Kirby Smart: Tide's defensive back situation 'frustrating'

Anniston StarDecember 30, 2013 

Sugar Bowl Alabama Football

Alabama defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Kirby Smart talks about NCAA college football Sugar Bowl prep as Alabama's defensive representatives meet with the media, Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, in New Orleans. Alabama and Oklahoma face off in the Sugar Bowl, on Jan. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Alabama Media Group, Vasha Hunt)

VASHA HUNT — AP

NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart rarely speaks with the media, but when he does, he's always open and honest.

During his Monday news conference at the Sugar Bowl, Smart used the word "frustrating" when describing the Crimson Tide's cornerback situation.

Smart was asked if he's ever been through an entire season without settling one of the cornerback spots, and like always, Smart was frank with his response.

"Well, we have not had that. We are not used to that," he said. "We've kind of always had one key guy with all the first round, second round corners we've had. We've always had a staple guy there. Then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner. Hasn't been that way this year."

Since Smart became defensive coordinator in 2008, guys like Kareem Jackson, Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner have developed into top cornerbacks for the Tide, which allowed others time to develop.

This season, senior Deion Belue was expected to be the "staple guy there," but injuries have hampered his performance. Belue has battled nagging hamstring and toe injuries dating back to preseason practice. The injuries are so bad that he is always limited during practice and has missed a couple of games.

"Deion has given us some consistency," Smart said. "He's a veteran, understands the defense. With him out there, I think a lot of guys feel more comfortable and he has fought really hard throughout the year with injuries. Had weeks where he couldn't practice, but still was willing to go out and play in the game, which is tough to do mentally and physically.

"So anything we can get out of Deion is a bonus with his injuries and things he pushed through."

Senior John Fulton was expected to fill the void left by Milliner's early departure for the NFL Draft, but Fulton never panned out and has since been relegated to a reserve role.

"We have other guys play well one game, not play well the next," Smart said. "We've not gotten the consistency we want out of that position. And we don't have the depth that we've had in the past. So it's been a struggle."

The position's struggles may be more about experience than depth. Alabama has the bodies to put at cornerback, but none of the players had enough game action prior to being thrown into the fire.

Along with Fulton, Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve, Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith have made starts throughout the year.

Jones and Sylve are converted wide receivers while Jackson and Smith are both true freshmen.

Both Sylve and Jackson were hurt at one point during the year which further slowed their development.

"Deion, we feel like has been our best corner, but he's been in and out because of injury," Smart said. "Opposite him, it's been musical chairs."

But the Tide's secondary issues extend beyond cornerback. Safety has been tough to manage due to injuries and a suspension.

Starting free safety HaHa Clinton-Dix missed time after a run in with the NCAA for receiving improper benefits which forced Landon Collins to play free safety. Then, as Clinton-Dix was working his way back into the rotation, starting strong safety Vinnie Sunseri went down with a season-ending knee injury, which moved Collins back to strong safety.

On top of that, prior to the Iron Bowl, Clinton-Dix hurt his knee in practice, but played through the injury which ultimately required a scope.

There is a bit of a silver lining. By being in a BCS Bowl game, Alabama had at least 15 extra practice which they've used as camp-style workouts to help the younger players develop more for the future.

"A couple of the kids have done well in bowl practice," Smart said. "We hope they play well in the game, as they. That's what we're looking forward to seeing."

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