This one won’t start from scratch like the 2010 overhaul required. A pair of two-year starters returns from a group that could have two first-round NFL draft picks.
Also back are a few key reserves who saw action in the 2011 national title run. There were no such luxuries two seasons ago. Graduation and the NFL decimated the last championship-winning defensive backfield.
That forced true freshmen like cornerback Dee Milliner straight into the fire. He started 11 games that fall after learning the defense in spring practice. Now he joins safety Robert Lester as the veterans of an evolving group that includes a few former top prospects who had the luxury Milliner never experienced.
“That’s a very important aspect when you’ve got the backups out there because they’ve been out there before,” Milliner said. “They learned from the great backs that’s in front of them. They taught them things and they can teach other people, because they were out there in the situation that was behind those great leaders that we had.”
Milliner went from high school senior to Alabama starter in a matter of months in 2010. He enrolled early and ingested as much of the Tide’s famously complicated playbook as he could.
A few program newcomers are competing for the other cornerback position, but they at least have some college football experience. Junior college transfers Deion Belue and Travell Dixon are making progress, coach Nick Saban said, in the battle to replace Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie.
Belue, a Deshler High School graduate who played two seasons at Northeast Mississippi Community College, is “a real good cover guy,” Saban said.
John Fulton, who enrolled early with Milliner in 2010, is also working into the competition after two seasons of mostly special teams duty.
“Jonathan has done a good job and shown a lot of maturity,” Saban said. “He’s got a little more experience and knowledge. He made very good progress and shows a lot more confidence in his ability to play. But there is a lot more competition at the position.”
And there’s a little more at safety.
Without Mark Barron back deep, rising sophomores Vinnie Sunseri and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix appear to be stepping in. Clinton-Dix, a former 5-star prospect from Orlando, earned praise from Saban last fall for his work ethic and attitude. He played in all 13 games and made 11 tackles as a reserve.
Sunseri started as a dimeback in the Jan. 9 BCS championship win over LSU and earned a reputation on special teams. A linebacker in high school, Sunseri is still adjusting to the pass coverage aspect of playing safety. Tide receiver Kenny Bell compared him to a former Tide cornerback now playing in the NFL.
“Going against Vinnie, he reminds me of Javier Arenas,” Bell said. “He’s a tough player. He’s got the ability to come down and hit you, and he makes you better every day. He’s going to be a really good player for us on defense.”
The real test comes Saturday. The first of three spring scrimmages will yank the safety net from beneath the new guys. Milliner can’t forget how that felt two years ago.
“My first scrimmage that first year was rough, cause, like I said, I was put out there and didn’t really know everything,” he said. “But as I went, I caught on. So it was kind of rough at the beginning.”
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star. Follow him in on Twitter @UARollTide_Star