TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Littered with potential first-round NFL draft picks, the Alabama defense will carry the burden of expectations this fall.
The unit complemented the ball-controlling Tide offense a season ago as Nick Saban’s second Alabama team wore down 12 regular-season opponents en route to the SEC West title.
Now, without some of the same offensive power, the defense will be expected to limit opponents even further.
That, and redeeming itself after major letdowns in the final two losses. Both Florida and Utah piled on 31 points in the two postseason losses that created an extra hunger for the eight starters returning for 2009.
The group anchored by nose tackle Terrence Cody will put extra emphasis on rushing the passer after finishing in the middle of the SEC pack in quarterback sacks. A slimmed down Cody hopes to contribute in that category this time.
He dropped 25-plus pounds in hopes of picking up speed and endurance to remain on the field in third-down situations, although Saban said the 355-pounder still has some work to do before that will happen.
One question mark remains among the highly-touted linebackers.
Returning Jack linebacker Brandon Fanney was kicked off the team over the summer. The position, which blends the skill of an outside linebacker with a defensive end, is responsible for a great deal of pass rushing.
Sophomore Dont’a Hightower has spent time this August at the position, but the competition remains open. Other candidates include Eryk Anders and Courtney Upshaw, but Saban has yet to provide clues to an early leader to assume the starter’s role.
“I think we are probably getting a little more pressure,” Saban said. “I think we’re able to utilize some of our players a little better than we have that can rush. That last year, whether it was (lack of) experience or too many position multiples we weren’t able to do, we’ve been able to do that this spring and that’s helped us to some degree.”
The one sure bet is Rolando McClain.
Now a junior, McClain started his first game as a freshman at the Mike linebacker position that patrols the middle of the defense. The hard-hitting athlete was the only returning starter a season ago, but has led the group that is now considered one of the best in the nation.
“Rolando is a great kid,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “He’s got a great personality and is exciting out there on the field. He really enjoys practice and practices hard. That, in of itself, is enough for the younger players to see that and see the way you’re supposed to practice, with a lot of energy. That’s the way he leads, by example.”
A few highly-recruited freshmen, Nico Johnson and Tana Patrick, are also working toward regular playing time, but not necessarily right away.
“They’re just getting shuffled around,” Saban said after a scrimmage. “We’ll be able to make a decision to see how they progress. A couple of those guys are confused. A couple of them are very good football players.”
The secondary also features strong competitions for playing time.
Losing Rashad Johnson to the NFL led to a battle for the free safety job that involves Robby Green, Mark Barron and Justin Woodall.