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September 2, 2009Ask anyone on the University of Alabama football team about sophomore safety Mark Barron, and the answers are pretty much uniform.
"He wants to hit," junior linebacker Rolando McClain said. "He will hit."
For some, his hit on Clemson returner Jacoby Ford, taking advantage of the hang time on Leigh Tiffin's second kickoff, comes immediately to mind. To others, there's his both-crunching blow to Paul Stephens on the final kickoff against Arkansas State last season.
They've all seen the ones he regularly makes away from the public eye as well, during practices, scrimmages, well, anything involving live play.
"Yeah," Barron said with a grin. "That's what a lot of people say about me, but I'm trying to work on some other parts of my game too."
Apparently he's done enough because Barron snared away the strong safety job during fall camp and is expected to make his first collegiate start Saturday when the Crimson Tide kicks off against Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome.
While finding a replacement for All-American Rashad Johnson was an offseason priority, it may have been the last spot to be decided, with Barron himself not quite knowing he had won the job until a few days ago.
"When the roster came out," was when Barron found out. "I had been taking reps with the ones, but I wasn't sure.
"I was pretty excited."
Barron's promotion meant moving senior Justin Woodall to free safety after he started all 14 games at strong safety last year. He was credited with 47 tackles with four interceptions, including one returned 74 yards for a touchdown at Arkansas.
While on paper that appears to be two position changes instead of one, it really isn't because in Alabama's scheme there's very little difference in their roles. The primary thing to know is that the strong safety usually plays closer to the line and is more involved against the run.
"I like that he'll come down into the box and he'll hit somebody," senior cornerback Javier Arenas said about Barron.
In that respect, playing the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Barron is in many ways like having an extra linebacker who can also cover. He figures to be around the ball a lot.
"Even though he's a younger guy, second year, I think you'll be surprised how good (he is)," McClain said. "He has Justin Woodall beside him and he's helping him out, make calls and things, as well as me. If I look back and I don't think he knows what to say, I'll go and make the call for him."
The play-calling is something that has drawn a lot of attention and numerous questions because it was Johnson's responsibility to make sure everyone was lined up correctly the past couple of years. That's been changed.
"We have no one calling the signals," Arenas said. "Everyone's looking for the signals, everyone knows the signals."
To clarify, as the middle linebacker McClain is responsible for getting the defensive call and relaying it to the whole team, but everyone else sees the signal when it's flashed in from the bench. McClain then turns his attention to the front seven, while the defensive backs are expected to make sure they're all playing the same thing.
"They usually know what to do in the secondary, coverage-wise," McClain said.
"We've tried to sort of pass the torch to Justin because he has the most experience at safety," Coach Nick Saban said. "I do think that it's important that both safeties communicate that and it's going to be important for our team to grow in that area. Communication is critical in the secondary."
Although coaches were high on Barron from the start after he arrived from St. Paul's Episcopal School in Mobile with the recruiting Class of 2008, Saban readily admits that the coaching staff gave him too much, too fast last year. Barron played in played in all 14 games as a true freshman, with 19 tackles, 1.5 sacks and was tied for third on the team with 11 special-team tackles, all coming on kickoff coverage.
It was obvious during the A-Day Game that things had really started to click for Barron. While playing for the Crimson Team, which featured the second-unit defense, he tallied five tackles and an interception.
"Mark has always been a really good player," Saban said. "Sometimes when guys haven't played their particular position - he played so many positions in high school, he played running back, he played linebacker, sometimes he played safety but mostly be played close to the line. Those kinds of guys have to develop a position and find a (place) when they become college football players. He really hasn't played that much safety before, especially the deep part. As he learned, he knew that he was going to be a very good player.
"Since he's settled into the position and gotten reps, he's been a very productive player. He's a good player, he's very physical, he has good ball skills, he has great range. Obviously, doesn't have experience, but the way to get experience is to go out there and play."
And keep hitting.