April 10, 2007

Mid-Spring Progress Report: Defense

With the completion of last Friday's scrimmage at Bryant-Denny Stadium, the Alabama Crimson Tide sailed past the midway point of spring drills. Head coach Nick Saban will put his team through six more practices before the Tide wraps up a run of 15 workouts with the annual A-Day game on April 21.

Today, BOL provides a Mid-Spring practice progress report for the Alabama defense.

Secondary: The Tide lost two long-time contributors in the secondary to graduation but they gained the personal attention of head coach Nick Saban, known for his expertise when it comes to coaching defensive backs. The Tide entered the spring with plenty of raw talent in the secondary but not much experience or proven playmaking ability.

Saban hopes that will change this season with the implimenting of his defense that utilized the safety position in a number of ways, including blitzes and run support. Rashad Johnson has the athletic ability and toughness to fill the role of the multi-talented safety in Saban's defense while Marcus Carter has impressed Saban with his coverage skills and his physical approach to the position.

At the corners, Simeon Castille came into the spring riding high having put in what his coaches felt was a very solid effort winter workouts. That momentum appears to be carrying over well into the spring as Castille continues to be the most explosive playmaker on the Tide defense, returning a fumble for a touchdown during Friday's scrimmage.

Opposite Castille, Lionel Mitchell has established himself as the Tide's best option at right corner. After Castille, Mitchell was the Tide's most productive defensive back last season and his nose for making big plays continue to serve him well. Eric Gray has received plenty of work at the right corner spot as well but has been limited somewhat as of late due to injury, while sophomore Marquis Johnson appears to be developing nicely into a solid backup that could be destined for playing time this fall.

Mid-Spring Position Status: Satisfactory

Linebackers: The 3-4 defense has led to a bit of realignment for a few members of the Tide linebacker corps, including the notable addition of two former defensive ends.

Playing the strongside is receiver-turned-lineman-turned-linebacker Ezekial Knight who appears to have found a home as a hard-hitting, playmaking linebacker. Knight's size and athleticism give him the speed and power he needs to be a powerful force on the Tide defense and his name has been mentioned by both his teammates and his coaches as one of the best surprises of the spring so far.

At middle linebacker, Prince Hall continues to show a strong presence as a run-stopper and as a playmaking blitzer and he'll attempt to follow up his award-winning freshman season with an even better sophomore effort.

Darren Mustin has used his superior athletic ability and physical play to work his way up the depth chart at weakside linebacker, though he'll have some on-the-job learning to do if he can hold onto the job in the fall.

Lining up at the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker or "Jack" position is converted end Keith Saunders whose speed and strength make him a terror for offensive linemen to handle coming off the edge. As the first player to play the position under Saban's new defense, Saunders will define the role of the "Jack" for the Crimson Tide defense and no one on the team appears better suited to taking on the challenge.

Mid-Spring Position Status: Satisfactory

Defensive Line: Saban identified early on the disturbing lack of depth on the Tide's defensive front and while the situation is still less than ideal, some carefully chosen personnel moves have already made the unit much stronger than when spring practice began.

The greatest issues lie at the crucial nose tackle position where the Tide faced having to replace the top three players from last season. To top it off, both Lorenzo Washington and Byron Walton, both of whom might be considered leading candidates for the job, are limited this spring as they recover from off-season injuries. After starting the spring at offensive center, redshirt freshman Brian Motley was moved to the nose tackle position and has taken to the position surprisingly well. After only a few days, Motley's energy and physicality earned him high praise from Saban and his teammates and may have earned him starting honors at the spot when A-Day rolls around.

At the defensive end spots, the Tide returns two seasoned veterans in Wallace Gilberry and Bobby Greenwood. With limited depth behind them, Gilberry and Greenwood will need to come through as leaders on the line and use their toughness and desire to help shore up the Tide's thin frontlines.

Mid-Spring Position Status: Needs Improvement

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