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September 1, 2010

Ready or not, young secondary gets first test

TUSCALOOSA _ When it comes to the University of Alabama secondary, fans really only know two things for sure.

One guy is really good.

Another may be ready to be so.

That's really it. Ready or not, the season's here, and it probably won't take long for e the revamped, young unit is severely tested by opposing offenses.

"I'm pretty sure they will," junior safety Mark Barron said. "They probably feel like that may be the weakness of our defense so they probably will try to throw it a little bit on us. That's a challenge to us. That's why we work and do what we do. I feel like we'll be up to that challenge."

Barron, off course, is the one known quantity. The lone returning starter led the Southeastern Conference with seven interceptions last season and named a third-team All-American. He can line up at numerous places, make calls and might even get to do some blitzing this season.

If the secondary had a captain already he would certainly be it, and being 6-foot-2, 210 pounds the intimidating Mobile native won the Lee Roy Jordan Headhunter Award during spring practices.

"I was talking at dinner last night, me and (William) Vlachos, and we were talking about how good Mark really is," senior quarterback Greg McElroy said. "I think a lot of people think of him as a play-maker, a guy who's just so great in coverage, but one thing he does is just (make) reads has such great instincts. He can be disruptive on his blitzes because he has great timing and he understands defenses and the weaknesses of offenses in certain protections.

"He does such a great job for our defense."

The closest thing Barron has to a familiar face among the expected starters is sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick, who played in 12 games last season and made eight tackles, six on special teams. Two years ago Rivals rated him the No. 11 player in the nation. The next most-experienced player is sophomore Robert Lester, with eight games.

By now, most fans can recite the numbers of the guys being replaced. Three of last year's starters are gone including an All-American and first-round draft pick along with nearly all of the reserves. Combined they made 109 starts and last season combined for 284 tackles, including 20 for a loss and 6 sacks, 12 interceptions, 47 passes broken up and 10 quarterback hurries.

Robby Green was suspended, Rod Woodson transferred and just about everyone has had an injury, the most serious of which was junior-college transfer DeQuan Menzie tearing an Achilles while playing basketball last winter.

Normally that painful rehab requires eight to ten months just to walk normally again, never mind plant and pivot like a cornerback - which most people couldn't do on their best days. Amazing, he's expected to start Saturday and also play the star position in the nickel package.

"It's been incredible watching him come back, seeing him progress over the summer," Greg McElroy said. "When he first got here in June he was just a couple months out of surgery and he was already so far along.

"I remember specifically talking with Jeff Allen, our trainer, "Is this guy going to be ready to go?' and he said, 'Yes. I've never seen anything like it. He looks like he's four months out of surgery and he's really only a month and a half out.' He's been a special case and he's a special player."

Originally out of Carver High School in Columbus, Ga., Menzie was ranked as the 14th best junior-college prospect by Rivals (some had him higher) after he was named a second-team All-American. While he made six interceptions his first year at Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College, Menzie had just one last season to go with 51 tackles as opponents gave him a lot more respect.

"He came in ready to play," Barron said. "You could tell that he had already been coached somewhere else. The only thing was that he had to change a couple of his techniques to the way we do things instead of what he had been taught before. He is very impressive and he's still learning, but he's been very impressive so far."

Also getting their first action Saturday will be true freshman reserves DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton at cornerback, and safeties Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry. Although he's been slowed some by an injury converted wide receiver B.J. Scott figures to finally make his debut at cornerback after redshirting last season and fans may also see a lot of walk-on safety Will Lowery.

If and when they all click, Alabama's defense could be as imposing as ever.

"I feel like we'll be just as good, if not even better than last year," Hightower said. "It's all about how everyone comes and prepares all week.


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