Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Profilin' the Tide: Defensive Backs

Previously: General Offensive PreviewOffensive LineTailbacksWide receivers, Tight Ends, and H-backsQuarterbacksGeneral Defensive PreviewDefensive Line, Linebackers 

Before I get around to finally wrapping up this complete waste of time offseason boredom project incredibly enlightening series of posts, a couple prefatory notes for the Alabama fans that have recently discovered these little previews:
  • I have no doubt that I've made some errors in these posts (hopefully none too major). Feel free to let me know and I will try to remember to fix them if they're particularly egregious. 
  • If you find these to be too long or too "boring," well...I would imagine that these wouldn't be all that exciting for you since you are an Alabama fan and thus already know who Nico Johnson, Cyrus Kouandjio, Kenny Bell, and Dee Milliner--and so on--are. If it isn't already obvious, these posts are directed at a Michigan audience that does not know who those guys are. Anyway, it's June, and don't even pretend like you're trying to watch the Braves or something. Nobody is watching the Braves. Not even Fredi Gonzalez is watching the Braves. 
  • I labeled the grading section as such because the grades are completely non-scientific and shouldn't be paid too much mind. It's just a way to conventionally wrap these things up and is in no way held to any sort of uniform standard. I mean, what does a grade even mean in this context? A position group's quality relative to national standards? Alabama's historical standards? Some ideal A+ position group consistently solely of football-playing Terminator bots? Strength of a position group versus another group on the same team? Who knows, which is why I called it a "meaningless grade that I will give out anyway." 
With that out of the way, I'll continue with the same formula of discussing departures first. Alabama loses Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, and DeQuan Menzie from its 2011 secondary, a group which lead Alabama to the top-ranked pass defense last season. Kirkpatrick went in the first round to Cincinnati (17th overall), Barron went 7th overall to Greg Schiano's Tampa Bay Bucs, and Menzie went in the 5th round to the Chiefs.

Barron is most likely the most difficult to replace, and his draft position reflects that. It seems that NFL teams in general are hesitant to draft the safety position with a top 10 pick these days; in fact, not a single safety was taken in the entire first round of the 2009 and 2011, and the Giants took Kenny Phillips of Miami (FL) with the last pick of the 1st round in 2008. NFL draft. Eric Berry of Tennessee was taken with the 5th overall pick in 2010 and LaRon Landry was taken 6th in 2007, but other than that top 10 safeties have been few are far between (FWIW, there were two in 2006: Donte Whitner and Michael Huff). This means that Barron obviously turned some heads in the Tampa Bay front office. 

Kirkpatrick was a guy whose recruiting hype basically preordained a 3-year college career and a first round NFL contract. At 6'3'' 192, Dre is the big, athletic corner prototype that NFL scouts and GMs dream of while simultaneously shaking their fists at things like tradition, innovation, fun, clouds, and Communist college football. They also enjoy tying their tie knots really, really hugely.

Football is not fun. Football in the 
NATIONAL. FOOTBALL. LEAGUE. has never been about fun. It's about TOUGHNESS and GRIT and HUGE TIE KNOTS. 

Lastly, Menzie was a very versatile and valuable player opposite Kirkpatrick. When Bama moved to the nickel, Menzie went inside and used his physical play at the "star" position to match up with opposing slots, while Dee Milliner came in to play on the outside (more on him in a bit). Menzie was a JUCO guy, so he was only with the Tide for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, notching seven starts in 2010 before taking over the full-time starting role in 2011. According to his official athletics site profile, he lead all Bama corners in 2011 with 37 tackles, also pitching in 11 pass breakups, 3 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks. So, this is a guy that, while not as flashy and NFL marketable as DK, is a guy that will mix it up for you and can even make some plays in the ground game/on short passes, as well as on blitzes. In short, he's definitely a guy that every championship team wants to have in its secondary.

The Starters 
Saban and Kirby Smart have a tall task ahead of them, but the cupboard is far from bare. Junior Dee Milliner (6'1'' 199) looks to man one of the corner positions. Although Menzie was technically the starter last year, Milliner has logged enough starts that he can essentially be considered a returning starter, IMO. He played in every game and started in 11 of them during his freshman year in 2010. Last year, he started 6 games for Alabama while also getting on the field in nickel situations. Like Kirkpatrick, Milliner is a guy with an abundance of recruiting hype (5* and #1 corner according to Scout, #2 to Rivals) and is of the larger variety. Someone needs to direct Brady Hoke to the secret underground lair where these enormous super-athletic future first-round corners are being churned out with regularity. I bet you it's in Mobile...never could trust it. WHAT YOU DOIN' DOWN THERE MOBILE, ALL QUIET AND SECRET LIKE? YOU GOT SOMETHIN' TO HIDE?

An aside: Ted Roof almost found this secret lair one time. On a "recruiting" trip--which for Ted Roof consisted of wandering around the Yellowhammer State, just pointing at random people and saying "Hey, you wanna play defense for me? No? Well, alright then, I'll check out Publix now, got some promising prospects over there by the Boar's Head display"--but then got distracted by a bunch of barking dogs that he thought were yelling his name. "ROOF? YES, DOGS, THAT'S ME! WAIT WHERE AM I WHAT IS THIS PLACE I AM SO CONFUSED THIS IS THE LAST TIME I TRY TO HIT THE RECRUITING TRAIL."

So, now that you know what I imagine Ted Roof's deepest thought processes are like, let's talk about Deion Belue (6'0'' 170). Belue is a JUCO--one of two JUCO corners that Saban signed--from Tuscumbia, AL who failed to qualify two years ago but now is all squared away. Nothing is set in stone, obviously, but it looks like he and John Fulton are the main competitors for the other starting corner spot (for the purposes of this post, I'll just count Belue as a starter here, even though he may not be the eventual starter).

The JUCO corner route worked well for Alabama with Menzie, so there is some precedent here. Belue has potentially earned a starting spot with an impressive spring, but Saban bringing in two JUCO guys at once is somewhat of a red flag. That's not to say that the unit won't be good, just that confidence in the returning players or the overall depth was not exactly high with Saban and the defensive staff. I won't pretend that I know much about Belue's game other than what is superficially apparent: he's a JUCO, another corner on the larger end of the spectrum (he's listed at 6'0''...not sure how much inflates heights vis-a-vis MGoBlue), and he's obviously been impressive enough this spring to beat out fellow JUCO Travell Dixon, redshirt freshmen Bradley Sylve and Jabriel Washington, and potentially even his main challenger John Fulton. Either way, Belue is seeing the field this year.

Moving on, the safety positions look to be manned by returning strong safety Robert Lester (a Foley, AL native aka Julio Jones's hometown...if you're interested in useless trivia). As the senior citizen of the group, Lester will likely have to help make the calls and serve as a calming influence for Alabama's two newbies in the secondary (as mentioned, I'm basically counting Milliner as a returning starter).

Mark Barron actually played free safety last season, with Lester starting at the strong safety spot. Given that Barron is obviously a natural strong safety, this speaks to Barron's versatility and overall ability; it's no wonder he got selected as early as he did. Lester, however, is no slouch either. He redshirted in 2008, played sparingly in 2009, then went on to start every game in 2010 and 2011. He tallied 36 tackles, 3 PBUs, 1 FF, 1 TFL, a blocked field goal and two picks last season, including this one in LSU: Part the First:

At the other spot it appears that, for now, Vinnie Sunseri has the other safety position locked down. Once again, if the name sounds familiar, it's because he's the son of former Alabama LB coach and new UT defensive coordinator, Sal Sunseri. Here's where I insert clichés about him being a coach's son and knowing the game and so on and so forth. All snark aside, he was getting getting prettyyyy, prettyyyy, prettyyyy good reviews throughout spring ball, and seems to be physically and mentally capable enough if he has in fact beaten out fellow sophomore Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix for the position. Sunseri paid his dues on special teams last season, doing all the things that lead to being dubbed a "special teams demon" (Ernest Shazor says hello), which some of the time is a prelude to a strong career as a dynamic playmaker on the defensive side of the ball. 

As the youngest member of this group, there may be some growing pains for him early on in the season...however, I will say that I'm a big fan of his game, and I think he will prove to be a very good player by the end of the year. Still, it's the first game of the season in a super-charged environment, and some mistakes, you'd think, are inevitable. Maybe Michigan can successfully bring the always satisfying "QB Oh Noes" play back by playing off of Sunseri once or twice? Maybe, maybe not. We shall find out in September. Still, the overarching concern on top of all of this is: can Michigan (i.e. Denard) and the receivers even stretch the field enough to take advantage of Bama's inexperience in certain spots? I'm confident that Denard has improved over the offseason, but he'll need to be quite a bit better than he was for most of last year if Michigan wants to win this game. 

A relevant aside: these previews are only concerned with how the players being discussed will look against Michigan and only against Michigan. This means that I might be more bearish on certain young or inexperienced players than I would otherwise be if the scope of these previews was the entire season as a whole. Obviously, the entire season is not the scope because that is something that an Alabama blog should be concerned with. This is not an Alabama blog. 

The Replacements 
It's fairly easy to see why Saban looked to the JUCO ranks for a quick fix to the situation at corner: there's not much going on past Milliner. It seems that things have gone according to plan, as one JUCO signee--the aforementioned Belue--has won a starting spot, and the other, Travell Dixon, will provide some depth. Dixon, at 6'1'' 191 (yes, another guy from the "We Are The Complete Opposite of the Cass Tech School of Corners"), was actually more highly sought after than Belue. Dixon will back up Milliner, and behind Dixon is the aforementioned RS FR Bradley Sylve.

At the other spot, Belue will be backed up by junior John Fulton (6'0'' 187and RS FR Jabriel Washington (5'11'' 183). Fulton has been around but has mostly played on special teams; otherwise, he's mostly played garbage time defensive snaps. FWIW, the Roll Bama Rall post-spring unofficial depth chart lists Fulton as the starter ahead of Belue, but I've seen elsewhere that Belue is ahead, so...who knows. It's going to be one of those two guys starting opposite D-Mill.

At safety, the obvious headlining backup is Ha'Sean "Ha-Ha" Clinton-Dix, he of the "close but no cigar" ghosts of Michigan's recruiting past. It's quite the luxury to have a former 5-star coming off the bench. At 6'1'' 209, he's got good size and is obviously the type of athlete you'd expect a 5-star to be. But, for whatever reason, it seems that Sunseri beat him out this spring. However, 2012 incoming safety Landon Collins (yes, the guy whose mom was all "WHY U NO GO TO LSU?" when he committed) could give him a run for his money. The 6'2'' 205 pound 5-star was the #1 recruit in Louisiana, and getting him to sign was obviously quite the coup for Alabama. Still, he's just a freshman, and I wouldn't expect him to have a significant role against Michigan except for maybe to come in and use his athleticism on the blitz, but who knows. I'm just speculating.

At strong safety, Nick Perry (Not That Nick Perry) is in line to back up Lester. His CV is pretty bare: he appeared in 6 games in 2010 during his freshman season and 9 games last year. Seeing as Mark Barron made the move from strong to free safety with relative ease, I get the feeling that the distinction between the two positions is not so strong that Perry would be forced onto the field over a more talented guy (i.e. Clinton-Dix, Collins, etc.).

Last but not least, Alabama boasts even more safety depth in the form of junior Jarrick Williams. Williams has played in 10 games and, as expected, was once a highly-touted recruit in the class of 2010. He was the dime back in the bowl game against MSU, so I'd expect him to see the field at some point, especially if we fall behind and are forced to air it out with regularity. 

General Spring Minutiae/Encomium That Results In A "Bristling" Saban

RBR on the A-Day performances of the corners:
The defensive backfield, too, figures to avoid the harsh growing pains that the group experienced in 2010. John Fulton likely had the best spring of any defender outside of Hubbard, and he seems to have a strong hold on a starting job as we enter the summer. DeMarcus Milliner also figures to be an every-down player, as he has been the past two seasons, and incoming JUCO transfer Deion Belue had another strong showing yesterday. Together those three look to be the front-line at cornerback this fall, with Travell DixonBradley Sylve, and Jabriel Washington behind them.
And the safeties:
Safety was expected to be a strength anyway, and nothing yesterday questioned that general assumption. Robert Lester grabbed an interception on the first play from scrimmage and he seemingly just gets better and better. Vinnie Sunseri continues to impress, as he looks to start opposite Lester, and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix looks to see significant playing time in the dime package. Again, 2010 this is not, and this unit figures to weather the loss of Mark Barron quite well.
On Belue's road to Tuscaloosa/general fluff
With Smither in attendance, Belue made a good first impression in Alabama's first scrimmage of the spring, intercepting an AJ McCarron pass near the goal line and running it back 97 yards for a touchdown. The lesser hyped of Alabama's two junior-college transfer defensive backs -- Travell Dixon being the other -- Belue has quickly solidified himself as a legitimate option to fill one of the spots voided by NFL-bound Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie.
 Dee Milliner learning to be a leader fluff montage
But even with the juco transfers, Milliner said the situation isn’t as frenetic as 2010, when Alabama’s secondary lost not only all but one starter, but all the backups, too. This year, Fulton is competing with Milliner and the newcomers.
“That’s a very important aspect when you’ve got the backups out there, because they’ve been out there before,” said Milliner, a rising junior from Stanhope Elmore in Millbrook. “They learned from the great backs that (were) in front of them.
According to Dee, Belue, Sunseri, and Clinton-Dix have all been working at the "star" position, i.e. the third corner that covers slot receivers in nickel formations. FWIW. 

Things To Watch/Look Out For/ARE WE GONNA DIE? 
  • The RCB position: John Fulton or Deion Belue? Fulton has been in the program, obviously, while Belue has been plying his trade at the JUCO level. Belue seems to be the more athletic option (not that Fulton is unathletic or anything), but Fulton's advantage is of course his two years already spent in Tuscaloosa. I would assume that whomever comes up second here basically wins the right to the "star"(i.e. nickel back) role, but that could be a faulty assumption on my part. 
  • The free safety spot: Sunseri or Ha-Ha? I'm not sure that it matters much, as either will probably be pretty good. Either way, that's a strong 1-2 at the position regardless of who's starting. 
  • Landon Collins's role on September 1st will be one to monitor. Obviously, he's an incredible talent; if these brief previews have taught me anything, it's that Saban does not mind rotating guys in and out fairly often, in addition to not being against playing freshmen. Many of the guys that are starters now received significant playing time as underclassmen, even in big games. 
  • All of Bama's corners are bigger than Michigan's top two returning receivers (Gallon and Roundtree)? What counterpunch will Michigan have if Bama presses at the line with regular success? Does one exist other than "hope Denard can run around and make something happen"?Speaking to the size disparity, one of either Darboh or Chesson will need to make a couple plays, which isn't exactly ideal for us or them for obvious reasons*. I'm not confident that Jeremy Jackson is an impact player, and who knows what Jerald Robinson's situation is. In short, Amarah and Jehu: hope you're ready to play. 
*Oh, hey there non-early enrollee freshmen receiver...get out there and make some plays in your first game because we kind of need you to do that and oh by the way we're playing Alabama in Texas so this is basically a road game and almost everyone in their secondary was once a 4/5 star recruit. Good luck!

Meaningless Grade That I Will Hand Out Anyway 

Given the lack of established quality at corner, this would be the perfect time to put 4/5 wide and attack the weakest links a la the 2006 Michigan-Ohio State game, in which Troy Smith's receivers had to deal with Leon Hall and...a whole lot of not very good corners. 

Unfortunately for Michigan, Denard is not exactly Troy Smith when it comes to passing the ball, and I honestly don't know who Michigan will even trot out at receiver past Gallon and Roundtree. I'm not sure what Jerald Robinson's situation is, but if he's the third option then all three of Michigan's top guys are significantly flawed for one reason or another. After that, Michigan has Drew Dileo, Jeremy Jackson, and the two freshmen (Darboh and Chesson), i.e. a little-used slot guy, a ponderous possession type who hasn't done much, and two non-early enrollee true freshmen. I'm not sure that we can count on much from Brandon Moore as far as receptions go. Michigan will need Fitz Toussaint to contribute with some receptions out of the backfield. I also would not mind if Fitz was motioned out of the backfield presnap from time to time to be used as a traditional wide receiving sort. 
So, that's that. I think I've spent enough time slogging through fluff articles this past month or so to last me for the rest of my life. I'll link or discuss Alabama-centric news in the Miscellaneous Minutiae posts if they're important enough, but I probably won't be talking about Alabama much until we get closer to September 1st. At that point, I'll probably wait till the very last second to offer a meaningless prediction.

Just to cleanse all this Alabama talk from our collective system, here's a picture of Jim Delany probably being sanctimonious or something:

Also, here's a picture of a guy who's pretty cool and hopefully won't throw any interceptions and HEY DENARD DID YOU HEAR ME I SAID DON'T DO THAT: 

Well, I can't stay mad at that. There's a long way to go until September 1st, and Al Borges, Denard Robinson, and the rest of the Michigan offense have what seems to be a lifetime to improve physically, mentally, and otherwise. The game isn't won in June; but, sometimes it is lost then. In that respect, I am confident that everyone is doing what needs to be done to give this offense a chance to succeed against a tough opponent.

Whether these efforts in the summer will yield offensive success--and victory--in the fall is another issue entirely. 


  1. It bewilders me greatly to see all the "quasi-pseudo- self-appointed " Sports Analyst, continue day after day utilizing their power of the press in attempts to influence Sabans decision to Start Vinnie Sunseri over Clinton Dix. The Facts Of the Matter Speaks so Loudly I can't hear what the Vinni- Band Wagoneers are force feeding their readers. Vinnie is a Great Athlete however; Clinton Dix will prove by years end that he is even Greater. Clinton Dix exciting Spring Game performance has proven he matched Vinnies performance even after Vinnie had a 4 month early enrollment learning advantage. If Clinton Dix Dad was the Coach he too would have an initial advantage. Clinton Dix is a classic example of cream rising to the top; I hear this kid Dix is humble and will glady come off the bench and put extreme pressure on the starter . Ilove Vinnie too but Dix will prove to all by years end, that he truely is the Greatest.

  2. Vinnie was counted out almost from the beginning because of all of the stereotypes. However, as you say, Dix is an impressive talent. They will both see a lot of action...

  3. Vinnie is fast and athletic. Vinnie will rock your jock. Vinnie is an excellent open field tackler. Vinnie was Mr. Football in the state of North Carolina as a Junior and he was Mr. Football in the state of Alabama as a Senior. Vinnie is starting because he is the best.