Running back Trent Richardson will help sell tickets and keep fans excited, but the Crimson Tide’s defense will be the unit that helps win games for the team this season.
“We have one of the most athletic defenses that’s been through Alabama,” linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “Last year, we lacked the speed part, getting after the quarterback. This year, I think it’s what our defense is about, getting after the quarterback. Last year, losing that one or two seconds, or giving the quarterback that extra time, that made a big difference. If we can get there faster, that relieves pressure off the defensive backs.”
Head coach Nick Saban likes to run a base 3-4 defense. In this base formation, the nose tackle is one of the more important positions. His job is to clog up holes to stop the run and to take on multiple blockers, allowing linebackers to rush free and blitz the opposing team’s quarterback.
Josh Chapman will be the main player filling that role. This will be Chapman’s second year as a starter and his third getting substantial playing time. As a redshirt freshman, Chapman backed up former All-American Terrence Cody. If Chapman can produce like Cody, he will be the perfect anchor for the Tide’s defensive front.
Linebacker will be the deepest position on this year’s team. The Tide has seven players who could see significant playing time this year. Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson, Alex Watkins, Jerrel Harris and Chris Jordan will all look to terrorize opposing teams’ offenses with their ability to rush the passer and drop back in coverage. Each one possesses a different set of skills that he brings to the collective unit.
“You won’t see a group of guys work harder in the country,” Hightower said. “C.J. Mosley helped us out tremendously last year. Courtney Upshaw had a great year. Nico [Johnson] and Jerrel [Harris] both have taken the next steps they need.”
Mosley, Upshaw and Hightower will be looking to take their games to the next level this season. As a true freshman, Mosley played in all 13 games last year. He was third on the team in tackles, with 67, and he had two interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown against Florida.
After battling back from an ankle injury, Upshaw developed into the Tide’s most dangerous pass rusher. He had 51 tackles in the final 10 games of the season, including a team high 14.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. When healthy, Upshaw can be a Clay Matthews type pass rusher for the Tide.
By his standards, last year was a down year for Hightower. He was second on the team in tackles with 69, but never seemed 100 percent healed from his knee injury in 2009. If Hightower can regain some of the brilliance from his freshman season, look for him to be one of the best linebackers in the country.
“He’s got his explosive quickness back, his burst in pass-rush, playing with a little bit more speed, which is more like he played before his injury,” Saban said.
Last year, the secondary went through a lot of growing pains. Injuries, lack of experience and no real pass rush put the secondary in tough spots and they often gave up big plays in key moments. Saban said how they use those experiences will determine the unit’s success.
“Maturity and experience are important factors if they’re used correctly,” Saban said. “You can take your experience and create a comfort zone with it…. Or you can challenge yourself [to say] that I have experience now and I’ve learned from mistakes that I’ve made in the past and I’m going to play with more consistency in the future because of it and challenge yourself to get to the next level.”
This year the secondary could be the team’s most talented and productive group. At the safety positions, Mark Barron and Robert Lester are two of the best in the country. Barron earned All-American honors while leading the team in tackles with 75 stops. In 2009, Barron led the SEC in interceptions with seven as a sophomore. Lester followed in Barron’s footsteps and led the SEC in interceptions in 2010 with eight.
At cornerback, Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner will all be asked to play enormous roles in the secondary. With a year of starting experience under his belt, Kirkpatrick will look to be the shutdown corner scouts projected him to be out of high school. Kirkpatrick has all of the physical tools to be the best corner in the nation.
Menzie is the key component to the secondary. If he stays healthy and performs, he gives the Tide a shutdown corner opposite of Kirkpatrick.
Milliner will be asked to play more of a nickel back role, similar to the one Javier Arenas played in 2009. As a true-freshman, he started 11 of 13 games and earned first-team Freshman All-American honors.
“We want to come out and win a national championship, to be undefeated,” Barron said. “Every time we step out on the field, one of our motivating factors is to be special.”
As a defense-minded coach, Saban has to be pleased with the talent the unit has as a whole. The only question is whether they will use their talent to become champions.
With the defense leading the way for the Tide, it sure does feel like 2009 all over again.