Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Alabama Crimson Tide [Print without images]

Monday, January 14, 2013
Offseason storylines: Secondary changes

By Alex Scarborough

Editor's note: The season is over and the Alabama Crimson Tide are national champions yet again. But what happens next? TideNation examines the most pressing storylines of the offseason as the Tide gear up for another title defense.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The departing junior offered some insight. Dee Milliner, another in a long line of Alabama underclassmen to bolt for the NFL, knows a thing or two about being the man on deck. He played the part of understudy to Dre Kirkpatrick a year ago. Before that, Kirkpatrick was the heir to Javier Arenas. Year over year under coach Nick Saban, the factory of defensive backs has continued churning along without fail.

"You’ve got to be prepared and ready at any time," Milliner, a potential first-round pick in April's draft, said. "It’s just buying into what you’re supposed to do and trying to be your best. We always talk about that. You’re competing with yourself, because you’re competing to be the best within yourself. We try to do that each day we get on the field, and I think that plays a role in high draft picks each year."

Alabama will have a new crop of defensive backs to incorporate next season as both Milliner and safety Robert Lester step away to the NFL.

"You’ve got Geno [Smith], Bradley Sylve -- you’ve always got people behind you that can make plays and do different things," Milliner said. "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."

Denard Robinson
Deion Belue will be a familiar face in Alabama's secondary next season, but others need to step up.
In a way, Milliner sees himself in freshman Geno Smith. Smith struggled to learn the playbook early in the season and then went to the task of winning the job of starting nickel back, playing significant minutes against Georgia and Notre Dame.

"Geno’s a young player, like I was, that comes out and does different things for the team, make plays for us, so you could say that," Milliner said of the comparison between he and Smith. "But he’s doing a great job stepping up, making plays, being more mature there on the field and listening up to the leadership and the leaders on the team on the defensive side of the ball. Just making plays and working hard."

Outside of incumbent starting cornerback Deion Belue, all spots in the secondary are up for grabs. Smith, Sylve and John Fulton will do battle for the second cornerback job. Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins, Nick Perry, Vinnie Sunseri and Jarrick Williams stand to compete for the two safety positions. Eddie Williams, Caleb Castille and Jabriel Washington could all be surprises in the secondary.

If Fulton, who heads into his final year on campus, were on his way to becoming the starting cornerback, wouldn't he have won the job by now? Belue struggled during the second half of the season yet never saw his playing time diminish. And while Sylve, a former four-star prospect, certainly has the talent, he hasn't broken through since signing with Alabama in 2011, leaving Smith as the most likely candidate to take over for Milliner. The former No. 2 cornerback in the 2012 class has the skill and confidence to play the position. He has taken his fair share of tongue lashings from Saban during practice, but that should only be viewed as a positive. If he didn't have a chance at becoming something special, why would the 61-year-old head coach bother?

How the two safety positions shake out is another matter entirely. Clinton-Dix played the most down the stretch and stands to enter spring practice as the front-runner. His leaping interception against Notre Dame showed what kind of upside the former four-star prospect possesses. But he won't be alone as Perry, Collins, Sunseri and Jarrick can't all fit into one spot. Collins, the former No. 1 safety in the 2012 class, made progress late in the season and could be in for a big jump under Saban. Perry didn't make the strides you'd expect from a third-year player, starting four games and failing to register a tackle in the final two contests. At times Saban called him the best cover safety the team had, but more often than not Perry would come on only in nickel and dime situations either at safety or inside cornerback.

Jarrick and Sunseri would be surprises if they were to wind up with starting jobs. Jarrick was expected to be a role player and special teams contributor before he went down with a season-ending knee injury during camp this past year, while Sunseri seems to have settled into the job of inside cornerback, whether that be at star or money. The former Freshman All-SEC selection excels playing near the line of scrimmage and in space, but has become a liability in coverage. He started in six games, two coming in the final nine contests.