their defensive snaps in the nickel defense last season. I’m not sure exactly what the numbers are, but the Tide had five DBs on the field an awful lot, and since a strong nickel set can make up somewhat for weaknesses at linebacker, I expect that to be the case this season as well.
The difference between this year and last is that the nickel back position (star) has options this season beyond just throwing an extra corner on the field. For most of last season we saw either Lionel Mitchell or Marquis Johnson come in to play corner and Simeon Castille shifted to the star position.
The reason for the move is that Coach Saban likes to have someone at the star that is capable of doing more than just dropping into coverage. He loves to drop one or two (or three) linebackers into coverage and blitz with the star. This was wildly ineffective for most of the season because Castille simply wasn’t explosive enough to get to the quarterback.
After both Mitchell and M. Johnson became ineffective over the course of the season the change was made to using Arenas at the star. And when Bama goes into this form of the nickel coverage I expect that we’ll see Arenas man the position again. His explosive first step should assist him in getting quicker pressure on the QB.
There has been a battle in practice as to who will become the other corner when Arenas shifts in and it looks like Marquis Johnson has won it. Many fans can not get past the horrendous game that he had against Florida State, and it was just plain bad. It should be pointed out that he was seeing his first major game action in that game, and he was simply taken advantage of. With some guys I would write them off. But this particular guy happens to be coached by Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, so I’ll give him some benefit of the doubt in terms of improvement.
Behind him at that position are true freshmen Robby Green and Alonzo Lawrence. These two guys represent the classic battle between “coached-up” football player and pure athlete. Green comes from a high school that produces BCS caliber talent every season, a direct result of excellent coaching. Lawrence’s high-school coach recently admitted that they didn’t have time to teach every player on the team, and Alonzo was talented enough without the coaching, so they spent time on guys who had to be coached in order to succeed.
So it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that Green is more game ready today than Lawrence. Green is a bit small, but he makes up for his deficit there with fantastic technique. Lawrence probably won’t play against Clemson unless it is on special teams, but a redshirt is anything but a certainty. He is a unique athlete and once the mental part of the game comes together for him he will hit the field immediately.
The other option that we’ve seen Bama working on in regards to the nickel defense is the use of Mark Barron at the star. Barron is also a unique athlete, a guy who could have projected at running back, wide receiver, or linebacker had he not been such a prospect at safety that he was one of the only guys mentioned by name by Coach Saban on signing day.
He spent most of last season playing linebacker, which means that he is used to playing at the line of scrimmage and getting into the backfield. That’s a large part of what the star position is asked to do, and his size and speed can create real problems for running backs that are given the task of picking him up on blitzes. He has coverage skills as well, so he is by no means a blitz-only guy.
The truly interesting thing about Barron playing the star is that he will likely be on the field at the same time as Cory Reamer (playing the Will). Reamer spent his first two seasons at Alabama as a safety. So with these guys on the field together you have two players that have experience at both linebacker and safety. That gives the coaches the option of treating the star position is a hybrid position, similar to the Jack linebacker, only with this being a hybrid linebacker/safety/corner.
The reserve guys in the secondary offer options as well. Chris Rogers has played both safety and corner in his career, which gives him the ability to slide between the two positions to offer depth. It also makes him a prime candidate to see reps at the star if either Arenas or Barron struggle.
Ali Sharrief and Demetrius Goode are both converted running backs, though Sharrief has a full year of experience at safety, while Goode has been at corner for just over a week. Goode is all about athleticism right now, trying to pick up the complexities of the position. Sharrief is one of the tougher guys on the team (just ask former Bama player Chris Keys) and the coaches love his tenacity. He would probably be the chief backup to Rashad Johnson if an injury happened. Honestly, if that happens things would get so screwy in the secondary that anything would be possible. Both of these guys will probably see a lot of time on special teams.
True freshman Robert Lester is another guy that could see quick and early time on special teams. He exploded onto the national recruiting scene last season when ESPN televised a Foley High School game to showcase Julio Jones. Lester dominated the game defensively and he has done nothing but impress since. There is too much talent in front of him at the safety position to expect him to see much time there this season, but he is very likely to be a head hunter for the Tide on kick coverage units.
Tyrone King isn’t resting on his laurels after earning his scholarship last week. He is the primary guy getting reps at the money position in Bama’s dime package. His scholarship wasn’t a gift, either – he earned it. As I said above, he saw time last year at safety ahead of Woodall, and it might only be Woodall’s massive improvement that keeps him from pushing for real playing time at strong safety this season. He will get time on special teams and I expect we’ll see him block a punt this season.
Wesley Neighbors is one of those guys that the fans have gotten down on already. He wasn’t a national recruit and his “star rating” wasn’t on par with guys like Lawrence or Barron. If bloodlines mean anything, this kid should become a player, though. His grandfather and father were both excellent players for the Tide, and his father having been a freshman in Bear Bryant’s final season has him qualified for the Bryant Scholarship. If our scholarship numbers are correct and Bama is at 85 counting Neighbors on the Bryant, then he won’t play this year; there won’t be room under the rules.
We could be wrong, though, with many other options out there for there to be room for him to play and fit under the 85 limit. I did not have the opportunity to see him play in high school, though looking at his film showed me that he can hit. The fact that he was offered a scholarship by Nick Saban, and early in the recruiting season at that, tells me that he has potential.
The only way that the secondary is not a strength for Bama this year, barring injury, is if the Tide is unsuccessful in creating any type of pass rush. Even the best coverage guys in the world are going to be picked on if the opposing QB has all day to throw the ball.
If there is a consistent pass rush then things should be fun for these guys. This is Coach Saban’s specialty and he has guys available to him that are capable of making plays. Two of the four starters could very easily end up being All-SEC, and I expect we’ll see Bama exceed the 19 interceptions that the defense had last season.
glen55's quick takes
I agree that Saban and Smart are an excellent DB-coaching combination. They replaced another such combination, Joe Kines and Chris Ball.
The stats are starting to paint an interesting story of the differing philosophies of defensive backfield coaching between these two pairs. Kines and Ball concentrated their defensive backfield play on denying completions, while Saban and Smart trade off a few completions for more interceptions.
Both groups put up fancy stats overall. Kines/Ball, from 2003-2006, surrendered a lowly 52.6% completion percentage and only 6.26 yards per attempt. Saban/Smart didn't quite meet those numbers, although 54.2% completion percentage and 6.72 yards per attempt is still pretty darned good. The new group arguably made up the gap - or more - by nabbing 19 picks, whereas Kines/Ball averaged a fairly mediocre 12.8.
It's really difficult to judge a group of defensive backs in the middle of their careers, but if anything I'd say the Kines/Ball group of Charlie Peprah, Roman Harper, Anthony Madison, Simeon Castille, and Ramzee Robinson probably had a slight edge over the current group at this point in their careers. At least there wasn't a position that Kines and Ball had trouble finding a player for, like the second cornerback position last year (and apparently this year as well).
The real difference is going to come when Saban and Smart get a full load of Saban-level talent coming in. Last year was a bumper year for Bama's DB crop, and this year looks like another. The future here is too bright for mere shades - you need one of those eclipse-viewers, at the least.
I do not recall Alabama ever starting another defensive back as big as Woodall, and I've been watching Bama since we were starting offensive linemen smaller than him. Can anyone correct me?
I may be overly excited about a third-year player who has never earned significant time, but Woodall is a big-time athlete, and he appears, at least up til now, to have held off Mark Barron, and that figured to be a stiff challenge. I'm looking forward to seeing him play.
Nice seeing stiff challenges in position battles again, by the way. Here's to more of that in the future.
I find myself tending to think that Rashad Johnson has found his top level, but really, I don't know what makes me think that other than my inherent tendency to limit expectations from a walk-on.
In fact, he has improved each year at the Capstone. Another significant improvement this year and he's an All-American. And yes, that would make a great story.
I hope Lawrence's appearance on the scout team does not signal a reduction in coaching attention. He certainly seems like the heir apparent for that second cornerback position.
If he is, in fact, out of the picture for '07, I would shift my hopes - not expectations, but hopes - to Robby Green. I just don't have the kind of confidence in Javier Arenas or Marquis Johnson I'd like to have in a starter. No doubt Arenas is a sensational athlete, but is he really a cornerback?
My lack of confidence in this position makes my expectations for the entire defensive backfield slightly lower than nxojkt's. Not much lower, though - we'll be at least pretty good.
We only have 37 sacks in the last two years combined, and that ain't good, especially when you consider that 24 of those sacks came from guys who aren't on the team any more.
We need 30 or more sacks this year. If we get it, then the job of our defensive backs will be made so very much easier.