Yesterday we looked at how the Alabama offense has progressed after a week in full gear. Today we examine the Crimson Tide defense after four contact practices.
Of course, it's not done with smoke and mirrors. Alabama has made some position changes, but it's primarily younger players who had been redshirted or who had been back-ups taking advantage of the opportunities for starting jobs and playing time on defense.
It would be less than honest to say that Alabama's defense looks as good as it did last season. Joe Kines must have vocal cords made of leather as he berates the troops. But it is fair to say there appears to be outstanding potential at every defensive position. The objective is consistency.
Alabama's lost defensive starters are tackle Rudy Griffin, end Mark Anderson, strongside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, middle linebacker Freddie Roach, right cornerback Anthony Madison, strong safety Charlie Peprah, and safety Roman Harper. Additionally, co-starter at defensive tackle Justin Britt has moved to the offensive line, although circumstances could put him back on defense next fall.
There have been some early surprises. Almost everyone would have conceded the right end spot vacated by Anderson to Bobby Greenwood, who was very good last year as a true freshman. But in the first week in pads, junior Keith Saunders was in the crimson jersey awarded first team defenders and Greenwood was in the blue for second teamers. Also a surprise, although in the black third team jersey, is Ezekial Knight, the former split end. In our opinion, Knight was selected for defensive end because (1.) he did not exhibit good hands last fall as a receiver, and (2.) he has the natural skills of strength and quickness to be a good pass rusher. The surprise is that he has been lauded for his work on run defense, which is a plus. Wallace Gilberrry is a clear number one at left end. Chris Harris has been out with an injury and Brandon Deaderick is getting a lot of work.
There's also a surprise at defensive tackle. Jeremy Clark (who split time with Britt last year) is number one at tackle, ahead of J.P. Adams and Lorenzo Washington. No surprises there. At nose tackle, it is not really a surprise that Dominic Lee is number one, because he was next in line to Griffin. The surprise is that Lee, who is injury-free for the first spring in his career, has played very well. He's backed by Byron Walton and Brandon Fanney. Even though Washington and Fanney are listed third team, they look like a fine inside tandem for the future.
Two men expected to be in the linebacker picture this spring are missing. Baron Huber is now at fullback, while Chris Keys watches proceedings on crutches after suffering a severe off-season ankle injury in a scuffle. But there are some interesting competitions going on.
Most practice watchers focus on middle linebacker, where Matt Collins, a walk-on, is holding off a slimmed down (260 to 240 or so) Prince Hall. Juwan Simpson isn't likely to be challenged at weakside linebacker, but it's good to see Demarcus Waldrop and Marcel Stamps having some big plays. (Waldrop seemed to be playing on the strong side in a few drills in the first week.) Terrence Jones has had the crimson jersey at strongside all spring. Zach Schreiber made some noise in the final couple of workouts before the weekend break, and Eryk Anders looks more comfortable than he did last fall after having been a defensive lineman in high school.
The only returning starter in the secondary is Ramzee Robinson, and he's not participating in team (contact) work because of back and wrist problems. However, Ramzee looks awfully good in drills. Chris Rogers has had some good plays at left cornerback. The real cornerback battle will be on the right side, where parttime starter Simeon Castille is trying to overtake Eric Gray.
Alabama's defense puts a lot of emphasis on plays by the safeties, and Coach Mike Shula has mentioned repeatedly the need for the likes of strong safety Jeffrey Dukes to improve at the position. Dukes is clearly number one at strong safety, but walk-on (and special teams star) Rashad Johnson is one to watch. Travis Sikes has also drawn praise as a big play man. At safety, junior Marcus Carter has done very well. After a couple of relatively non-productive years it may be a surprise to some that Carter is playing well, but probably the real surprise is that he was not more competitive earlier. Freshman Sam Burnthall also shows good instincts and skill at safety.
In brief team punting work there appear to be no strong competitors for P.J. Fitzgerald.
Alabama returns to the practice field today. Bama will work on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Friday and Saturday in full gear through Thursday, March 16 before Spring Break. There will be scrimmages this Saturday (10:15) and Thursday, March 16 (3:30) at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Tide will return from Spring Break on March 28. The A-Day Game at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 1, will conclude spring football practice.