- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor's note: From now until the start of spring camp on March 16, TideNation will count down the 12 most intriguing players to watch on the Alabama football roster. Today we look at cornerback Deion Belue.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ever since Javier Arenas became a starter in 2008, Alabama has had a lockdown cornerback to anchor the secondary. When Arenas graduated, the job fell to Dre Kirkpatrick. When Kirkpatrick left, Dee Milliner took over. It's part of what's made the Crimson Tide's defense so dominating. When a quarterback no longer has his top receiving target to throw the ball to, generating offense becomes an uphill battle.
Now that Milliner is gone, the question of who will be next to lead the charge at cornerback lingers. The heir to the throne, rising senior Deion Belue, has shown at times that he's capable of being the on-ball defender UA needs, but those flashes of execution have been fleeting at best. For every spectacular pass defended (see Notre Dame) there's an instance of him being either out of position or late on his break (see Georgia).
Belue's stat sheet tells the story of his up-and-down season. Both of his interceptions came in the first five games -- one against Western Kentucky and the other against Ole Miss. There were eight games Belue failed to register a single pass breakup, and it wasn't for lack of teams throwing on him. With Milliner leading the country in passes defended (breakups plus interceptions) for most of the season, it was often Belue who was targeted most by opposing quarterbacks. Of Belue's nine total passes defended, just one came in the final six games of the season.
By comparison, true freshman Geno Smith had two pass breakups over the final four games. And it just so happens that Smith might be Belue's biggest competition to be the Crimson Tide's next shutdown cornerback. Smith, a former four-star prospect from Georgia, struggled to grasp the defense early in the season but came along late, earning a job as the team's third cornerback. He caught the eye of many with his play against Georgia in the SEC championship game.
When Milliner was asked who he thought would step up in his place in 2013, he had two names in mind. With John Fulton's status this spring questionable, both will have even more of an opportunity to showcase their talents.
"You’ve got Geno, Bradley Sylve," he said. "You’ve always got people behind you that can make plays and do different things. You’ve got people that are going to go to the NFL each year. You’ve got people behind them that are going to do the same thing when their time comes. We’ve got people standing in line ready to go out there and make plays."
Whether Belue, who started all 14 games, counts as someone "in line" is debatable. But for Alabama's defense to live up to the precedent set under coach Nick Saban, Belue will need to take his game to another level.
Milliner, Alabama's last shutdown corner, is gone. Can Belue be the next to assume the mantle?
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