HOOVER, Ala. -- The formula changes, yet the expectations remain.
Football at Alabama means defense, and in recent years, the advantage came up front.
Not so this year, coach Nick Saban said Friday at SEC media days in Hoover.
“But we do have talented secondary and linebacker people,” he said. “We’ll be a little different style because of that.”
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That hasn’t stopped comparisons to some of the great teams of the past since 10 players with starting experience return. The No. 1 preseason rankings were justified by the experience gained from a 2010 defense that took a beating in the Tide’s three losses.
The parallels drawn between the 1992 and 2009 national championship defenses are fine with linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Last year’s unit still led the SEC in total defense and the 13.6 points allowed ranked third nationally.
“I feel like we could maybe be one of the best,” he said. “Last year it was kind of a lack of experience thing. I don’t see it this year. The way we’ve been practicing 7-on-7, even in the film room, you don’t see guys making those rookie mistakes that you saw last year. Everybody comes in with their hard hat on. I don’t see any flaws heading into fall camp.”
It’ll be Hightower who assumes much of the leadership role as the elder statesman on defense. It’ll be his fourth year with the program, though a major knee injury in 2009 slowed his rise. Pass-rush specialist Courtney Upshaw, Nico Johnson, and C.J. Mosley fill out the starting linebackers with depth backing them up.
The secondary drew the most criticism for breakdowns in critical moments of last season’s losses. Safety Mark Barron was the only returnee with any significant playing time before last season, so an entirely new backfield was the weakness exploited by South Carolina, LSU and Auburn.
How they respond to those memories is Saban’s greatest question for the group he coaches the most.
“You know, maturity and experience are important factors if they’re used correctly,” he said. “You can take your experience and create a comfort zone with it, which means that you’re not really using your experience to your advantage. If you have experience getting the ball thrown over your head, you don’t learn from that experience -- it doesn’t really do you much good.”
Barron is hopeful those misfires can be more of a motivating factor than that.
“It was just certain situations with certain things where certain guys didn’t know what to expect,” Barron said. “If that same situation comes up again, they might know what to expect.”
But, at least recently, the second two tiers of the defense saw its greatest success when the line ate up blockers and created mismatches. Terrence Cody, for example, drew double teams with regularity during the 2009 national championship run. That allowed linebackers Rolando McClain, Upshaw, and Eryk Anders more freedom and fewer detours to the backfield. The third pick in April’s NFL draft, defensive end Marcell Dareus, did much of that last year.
“I’m not sure we have those kind of dominating down guys right now,” Saban said. “ We have more linebacker types that are pass rushers. Courtney Upshaw is actually an outside linebacker who plays a lot of defensive end.”
Nose guard Josh Chapman returns along with occasional starting defensive ends Damion Square and Ed Stinson. Junior college transfers Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial could add power and replace Dareus and part-time starting defensive end Luther Davis.
Questions still remain for a few defensive ends who either started or provided depth in 2010. Kerry Murphy, a starter in six of the 12 games he played last fall, didn’t participate in spring practice because of a knee injury. He wasn’t listed in the media guide released Wednesday and messages regarding his status went unreturned by Alabama officials Friday afternoon. Darrington Sentimore, who made nine tackles last year, was suspended indefinitely last month.
How it adds up remains a mystery to Saban.
“You have to do all these other things in terms of preparation, how to rest, how to study, how you sort of master the plan so that you go out there and execute together as a group,” he said. “What’s the chemistry of the group going to be?”