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Friday, February 15, 2013
Five Tide players emerging on defense

By Alex Scarborough

Adrian Hubbard
Linebacker Adrian Hubbard closed last season strong, and more is expected in 2013.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- At Alabama and under coach Nick Saban, you don't just walk onto the defense and start right away. Learning the ins and outs of his complicated 4-3 scheme takes time and patience.

Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw went through their growing pains, so did Mark Barron and Dee Milliner. Stars on defense don't emerge overnight.

As the world turns its attention toward the start of spring practice and the birth of another college football season, here are five players on defense who weren't superstars last season but could prove to become significant contributors in 2013.

Adrian Hubbard (RS Jr./OLB)
Background: A-Day seemed to be Hubbard's coming out party. The lanky outside linebacker had three sacks and four tackles for loss in the exhibition game. But the promising spring didn't carry over as he struggled to get consistent pressure on the backfield through the first half of the season. A strong close to the season -- finishing with three sacks in the final three games -- opened the door to renewed optimism.

Possible 2013 status: Alabama desperately missed a pass-rusher this past season, and in Hubbard it might have found the man capable of filling that void. ESPN draft analyst Kevin Weidl said Hubbard could have been a second- or third-round pick if he had decided to declare for the draft early. By coming back for another season he can possibly develop into a first-round prospect.

Geno Smith(Fr./CB)
Background: The true freshman admittedly struggled early on under Saban. The playbook was complex, the practices trying. He became the whipping boy on defense, but the tongue lashings were nothing more than tough love, a trial by fire. It took time, but Smith eventually got it, and not a moment too late. The former four-star prospect took over as the third cornerback against Georgia in the SEC Championship, and then again in the national title game.

Possible 2013 status: With Milliner off to the NFL, the fast lane at cornerback appears open. Deion Belue will likely retain his starting job, but it's unclear whether rising senior John Fulton will take over the reins opposite him. Smith is the more talented of the two, and has already shown he can play.

Reggie Ragland (Fr./ILB)
Background: Ragland was brought along slowly this past season, contributing mainly on special teams. The former four-star inside linebacker in the ESPN 150 nevertheless showed why he was regarded among the top prospects in the country at his position. He would finish with eight tackles in 11 games.

Possible 2013 status: The rungs at inside linebacker will have some give this offseason as the Crimson Tide send off Nico Johnson. While C.J. Mosley will likely become an every-down linebacker next season, that could change should Ragland develop into a reliable option. The fact remains that while Mosley is a dynamic playmaker, he's still undersized and could tire out late in games. He's listed at 232 pounds, and admits he'll never be a 250-pound linebacker. Ragland already is, coming in at 247 pounds.

Landon Collins (Fr./S)
Background: The Alabama coaching staff wasn't taking any chances with Collins' in 2012-13. While Saban didn't go as far as to redshirt the former five-star prospect, he did limit what Collins did on the field. With Robert Lester entrenched at safety, there was no need for Collins to play. And while there was thought given to using Collins at star or money, the staff thought better of it, sticking to a plan Saban laid out during camp to have Collins stick to one position.

Possible 2013 status: That attitude of caution toward Collins will likely go out the window in 2013. With Lester gone and a spot up for grabs, Collins will have his chance to compete. The former No. 1 safety in the 2012 class may have given himself a leg up on the competition the way he finished last season. Like Vinnie Suneri and Trey DePriest before him, Collins could parlay major special teams contributions as a freshman into starting reps as a sophomore.

Jeoffrey Pagan (Soph. Fr./DE) en lieu of D.J. Pettway (RS Fr /DE)
Background: This was supposed to be Pettway's spot. Now it appears the talented defensive end will have to play his college football elsewhere after being arrested for second-degree robbery early Tuesday morning. The Freshman All-SEC selection was the best young pass-rusher Alabama had on a defensive line that needed help getting after the quarterback. In his absence, we turn to the player who was on the outside looking in at this list: Jeoffrey Pagan. While Pagan lacked some consistency at defensive end, he nonetheless showed promise playing both the run and the pass.

Possible 2013 status: The defensive line will be freed up after the graduation of Jesse Williams, Damion Square and Quinton Dial. And with Saban's desire to put better pass-rushers on the field, Pagan could find himself competing for a starting job.