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August 8, 2010
Tide defenders may lack starts, but not experience
TUSCALOOSA _ The number of players who were recruited to the University of Alabama by someone other than Nick Saban have dwindled to a handful.
From the Class of 2006, there's Earl Alexander, Preston Dial, Greg McElroy, Brian Motley and David Ross, of which two are considered starters.
Also in their final year of eligibility are James Carpenter, Luther Davis, Darius Hanks and Chavis Williams. Except for walk-ons like Robert Ezell that's it for the Crimson Tide's seniors.
"We have a very young team," Saban said. "We're probably not going to have more than 10 guys who have been here for more than three years out of high school on our entire team. That doesn't mean they aren't capable of doing it, but it does challenge their maturity."
If there's one scary aspect to the Crimson Tide this season it's the team's youth, with more than half of the 85 scholarship players listed as freshmen, either true or redshirt. Gone are five of the six All-Americans, all three team captains and every special-teams specialist.
It also translates into anomalies like there being just one senior starter on the entire defense, Davis at defensive end.
"Luther is a probably a prime example of when he was recruited we didn't have enough players, so he had to play, but probably would have benefitted from a year of development," Saban said.
What's the first thing every preseason publication mentioned about the defense? Alabama is essentially replacing nine starters, all but linebacker Dont'a Hightower among the front seven, and he's coming off major knee surgery, and safety Mark Barron's the lone returning defensive back among the top seven on the depth chart. It's considered the biggest obstacle the Crimson Tide must overcome if it's going to return to the SEC Championship Game or challenge for another national title.
Or is it?
Most of the players don't see it that way.
"I think it's pretty much the same because the rotation is so strong," Davis said about the experience factor. "Coach (Bo) Davis and Coach Saban are going to do a great job of playing about six, seven guys a game, it gives the younger guys a chance to step up and make a name for themselves."
The previous starters who have moved on combined for 259 starts. The breakdown is 83 on the defensive line, 67 at linebacker and 109 in the secondary, including Marquis Johnson, who against pass-first teams lined up at cornerback with Javier Arenas sliding over to cover the slot receiver in the nickel package, and wound up being drafted by the St. Louis Rams.
Consequently, most of the attention off the Capstone has been on the departures, including Terrence Cody, Rolando McClain, Arenas and first-round draft pick Kareem Jackson. Alabama's focus has obviously been on those getting their chance to step in.
"That motivates me," Hightower said. "I think for the most part we have a lot of young guys, we're a lot faster and have a lot more athleticism. We don't have as much size, but I think we'll do great."
Additionally, the leading candidates to be the "new" nine all have game experience. For example, defensive end Marcell Dareus, a preseason All-SEC selection, has only three starts but has played in 22 games. Davis has played in 34 while nose guard Josh Chapman has 29 games of experience.
"Our coaches teach it so the younger guys learn the system the same way as the older guys do," Chapman said. "I've been playing behind Cody but I know the system the same way he did. Once you learn the system, it's easier, you just learn more technique every day."
Even safety Robert Lester has played in eight games, although mostly on special teams.
Combined, the new nine, along with former LSU defensive back Phelon Jones should he contribute off the bench like Johnson, have played in 190 games.
The biggest drop-off is, of course, in the secondary, where Dre Kirkpatrick has played in just 12 games and B.J. Scott's nine games played were before he switched from wide receiver.
"These players have grown up in the system," Saban said. "They just don't have the knowledge and experience, the game-time experience we'd like for them to have, which helps them to develop confidence and consistency in their performance.
"We don't have a lot of depth. We haven't defined all the roles, especially in the secondary, that some of these guys can do, because we don't have a lot of experience there. I do like the talent level we have. I do like the attitude that the players have worked with. I think this is going to be a defensive team that improves throughout the course of the season."