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Thursday, January 3, 2013
Forecasting the Tide: Safety

By Alex Scarborough

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 safeties.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's hard to imagine that Robert Lester came to Alabama in the same recruiting class as his high school teammate Julio Jones. Lester, now a fifth-year senior is about to compete in his final collegiate game while Jones is set to play in the Pro Bowl in his second season with the Atlanta Falcons.

The two friends took the same track but at vastly different speeds.

It's been a long career for Lester, who was widely viewed as a throw-in to sign Jones out of South Alabama. But the soft-spoken safety's talent eventually came through. After redshirting his first season and playing sparingly in 2009, Lester hauled in eight interceptions in 2010 and became known as one of the best defensive backs in the SEC.

Robert Lester
Losing senior Robert Lester will leave a wide-open safety position in 2013.
"He's pretty much the general back there, telling everybody what they need to do, how they need to do it," UA linebacker Nico Johnson said. "He's holding everybody back there to a standard."

When Lester leaves school to enter the NFL draft in the coming weeks, he'll create a vacuum of experience at the position. But the safeties will also have to deal with the loss of their position coach. Jeremy Pruitt, who worked almost exclusively with the safeties, will leave to become the defensive coordinator for Florida State after the BCS title game.

The position that always had a constant in Lester will now have to find a new way in 2013.

Battling for No. 1: Given the way coach Nick Saban has rotated in defensive backs, Alabama won't be without options to fill Lester's role as strong safety. Nick Perry, Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri have all spent time in the back end of the defense this season. Perry is the purest free safety but doesn't have the top-end talent of Clinton-Dix who played more and more down the stretch. Suneri went the other direction late in the season, coming on primarily as a nickel defender after showing lapses in pass coverage. Freshman Landon Collins, a five-star safety prospect in the 2012 class, is the wild card. He's talented enough to play either strong or free and will likely compete to step in where Lester left off.
Strength in numbers: Alabama might have trouble with depth at cornerback next season, but that won't be the case at safety. A pair of Williams -- Jarrick and Eddie -- will push for playing time next season, in addition to whoever doesn't win the starting job at strong or free safety. Jarrick has progressed nicely from the knee injury suffered his junior year, finding his way onto the field for key reps during bowl practice. Eddie, who redshirted this season, is a bit of an unknown as he began the year at wide receiver and transitioned to safety only after Jarrick's injury. The former five-star prospect could be a project but he possesses the raw tools and build that remind some around Tuscaloosa of a young Mark Barron.

Help on the way: With all the young safety talent already in Tuscaloosa, the coaching staff did not heavily recruit the position this season. Though there isn't a verbal commitment who projects to play safety, there are a few players considering Alabama in the weeks leading into signing day. Vonn Bell, a four-star prospect from Georgia, has been heavily pursued by the Crimson Tide. He told TideNation that he's considering Alabama, Ohio State and Tennessee and will take official visits to all three schools before making his decision. Another ESPN 150 safety looking at UA is four-star Antonio Conner, though he's expected to go the way of the Ole Miss Rebels. The Mississippi native will make his choice at the Under Armour All-America Game on Jan. 4.