- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- One thing leads to another, at least on defense.
Alabama's secondary wasn't its best for some parts of last season, giving up big plays against LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, to name a few. There were times where starting cornerback Deion Belue was picked on and moments where safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix looked out of place. Zach Mettenberger threw for a career-high 298 passing yards in Baton Rouge, Johnny Manziel had his Heisman Trophy moment in Tuscaloosa and Aaron Murray moved the ball everywhere but the final 5 yards he needed to win in Atlanta.
The secondary wasn't perfect, but it wasn't the whole story.
Alabama's pass rush wasn't its best for all of last season either, failing to register multiple sacks in five games. The pressure, as coach Nick Saban would put it, was not coming consistently enough. The defense didn't finish in the top 25 nationally for sacks or tackles for loss in 2012, trailing eight other SEC teams in negative plays. And without help from the front seven, the back end of the defense was exposed.
As Saban pointed out after Alabama's spring game, pass defense boils down to two things: "I'm talking about pass rush; I'm talking about discipline in coverage."
Now that fall camp is nearly here, the defense will have its opportunity to improve in both areas. Clinton-Dix and Belue are a year wiser, and the defensive line has some fresh blood to it with Jeoffrey Pagan and Brandon Ivory moving into starting roles.
Veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley said at SEC Media Days last week that he felt like the secondary is "bonding together" and that it is in line to have a good year. The loss of shutdown corner Dee Milliner hurts, but Mosley feels like the defense has a star in the making in Clinton-Dix, who has played in 27 games and made 10 starts since signing with Alabama in 2010.
"He's smart, he's a leader in that secondary and he's starting to be more vocal," Mosley said. "I expect big things out of him this year."
Mosley went on to say that he was impressed with the way Cyrus Jones transitioned to defensive back in the spring. The former wide receiver ran some with the first-team defense at nickel and has a chance to compete with senior John Fulton to become one of the first cornerbacks off the bench.
"This summer, he basically knows the whole defense," Mosley explained.
Saban said that while he hasn't had the chance to see his secondary since spring camp, he's hopeful they're doing better.
"Fulton coming back is a little more experienced guy who wasn’t in spring practice," Saban said. "We had a lot of young guys who made a lot of mistakes, and that’s important to development and important to learning, and hopefully those guys will improve because of that."
True freshmen Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Eddie Jackson will all compete at defensive back this fall. Fellow 2013 signees Anthony Averett and ArDarius Stewart might see some time there as well, as both are currently listed on the roster as athletes. And judging by the staff's use of running back Dee Hart and wide receiver Christion Jones at corner this spring, anyone is an option to provide depth at cornerback this season.
While it's unsure whether any of the rookies will pick up the defense in time to contribute as freshmen, one thing is certain: a strong defensive line will go a long way in helping the secondary.
Mosley said that while the defense may lack a "dominant player," he's looking for Adrian Hubbard to come into his own in 2013 and pick up where he left off last season, when he had three sacks in his final three games.
"He's going to mean a lot," Mosley said, "especially being one of our key rushers and one of the leaders at outside linebacker. We need to make sure that we hold him accountable to his job and he's doing the right thing to better the young guys that are looking up to him.
"This past season he showed a glimpse into what he's capable of, but this season we're going to need a lot more, and we're going to need to make sure he brings his 'A' game every day."
One of those young guys learning from Hubbard is redshirt freshman defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson, who has drawn positive reviews from teammates and coaches alike since missing all of last season recovering from an injury. Saban touted the former state wrestling champ's athleticism and quickness and said he has a chance to be part of the rotation on the defensive line. Pagan called Tomlinson a "different man" this spring, someone who can be an impact player.
Mosley, for his part, said he was ready for fall camp to arrive so he can see what his defense is made of. So far some freshmen have caught his eye, but only time will tell how they stand up to the real pressure.
"Denzel Devall is doing good, Reuben Foster, Walker Jones, a lot of the defensive players, a lot of the freshmen that came in, especially at DB," he said when asked who has stood out during summer workouts. "They're doing a good job competing with each other.
"When camp comes, when coach starts getting on them, and that heat starts getting on them, we'll really see what players are made of."