Tide defense has talent, question marks

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 17, 2010

TUSCALOOSA (AP) — Marcell Dareus doesn’t think Alabama’s defense needs to compare itself to the past two groups that were packed with All-Americans.

“This is our defense and we have to have our own identity,” the Crimson Tide defensive end said.

What that identity is remains to be seen.

The Tide returns only one fulltime starter and just three of the top 16 tacklers from a defense that helped power the team to a national title and 26 wins over the past two seasons.

The first test for Dareus & Co. comes in Saturday’s A-Day spring game, going against Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and an offense that returns mostly intact. They will definitely be in the spotlight: The game is being nationally televised and Alabama has drawn an average of nearly 85,000 fans to the three spring games under coach Nick Saban.

For a change, the defense will be the object of most of the attention at Bryant-Denny Stadium. It’s a group that’s full of question marks and talent.

Safety Mark Barron is the only starter back from the end of last season, though linebacker Dont’a Hightower had logged 16 career starts before sustaining a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game.

Dareus is regarded as an emerging star, especially after his pivotal performance against Texas in the national championship game. Hightower was one of the team’s top defenders before his injury.

Beyond that there is a plenty of unproven talent.

The defense features highly touted recruits like sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and linebackers Nico Johnson and Jerrell Harris, and some other veteran backups. Defensive end Luther Davis is the only senior projected as a starter.

“They’ve got the talent over there to be great,” receiver Julio Jones said. “It’s just going to come with time, though.”

Fans will also get their first look at early enrollees, including DeMarcus Milliner — rated the nation’s top cornerback prospect by Scout.com — cornerback John Fulton and linebacker Petey Smith. The Tide could certainly use the added depth in a secondary that lost three starters and four backups.

Robby Green, a starting candidate at safety, has been suspended for the season for violating NCAA rules, and signee DeQuan Menzie recently tore an Achilles tendon while playing basketball. Saban said Menzie’s status will be evaluated in the summer.

Alabama’s defense was among the best in the country the past two seasons, led by All-Americans Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas. McClain and cornerback Kareem Jackson are both potential first-round picks in next week’s NFL draft.

Some of the potential successors have plenty of experience, just not as starters. Davis has played in 34 games without a start, while nose tackle Josh Chapman — Cody’s heir apparent — has seen action in 30 games with two starts. Linebackers Chris Jordan and Courtney Upshaw have only one combined start but have each played in 27 games.

Dareus said the defense has made considerable progress in the spring.

“Josh Chapman filling in for Cody, Luther coming in for Lorenzo. As a defensive line, we’re coming together pretty good,” he said. “Our front seven is gelling together real good.

“Our (defensive backs) are coming along real good. Mark Barron’s holding it down for the safety. As a whole we’re working pretty good. We’re all going to show it Saturday and show how we work together.”

Saban said he has preached to the young defensive players the importance of having better awareness on the field that comes with repetition and experience.

“I say, ‘We’re trying to make you aware of what you see with your eyes by looking at the right things all the time so you can react the right way,'” Saban said. “‘You don’t even know you don’t know that you’re not looking at the right thing. But if we can get you to look at the right thing and develop an awareness of splits, formations, motions, adjustments — all these things — you may be able to anticipate what’s going to happen a lot more quickly and therefore react better and be in a better position to make a play.’

“That just happens, I think, when guys continually see it over and over and develop the knowledge and experience that gives them confidence and a belief.”