Alabama Crimson Tide: Robert Lester

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.

[+] EnlargeDee Milliner
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireDee 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.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Much like the Crimson Tide's showing at the NFL combine last month, Wednesday's pro day on the University of Alabama campus will have a distinctly limited feel as many of its participants are still battling injuries sustained during the season.

The biggest setback to the event -- which will air live on ESPN3 at 10:30 a.m. CT -- came on Sunday night when ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Eddie Lacy will not participate in the workout because of a lingering hamstring injury. The running back, widely considered to be most valuable at his position in the draft, will instead wait for the soreness to subside and perform for scouts at a later date, according to the report.

Like many of his teammates, Lacy will have to watch the drills from afar. Center Barrett Jones said he will attend but will only participate in the bench press portion of the event. Cornerback Dee Milliner, who is the No. 2 player on Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board and a likely top-five selection, won't work out either. He was scheduled to have surgery on a torn labrum today.

Nonetheless, the program must go on, even with some of its headliners sidelined. For those expected to participate, the chance to make a final positive impression on NFL personnel is at stake. A bad combine? A poor interview? So-so tape? All that could be put aside with a solid showing tomorrow. With the help of ESPN college football and NFL draft analyst Kevin Weidl, here are TideNation's top three players with the most to gain from Alabama's pro day:

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Editor's note: From now until the start of spring camp on March 16, TideNation will count down the 12 most intriguing players to watch on the Alabama football roster. Today we look at safety Landon Collins.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The training wheels are set to come off of Landon Collins in a few weeks when spring practice begins at the University of Alabama. No longer a rookie, it's the former five-star safety's time to prove he belongs in the SEC. Robert Lester is gone and there's a vacancy in the secondary with his name on it. Now, all he has to do is win the job.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFormer five-star recruit Landon Collins excelled on special teams as a freshman for the Crimson Tide, but his role is sure to expand in 2013.
Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Nick Perry, Vinnie Sunseri and Jarrick Williams will all compete with Collins to fill the two safety positions. And in all likelihood, Cinton-Dix, who started 10 of 14 games, already has one of the spots filled up, leaving four men and one position to do battle over.

There's little doubt Collins is the most talented option. According to ESPN, the former Under Armour All-American was the No. 1-ranked safety in the 2012 class, the top-rated player Alabama signed and the sixth best prospect in the country. He runs a sub-4.4 second 40-yard dash at 6-foot and 202 pounds.

His above-average athleticism showed up mainly on special teams last season, where he finished with 17 total tackles. He also blocked a kick late in the season, no doubt earning him brownie points with a coaching staff that values the small things more than most. He was one of four players to win the Special Teams Award at the end of the the year team banquet.

Rather than use Collins all over the field, Alabama coach Nick Saban opted to keep him on special teams and use him sparingly on defense. In other words, he brought him along slowly rather than burden him with too many responsibilities at once.

Sunseri, who starred on special teams in 2011 before seeing his role expand, said he saw Collins progress as the year went along. When it was Collins' turn to come on for mop up duty, Sunseri said he saw him, "not make any mental errors and play with tenacity."

With Lester gone along with top cornerback Dee Milliner, the secondary will need all the help it can get. The cornerback position could be thin with an up-and-down Deion Belue returning and a young but talented option in rising sophomore Geno Smith. Bradley Sylve could play a role and rising senior John Fulton has a shot at significant reps if he can recover from a nagging turf toe injury. With so much up in the air, the safety position becomes that much more important.

For Alabama to be successful, the back end of the defense has to hold up its end of the bargain. If Collins develops into the ballhawking safety some expect, it would go a long way to shoring up the entire secondary.
With two days of testing down and two more to go, many of Alabama's 10 representatives at the NFL combine in Indianapolis have already been put through the ringer. The early results for some are in, but check back throughout the day for the latest.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
AP Photo/Romeo GuzmanEddie Lacy won't partake in drills at the NFL combine, but will perform at Alabama's pro day.
RB Eddie Lacy
Combine results: N/A
The latest: For the next week or so until Alabama holds its pro day, NFL general managers and scouts will have to rely on game film when breaking down the top-rated running back in the draft. A small tear of the hamstring kept Lacy from participating in drills in Indianapolis, but he made the trip all the same to weigh in and take part in team interviews. ESPN's John Clayton believes there wasn't a first-round running back on the field Sunday, which could be good news for Lacy. A strong pro day -- tentatively set for March 13 -- could be the final push Lacy needs to separate himself from the rest of the class and solidify his first-round status.

OT D.J. Fluker
Combine results: 5.31 second 40-yard dash, 21 bench press reps
The latest: Jeff Dickerson of ESPN Chicago says Fluker could be a target for the Bears with the 20th overall pick. That's how far the former Alabama right tackle has come since concerns about his weight and athleticism. Coming in at a trim 6-foot-4 and 339 pounds in Indianapolis helped nearly as much as his performance during on-field workouts. While it's still not clear whether he ends up at tackle or guard, teams are clearly interested.

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DBs from SEC blanket combine

February, 22, 2013

Several of RecruitingNation's SEC sites took a look this week at the players headed to the NFL combine, which begins today in Indianapolis, and other predraft camps. Click here to read the entire predraft series. Today: Defensive backs and special teams.

Alabama Crimson Tide

It's hard to imagine that the Alabama secondary in 2011 yielded five NFL prospects. Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and De'Quan Menzie were all drafted a year ago. Dee Milliner and Robert Lester stuck around and won one more ring before hanging it up in 2013.

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The Uncommitteds: Vonn Bell 

January, 30, 2013
Vonn BellMiller Safrit/ESPNESPN 150 defensive back Vonn Bell brings explosive ability that the Crimson Tide and his two other finalists, Ohio State and Tennessee, covet.
Editor's note: From now until signing day, TideNation will examine the remaining uncommitted prospects still considering the University of Alabama. Today, we look at ESPN 150 safety Vonn Bell.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For talented safety Vonn Bell, Alabama is simply Alabama. The championships, the draft picks and the defense need no further explanation.

"Alabama speaks for itself," he said.

Top Alabama sleepers 

January, 22, 2013
Recruiting is an imperfect science. Sometimes scouts can see a player's potential right away. With others it takes some seasoning. Alabama coach Nick Saban has hauled in more than his fair share of blue chip prospects, but he has also made hay with some lesser known quantities. With signing day only days away, we'll take a look back at some of the undervalued prospects that performed beyond their recruiting rankings at Alabama since 2006.

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MOBILE, Ala. -- Robert Lester wants to be known for more than his brain. In a sport that often values brute force and brawn over all else, the former Alabama safety stands apart. He's the right size at 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, but it's his football intelligence that's on the forefront of many talent evaluators' minds. They see a fifth-year player who started three seasons under the demanding, defensive-minded coach Nick Saban. They see a mind that's ready for the National Football League and question whether the body is equal to the task.

"These guys are smart as well," Lester said, surrounded by dozens of future pros at the Senior Bowl in South Alabama on Monday night. "I'm going to have to bring more to the table than just my knowledge."

While Lester acknowledged that his best attribute is his ability to "learn a new system" and "provide leadership," he also recognized the need to do the little things right, too. Game film and one-on-one interviews are one thing, but, for better or worse, minute measurements like 40-yard dash times and bench press numbers play a big part as well.

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Editor's note: The season is over and the Alabama Crimson Tide are national champions yet again. But what happens next? TideNation examines the most pressing storylines of the offseason as the Tide gear up for another title defense.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The departing junior offered some insight. Dee Milliner, another in a long line of Alabama underclassmen to bolt for the NFL, knows a thing or two about being the man on deck. He played the part of understudy to Dre Kirkpatrick a year ago. Before that, Kirkpatrick was the heir to Javier Arenas. Year over year under coach Nick Saban, the factory of defensive backs has continued churning along without fail.

"You’ve got to be prepared and ready at any time," Milliner, a potential first-round pick in April's draft, said. "It’s just buying into what you’re supposed to do and trying to be your best. We always talk about that. You’re competing with yourself, because you’re competing to be the best within yourself. We try to do that each day we get on the field, and I think that plays a role in high draft picks each year."

Alabama will have a new crop of defensive backs to incorporate next season as both Milliner and safety Robert Lester step away to the NFL.

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The 2012-13 season is in the books. There are no more position battles to be won and no more jockeying for position in the battle to become the most valuable player for Alabama. Now we can look back and evaluate who were the best athletes to suit it up for the Crimson Tide this season.

1. LG Chance Warmack: If NFL scouts and general managers can recognize it, so can we. Warmack -- yes, a guard -- was the best player on the football field every time he suited up, and not just because of the captivating half-shirt he wore all year revealing his rather large belly. A national television audience saw just how dominant he could be against Notre Dame, as he was in on nearly every key block to spring Alabama's 265 yards on the ground. Heisman Trophy finalist Manti Te'o was neutralized largely because of Warmack's efforts getting to the second level. The All-American left guard will likely go early in the first round of the upcoming NFL draft, leaving behind a legacy few can touch.

2. QB AJ McCarron: Speaking of legacies, McCarron has already sealed his. He's the only quarterback to repeat as a national champion and he holds the all-time passing touchdowns record at Alabama. All that with a year of eligibility remaining. The junior from South Alabama took a major step forward as a quarterback and as a leader this season. He finished just 77 yards shy of 3,000, completed better than 67 percent of his passes and threw a whopping 30 touchdowns to three interceptions to lead the country in passing efficiency. The scary thought? Just how good he and an improved receiving corps can be next season.

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Video: Robert Lester back for more

January, 6, 2013

Robert Lester is making a habit of playing on the biggest stage for the national championship.

Forecasting the Tide: Safety 

January, 3, 2013
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.

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Tracking the Tide: Robert Lester

December, 8, 2012
Editor’s note: Each day between now and Alabama's date with Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship, we will review the season for a key Crimson Tide player and attempt to project what’s next for him. Today we’ll look at safety Robert Lester.

No. 37 Robert Lester
42 tackles, four interceptions, seven passes defended

Role in 2012: Lester was a Second-Team All-SEC selection by the coaches for his play at safety on the No. 1 defense in the country.

The good: The redshirt senior was the only returning starter on the defense from a year ago and his leadership cannot be understated for youngsters such as Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, Deion Belue and Vinnie Sunseri. Lester was steady throughout the season, coming up with big plays when they were needed -- including end zone interceptions against Tennessee and Mississippi State. His 42 tackles rank sixth on the team.

The bad: Lester wasn't the same without Mark Barron playing alongside him. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Alabama native played well near the line of scrimmage but struggled allowing big plays in the passing game. Georgia was able to catch Lester guessing on a few passes and Texas A&M caught the veteran out of position at times as well.

Crystal ball: It's hard not to say Lester maximized his potential at Alabama. You'll remember he was once viewed as a throw in to get Julio Jones out of Foley High. As it turns out, Lester could do more than add depth to the secondary. He's turned himself into a viable NFL prospect. While he likely won't be a high draft pick, his size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and smarts (he ran a pro system at Alabama) should aid him at the next level. Expect Landon Collins to slide into Lester's spot next year. The former top safety in the 2012 Class will be an upgrade in terms of overall athleticism at the position.

Film study: Alabama vs. Georgia 

December, 3, 2012
TUSCALOOSA, ALA. -- An analysis of three key plays in Alabama's 32-28 win over Georgia in Atlanta -- and what those plays mean moving forward for the Crimson Tide:

Black and Belue
The score: No score, 1:23 remaining in the first quarter

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Alabama 10: Week 14 power rankings 

December, 3, 2012
The TideNation's power rankings look at the top 10 Alabama players who have raised their game. Every week, we’ll update these rankings to reflect how specific areas of the Alabama football program are faring.

Here are this week's power rankings:

1. G Chance Warmack: Saturday was the Alabama offensive line's most outstanding performance of the season. When the Tide needed yards, the men in the trenches delivered. And if one lineman best represents consistency and dominance, it's Warmack.

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Scout's Take: Atlanta Opening Regional
National recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to discuss top performers from the Nike's The Opening regional camp in Atlanta.