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August 26, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ The ball or the hit.
It's the age-old adage at safety, where players usually develop a reputation for interceptions or laying jaw-dropping blows. While the best can do them equally well, even they usually have a preference if given the choice, which can be telling.
When University of Alabama junior Robert Lester was recently asked which is more fulfilling he had to think about it for a moment even though there's really no right or wrong answer.
"I think I'd rather go for the pick," he said, which is probably why Lester primarily lined up as the deep man of the defense, at free safety, during camp. That he doesn't have to, though, is a key facet to this year's secondary, which remains the top concern of the Crimson Tide heading into the season.
You just don't replace an All-American like Javier Arenas or three-year starter turned first-round draft pick Kareem Jackson, who are already making names for themselves as rookies in the National Football League. But Alabama also lost Justin Woodall, Marquis Johnson, Ali Sharrief, Tyrone King Jr. and Chris Rogers.
Additionally, junior Robby Green was suspended for the entire season, but is practicing with the team, and Rod Woodson transferred.
Combined, they had 109 starts between them and last year contributed 284 tackles, including 20 for a loss and 6? sacks, 12 interceptions, 47 passes broken up and 10 quarterback hurries toward the national championship.
Then came the injuries. Junior-college transfer DeQuan Menzie sustained an Achilles tear while playing basketball. Sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick had shoulder surgery after A-Day. Lester sustained a concussion during the first scrimmage of fall when the offense racked up more than 700 yards. True freshman cornerback DeMarcus Milliner was sidelined by an ankle injury. Converted wide receiver Kendall Kelly hasn't been seen since the first day of practice and isn't expected to contribute this season.
As Coach Nick Saban put it, "It's been one thing after another."
Just about every day there's been someone in a different spot, in part due to attrition but otherwise to get as many players ready to play as possible, even those who underwent a crash course in the Tide's defense.
While that's led to some intense competition and flexibility that will pay off in the long run, it's been at the cost of continuity. No one had to think twice about where everyone was lining up last season.
Now, well ...
Wednesday, with everyone practicing for the first time in quite a while, the nickel package was essentially the same as during the spring, with Kirkpatrick and B.J. Scott at the corners where they hope to become fixtures.
"I feel like me and B.J. are the leaders (of the cornerbacks)," Kirkpatrick said earlier this fall.
"We feel like we should step up," Scott said.
That also meant that walk-on safety Will Lowery, a sophomore out of Hoover High School, is still playing a prominent role despite being just 5-foot-9. No one's been able to knock him off that top unit.
"He's a feisty little man," 6-foot-6 sophomore tight end Michael Williams said. "Most people who look at him probably think they've got an advantage, but I can promise you they don't. His technique is outstanding and you have to be technically sound in our defense."
The rock of the unit, though, has been the lone holdover of the starters, Barron, the third-team All-American who led the SEC in interceptions last season with seven. Whereas he can play in numerous places, including either safety position along with the star and money spots in the nickel and dime packages, coaches feel they can mold the unit around him in order to get the best players on the field.
"Mark's really become the leader of the secondary," Saban said. "Very knowledgeable about what we do, has a good understanding and has done a good job helping the other players develop. Mark's worked hard and getting better at the things that he needs to improve on.
"He's changed the way he thinks about practice, he's practiced better, has good practice habits."
Consequently, with Barron the cog of the secondary, many in turn believe that Lester is the key to its overall success especially considering the depth concerns.
"I've learned a lot from Mark," he said. "We came in together at the same time, and he played before me so watching him play and seeing things to do, calling the plays, he was teaching things to me. Mark's a great player. Coach Saban isn't going to recruit just anybody."
Part of the illustrious signing Class of 2008, Lester was the "other" guy from Foley High School, where he made 143 tackles, 10 interceptions and 15 pass breakups during the 2006 and 2007 seasons. He was rated the 13th player in the state and No. 33 safety in the nation by Rivals, but despite being a four-star prospect has only played in eight games for Alabama, mostly on special teams, and has eight career tackles.
That still gives him a huge leg up on true freshmen like Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams, who will likely be in the mix as well from Game 1, along with Milliner and true freshman John Fulton.
"Playing for Coach Saban you have to know the playbook," Lester said. "You have to know what the linebackers are doing and the linemen. It's a lot.
"We have a lot of speed, we have great athletes and we're working together. I think we're coming along."