- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
Editor’s note: Every Tuesday and Thursday between now and national signing day, TideNation will review each position and look at who figures to start, who could rise up the depth chart and who might be on the way. Today we’ll look at the cornerbacks.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Every practice Nick Saban is there, tossing the football to every one of the cornerbacks as they run down the sideline. Once one turn is finished, he sprints to the other end of the field and does it all over again. The 61-year-old head coach of the Crimson Tide never fails to work with his position.
Jeremy Pruitt gets the safeties, Kirby Smart gets the inside linebackers, Lance Thompson gets the outside linebackers and Chris Rumph gets the defensive linemen. The cornerbacks are all Saban's at the start. So if there's a position that better get things right, it's them. You don't want to upset the man who recruited you to Tuscaloosa in the first place.
"You've always got to be at your best," said UA starting corner Deion Belue, who came to Alabama as a junior college transfer this past spring. "You cannot take a day off. It's just part of the way he coaches and it just makes you better."
Belue paired with Dee Milliner as the No. 1 and 2 cornerbacks this season. Belue struggled some down the stretch while Milliner excelled from Week 1, batting down four passes and intercepting another in the season-opener against Michigan.
"Anytime you can get a young guy to step up and do things for the team, that’s one less player that you have to move around and just put that player in a position to make plays," Milliner said of Smith. "That’s a great thing for us, anytime you get somebody to step up."
Still, depth has been an issue at cornerback and with Milliner likely taking advantage of his high draft stock and turning pro after the BCS title game, it won't get any easier.
Battling for No. 1: The competition for the starting cornerbacks could be one the most interesting battles of spring and fall camp. Belue is the incumbent, but his inconsistent play against Georgia and LSU could hurt his chances. Smith is an option, but as a sophomore, will he be able to beat out Fulton, who is looking at his final chance to become a starter?
Strength in numbers: Outside of Belue, Smith and Fulton, there are no pure corners left on the current roster. Might Saban move a safety like Nick Perry or Jarrick Williams to the star in order to create more depth? Vinnie Sunseri will help at inside cornerback, but his value is working in space and not playing in pass coverage. One has to wonder with all the depth at wide receiver if the coaching staff would consider moving Cyrus Jones, who remains listed as an athlete, to the defensive side of the ball. While the chance of Milliner returning for another season looks slim, if he did it would be a huge boon to a defense searching for more options at cornerback.
Help on the way: Unlike years past, Alabama isn't going the junior college route to bring in an experienced cornerback. This time Saban is relying on a pair of four-star commitments in Maurice Smith and Jonathan Cook to do the trick. Cook is the larger of the two at 6-foot-1 and plays with an aggression that suits Alabama's style of play. Smith, who UA plucked from under the nose of the Texas Longhorns, is more talented, according to scouting evaluations. He's ranked 49 spots ahead of Cook at cornerback in the ESPN 150. Of the three athletes already committed, Anthony Averett seems the most likely option to end up on defense. The 6-foot, 170-pound New Jersey native has the athleticism to play on either side of the ball. Keep an eye on ESPN 150 prospect Mackensie Alexander. The five-star is uncommitted and his recruitment remains somewhat a mystery. Alabama is in the running, but it would have strong contention from in-state Florida, Florida State and Miami.
3dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough