Editor’s note: This is Part I in a weeklong series looking at Alabama’s top five position groups with room to improve.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The struggle was obvious. Without a premier cornerback to rely upon, Alabama’s defense wasn’t the same. Without the likes of Dee Milliner, Dre Kirkpatrick or Javier Arenas, coach Nick Saban’s defense didn’t have quite the same bite.
Deion Belue was an adequate starter. The former junior college transfer even looked the part as an anchor cornerback for most of the season. But before long he was exposed as someone not entirely capable of locking down half the field. And with a revolving door on the other side with John Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson, Maurice Smith and Bradley Sylve all taking unsuccessful shots at starting, the secondary faltered.
Texas A&M gashed the defense early. Auburn and Oklahoma gashed it late.
"We are not used to that," said defensive coordinator Kirby Smart of not having consistent play at cornerback. "We've kind of always had one key guy with all the first-round, second-round corners we've had, we've always had a staple guy there, then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner. Hasn't been that way this year. It's been frustrating.”
Will that frustration subside? Will someone step up in the spring or fall and become that premier cornerback Alabama so desperately needs? Can quality depth emerge at the position?
Battling for No. 1: There are plenty of options to consider, and we’ll get into that with the next paragraph. For now, though, there appear to be three serious contenders to become starters at cornerback: rising junior Cyrus Jones and rising sophomores Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith. Jones, you’ll recall, transitioned from wide receiver to defensive back last spring and wound up starting five games. But his size (5-foot-10), is a problem. Enter Smith and Jackson, who both come in at 6 feet. Jackson was a promising option early as a freshman, starting against Colorado State and intercepting a pass against Ole Miss. But inexperience caught up with him and he didn’t start again until the Sugar Bowl. Smith, on the other hand, was a steady presence off the bench. The Texas native wound up playing in 12 of 13 possible games, starting one.
Strength in numbers: Really, it’s a wide-open race. Meaning none of the soon-to-be-mentioned defensive backs are out of contention. We haven’t seen what redshirt freshmen Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett have to offer. Both were heavily-recruited prospects in the 2013 class that could develop into contributors after spending a year practicing and learning the playbook. Throw in rising junior Bradley Sylve, who actually started three games last season, and you’ve got quite the field of competitors heading into the spring. Sylve has immense speed, but is a shade on the smaller side at 5-11 and 180 pounds. Finally, don’t discount Saban trying a few players at new positions, as he did last spring when he put Cyrus Jones, Christion Jones and Dee Hart all at cornerback.
New on the scene: Many Alabama fans are already pinning their hopes on two true freshmen. And rightfully so, considering the lack of quality depth at the position. Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey do indeed have the opportunity to start from Day 1. Both five-star prospects, they have the build and skill to thrive in Saban’s system. Brown, however, has the clear edge considering he’s already enrolled in school and Humphrey will not do so until after spring practice is already over. The one hangup for Brown, though, is what consequences, if any, will come from his January arrest. Saban, himself, did not make the strongest of comments regarding the arrest, saying, “Some people are in the wrong place at the wrong time,” indicating that rather than a stiff punishment, the staff will look to “use this as a learning experience.”