Thursday, April 11, 2013
Many moving parts in the Tide secondary
By Alex Scarborough
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's a good problem to have, losing players early to the NFL draft. Alabama coach Nick Saban knows all too well what it's like to watch talent walk out the door, especially from the secondary. In two of the last three drafts he's seen at least one of his defensive backs get taken in the first round. This year will be no different as Dee Milliner is likely to go among the top 10 picks.
"We keep losing first-round picks back there," Saban told ESPN on Wednesday afternoon. "For guys to step up on a consistent basis is the biggest concern I have."
Not a rebuilt offensive line, a thin linebacking corps or a defensive line replacing two of three starters. It's the secondary that worries Saban most.
Dee Milliner stepped in and became an immediate impact player in Alabama's secondary. Now that he's NFL-bound, who's next for the Tide?
"Even though we have a lot of guys back at safety, we don't have the depth or quality corners and experience at corner that we've had in the past," he said, "so that's the challenge."
With top reserve cornerback John Fulton out all spring recovering from a turf toe injury, the depth in the secondary has been left wanting. As a result, Alabama opened camp with three offensive players trying their hands at cornerback: running back Dee Hart and wide receivers Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones.
It was an experiment, Saban said, one he hoped would yield at least one player who could make the move to defense full time. And after 10 practices it appears he's found his man. Cyrus, who caught four passes as a reserve wideout last season, has practiced every day at corner and has even spent some time with the first unit at nickel back.
"The first couple weeks out there, it felt weird because [Cyrus] used to be right next to me, running routes with me," said UA receiver Kenny Bell, "but he took ownership of the position."
Bell went on to say that Cyrus has become a "great player" on defense, a spot he's familiar with from his time at Gilman School in Baltimore. Cyrus was the No. 4-rated athlete in the 2012 class and could have played on either side of the ball, according to scouts. It just so happens he would play both in his first two years on campus.
"He picked up on it fast and he comes out there and competes," Bell said.
As for Christion and Hart, the move to cornerback isn't over, it's just not moving at quite the same pace. Christion continues to practice on both sides of the ball and Hart was just recently moved back to running back full time.
"We know that Dee Hart knows enough about playing Star [inside cornerback] that if we needed him to play it next year we could develop him and he could do it," Saban said.
Vinnie Sunseri said it's been "unbelievable" to watch all three players compete at cornerback. The junior safety told reporters Wednesday how surprised he's been with their ability to pick up the schemes on defense so quickly.
"To go from wide receiver to DB is completely opposite," Sunseri said. "To get into this system and understand what Coach Saban is trying to tell you and really just grasping the concepts and the terminology that goes along with it has been impressive. I gave them all the props because it really is tough to be make a decision like that and be a team player and adapt like that."
But they're not the only ones trying new things in the secondary this spring. Saban has stressed the ability to play multiple positions to all of his defensive backs, especially the inside cornerback positions in nickel and dime formations. And with so few experienced corners, the Star and Money spots have fallen largely to safeties like Sunseri, Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins, Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams.
Versatility, though, is what the unit prides itself on.
"That's kind of what you want because if someone goes down other people can step into different places and different positions," Sunseri said. "The secondary is special. We're really close. It's almost like we have a little family back there because when one person goes someone else is able to steps up."