2011 Alabama Preview – Defense
Alabama DE/LB Courtney Upshaw
Alabama DE/LB Courtney Upshaw
Posted Jul 5, 2011 2011 Preview - Alabama Crimson Tide Defense

Alabama Crimson Tide

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: The 2010 Alabama defense lost the Butkus Award winner (Rolando McClain), three NFL-caliber defensive backs, a mountain of a nose tackle in Terrence Cody, and only returned three starters. How massive was the drop-off after finishing second in the nation in total defense and scoring defense? The Tide finished last year fifth in the country in yards allowed and third in scoring defense. Granted, the consistency wasn't always there, but whatever … the production was outstanding. The talent level is off the charts, especially in the defensive back seven where Dont'a Hightower might be the nation's best linebacker if it's not his running mate, C.J. Mosley. The secondary has an embarrassment of riches led by safety Mark Barron and corner Dre Kirkpatrick, who should both be in the NFL right now, along with at least four other Tide defensive backs. The front three doesn't have a Marcell Dareus, but it's big, tough, and won't be moved, while Courtney Upshaw will be the pass rusher in a hybrid JACK position. In all, eight starters are back on Kirby Smart's D, and it'll be a stunner if it doesn't finish among the top five in the country again, if not No. 1 overall.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Mark Barron, 75
Sacks: Courtney Upshaw, 7
Interceptions: Robert Lester, 8

Star of the defense: Junior LB Dont'a Hightower
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior LB Jarrell Harris
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB C.J. Mosley
Best pro prospect: Hightower
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Hightower, 2) S Mark Barron, 3) CB Dre Kirkpatrick
Strength of the defense: Talent, Secondary
Weakness of the defense: Pass Rush, Tackles For Loss

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: The line loses tweener Marcell Dareus, who helped make one of the nation's best run defenses shine, but there's more than enough talent returning to pick up the slack. The defense uses a flexible 3-4 with the pass rushing mostly coming from the outside linebackers, but the front three could stand to get into the backfield a bit more. That's a constant issue for Nick Saban's defenses, but it's obviously not that big a deal considering the overall results.

With Dareus gone, the star of the front three should be senior Josh Chapman, a 6-1, 310-pound brick wall of a nose tackle who started every game up front after serving as the understudy behind Terrence Cody. Short, strong, and built with a body that can't be moved around, Chapman is experienced and exceptionally strong making 31 tackles with a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss. He's the rock against the run, while 6-1, 284-pound senior Nick Gentry is a bit more mobile and a bit more athletic on the inside. He saw time in every game making 14 tackles with a sack, and while he doesn't hold the fort like Chapman does, he's good in the spot.

Junior Damion Square is aback after starting over the first half of last year and serving as a backup over the second half of the year. The 6-3, 285-pounder suffered a torn ACL two years ago, but now he's more than fine and needs to use his size and quickness to be a bigger, more consistent playmaker at left end after making 31 tackles with a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss. He'll work in a rotation with 6-6, 294-pound junior Quinton Dial, who signed with Alabama out of high school a few years ago, went the JUCO route, and now is ready to show what he can do after dominating on the nose for Mississippi Community College. Talented enough to have gone anywhere he wanted, he has the wingspan, the strength, and the quickness to become a major factor right away and a good pass rusher.

6-4, 279-pound sophomore Ed Stinson is like a really big outside linebacker who'll play at right defensive end. He worked last year in the JACK position, getting the start against Duke, but he moved over to the defensive line and became a part of the backup rotation. Big, athletic, and extremely quick off the ball, he has the potential to be a devastating pass rusher after making 14 tackles last year. Backing him up will be 6-4, 319-pound junior Jesse Williams, a massive JUCO transfer from Western Arizona Community College who has the raw size and rare bulk, but is still trying to figure out what he's doing. The Australian swallows up everything that comes his way and has the athleticism and toughness to quickly become a major part of the defensive front.

Watch Out For … the JUCO transfers. Williams is a very, very interesting prospect with his size and athleticism, while Dial should push Square hard for one of the starting end jobs. Bama got itself some ready-made backups who should fit in perfectly.
Strength: Size. The Bama defensive front basically uses three defensive tackles, and while Stinson is a true end, even he's huge at 279 pounds. Good luck doing anything between the hashmarks when the 285-pound Square, the 310-pound Chapman, and the 319-pound Williams are in.
Weakness: Marcell Dareus. It's not like he was a pass rushing monster, and he's a better pro prospect than a college performer, but losing the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft isn't a positive, even for Alabama. The line has good prospects and players, but it needs an all-star campaign out of someone.
Outlook: The defensive front will do its typically fantastic job. The Tide should stuff the run without a problem thanks to all the size, while Stinson has the potential to be one of the best pass rushing ends in the Saban era. This won't be as good a line as it was in the national title season, and it might even take a bit of a dip from last year, but it'll be a brick wall.
Unit Rating: 8


State of the Unit: Last year the line had to replace Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain, but there wasn't even a little bit of a drop-off in overall production. Two starters return, the backups have superstar potential, and there are more than enough options to play around with. Even though a few of the pieces of last year's puzzle are gone, like Chavis Williams and DeQuan Menzie, the corps should be terrific.

The hope was for junior Dont'a Hightower to be 100% healthy after suffering a knee injury in 2009 and cutting his season short. There weren't any problems whatsoever as he came back roaring making 69 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss, three broken up passes, and nine quarterback hurries. At 6-4 and 260 pounds he's huge, fast, and tough in the middle of the linebacking corps with phenomenal range and peerless leadership ability. He could've taken off early for the NFL and he has top ten-overall potential in next year's draft, if he chooses to forgo his senior year, but for now he'll be on the short list for the Butkus Award and should be a lock for All-America honors. It would be nice if he was more of a pass rusher, but that's nitpicking; he's as steady as they come. Backing him up in the middle will be senior Chris Jordan, who couldn't stay healthy last season and finished with 15 tackles working mostly on the weakside. Like Hightower, he can work inside or out, but at 6-3 and 240 pounds he's perfect for the middle with size and toughness to hold up well.

With Hightower moving over from the weakside and taking the full-time job in the middle, 6-2, 234-pound sophomore C.J. Mosley appears ready to blossom into a star. Very fast, very athletic, and always working, he beefed up a bit and now should be better against the run while also getting all over the field chasing down ball-carriers. Even though he was a spot starter in the middle, getting the call against South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, he's better for the outside and showed he could do a little of everything finishing third on the team with 67 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, two picks, and ten broken up passes.

Backing up Mosley will be 6-3, 245-pound junior Nico Johnson, a huge athlete who started against Arkansas and has plenty of experience making 28 tackles in 2009 and with 33 tackles with a pick and 3.5 tackles for loss last season. A playmaker whenever he's in, he'll be moved around when needed, while 6-2, 242-pound true freshman Trey DePriest will get a long look at playing time after being ranked among the nation's top middle linebacker prospects and one of the biggest stars in Bama's great 2011 recruiting class. Big, fast, and very, very productive, the Tide got him out of Ohio where he made 218 tackles in his last two seasons and should be the team's next great linebacker once he's ready.

Shining at the JACK position, a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid, will once again be Courtney Upshaw, a 6-2, 265-pound pass rusher who'll always be known for sealing the 2009 national title with a fumble recovery against Texas. Last year he became the team's best pass rusher with seven sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss, and 52 tackles with four forced fumbles in a dominant season that should've gotten him more all-star recognition. Big, fast, and with great closing ability, he has the potential to be the team's statistical star with All-America potential. Working behind him will be 6-6, 237-pound redshirt freshman Adrian Hubbard, a tall, fast pass rusher who didn't get on the field last year after having injury problems, but is ready to go and should be dangerous whenever he gets his chances.

Starting on the strongside after several players combined for the spot last year will be Jerrell Harris, a do-it-all, jack-of-all-trades 6-3, 242-pound senior who came back from being suspended for the first half of 2009 to be a part of the rotation late in the championship season, and making 24 tackles with a tackle for loss last year. While he can work in the middle and started three games on the weakside, he'll start out the year on the other side while also serving as a top special teamer. Also in the hint for time is 6-3, 234-pound senior Alex Watkins, a good reserve who made 16 tackles with 2.5 sacks in his spot duty, mostly in garbage time.

Watch Out For … Mosley. Hightower is the signature star of the defense, but Mosley could turn out to be the more disruptive force. Able to work inside or out, he's a playmaker no matter where he lines up. Great against the pass, he'll do a little of everything.
Strength: Range. When Upshaw isn't getting into the backfield he should have no problems chasing people down. Hightower and Mosley are all over the field all the time, and Harris can more. Thrown in the athleticism of players like DePriest, Johnson, and Hubbard, and swarming to the ball won't be an issue.
Weakness: Huge, tone-setting plays. Outside of Upshaw there isn't a lot of pass rushing production from this group, and of the team's nine forced fumbles, Upshaw came up with four of them with no other linebacker registering one.
Outlook: If this isn't the best linebacking corps in America, it's close. Hightower and Mosley belong on NFL fields right now, and Upshaw has to potential to be a less-athletic Von Miller who'll be turned loose once again. Throw in the upside of players like DePriest and Hubbard, and the Tide linebackers are stunningly deep and very, very good.
Unit Rating: 9.5

Defensive Backs

State of the Unit: The 2010 Bama secondary lost three starters to the NFL and didn't get nearly the help from the pass rush that the 2009 defensive backs enjoyed, and the production was still terrific finishing 13th in the nation in pass defense and sixth in pass efficiency D. The inside word was that last year's defensive backfield was even more talented than the national title version, and now that talent should combine with experience to be phenomenal.

Senior Mark Barron came up with a terrific 2009 season making 76 tackles with seven picks, but he flew under the radar with all the other stars on the Bama defense. Now the 6-2, 218-pound strong safety will be on the Thorpe Award short list after leading the team with 75 stops with two sacks, three picks, and six broken up passes in a First Team All-SEC campaign. Very big, very fast, and with freakish athleticism, he can get all over the field at strong safety and he should be in for yet another huge year before being taken in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He'll be backed up by sophomore Jarrick Williams, who saw a little bit of time as a true freshman making one tackle in his four games of time. Mostly a special teamer, he struggled to stay healthy with a shoulder injury keeping him down. A superstar recruit last year, he has too much talent and athleticism to keep off the field.

After coming to Alabama as, arguably, the nation's top cornerback recruit in 2009, junior Dre Kirkpatrick appears ready to take another step forward to become one of the best defensive backs in college football. At 6-3 and 192 pounds he has tremendous size to go along with the NFL speed and athleticism to push around any receiver and run with the speedier ones. Great in the open field, he made 53 tackles with three picks and seven broken up passes, and while he's built to be a dream of a free safety, he'll spend one more college year – before going to the next level - as a lock-down corner.

After suffering a torn Achilles heel, 6-0, 198-pound senior DeQuan Menzie wasn't expected to be a major factor coming over from the JUCO ranks, but he got on the field from the start and ended up making 31 tackles with three tackles for loss and four broken up passes. Hamstring issues kept him down, but he still produced whenever he had his chances and now he has the potential to become a star. With elite athleticism and great size, he'll be a dangerous all-around defender at right corner or as a key nickel defender. He'll combine with sophomore Dee Milliner, who started most of last year at corner and finished fourth on the team with 55 tackles with a pick, four tackles for loss, and seven broken up passes. Consider one of the team's top recruits and almost everyone's No. 1 corner prospect last year, he showed right away that he's a big hitter and is a major playmaker who could shine anywhere.

Junior Robert Lester somewhat quietly came up with 52 tackles with sack and eight interceptions on the way to a Second Team All-SEC season. At 6-2 and 210 pounds he has good size to go along with the athleticism needed to get the next-level types interested. While he's steady, he came up with two key picks in the win over Arkansas and two more interceptions against Mississippi State. Junior Will Lowery will serve as the main backup after seeing time in every game and finishing the year with 33 tackles and two picks. A star on special teams, the 5-10, 180-pound former walk-on has carved a good niche.

On the way is Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, considered to be the nation's top safety prospect by the 6-1, 203-pounder out of Orlando can play either safety spot with linebacker-like hitting skills while exploding whenever he had the ball in his hands in high school. Really athletic and really quick, especially for his size, he could be used as a punt returner if needed.

6-0, 179-pound John Fulton might not have been the prospect that Milliner was last year, but he'd have been the crown jewel in just about anyone else's recruiting class. He could've gone anywhere, and now he'll push for time in the corner. With all the tools, he has the ability to carve out a role as a No. 5 defensive back after making five tackles with two broken up passes last year.

Watch Out For … Menzie. The former JUCO transfer came up with a nice year as a spot starter and a key reserve, but he's about to become a major star in an already star-studded secondary. He's a phenomenal athlete with the ability to make things happen whenever the ball is in the air.
Strength: Pure talent. It's not crazy to suggest that at least six current Alabama defensive backs will spend time in NFL camps in the near future with Barron, Kirkpatrick, Lester, and Clinton-Dix near-certain to make a lot of money. No secondary in America has more big-time players.
Weakness: Consistency. The overall production was tremendous and the talent level was undeniable, but the pass defense broke down in key times. Cam Newton finished with 216 yards and three touchdown passes in Auburn's comeback, and the Arkansas quarterbacks bombed away for 357 yards. The teams that had a real, live, passing quarterback, like South Carolina and Michigan State, were able to throw for 200 yards.
Outlook: Good luck throwing on this group. Kirkpatrick and Barron should be on several All-America short lists, while Lester is a conference all-star and Menzie and Milliner would be just about anyone else's No. 1 corner to work a defensive backfield around. It'll be a stunner if the Tide doesn't finish in the top ten in America in pass defense.
Unit Rating: 10

Special Teams

State of the Unit: Junior Jeremy Shelley had to step in as a true freshman and replace Leigh Tiffin, and he handled the extra points and worked as the short-to-midrange kicker nailing 12-of-16 field goals. Meanwhile, sophomore Cade Foster, who has more talent, was the long-range bomber connecting on seven of nine field goals, nailing five of seven from beyond 40 yards, while also serving as the kickoff specialist.

The punting game wasn't that awful, even though it finished tenth in the SEC averaging a pedestrian 36 yards per kick. Sophomore Cody Mandell walked on and took over the job, and while he wasn't great, he averaged 39.2 yards per kick and put 13 inside the 20. He was steady enough to get by and was decent at hanging it up in the air, forcing 15 fair catches.

The return game was terrific, finishing 19th in the nation in punt returns and 16th in kickoff returns. WR Marquis Maze will handle most of the duties after averaging 12.7 yards per punt return and 23.6 yards per kickoff return. Trent Richardson might be too busy handling running back duties to work as a returner, but he's the team's best kickoff returner averaging 26.4 yards per try with a score.

Watch Out For … the placekicking situation. It worked well last year with Foster doing the driving and Shelley handling the putting, but Foster is the more talented kicker and could be in charge of more than just the deep shots. If either one falters in any way, the other one will step up and be the man.
Strength: The return game. Averaging in the top 20 in both kickoff and punt returns is a major plus for a team that doesn't necessarily have to win the field position battle. Maze is a speedy, quick returner, and there's no shortage of athletes across the board to handle the work.
Weakness: Kickoff coverage. A major problem two years ago, it was a minor issue last year allowing 21.4 yards per kickoff return with a score. The bigger problem is a punting game that needs to get a little more blast.
Outlook: The special teams had a huge role in the national title run, and they should be fine again after a decent 2010. The placekicking should be solid with Foster and Shelley proven veterans who can handle the work, and Mandell a decent, steady punter. The return game has speedsters and the overall coverage improved after a lousy 2009.
Unit Rating: 7.5

- 2011 Alabama Preview | 2011 Alabama Offense
- 2011 Alabama Defense | 2011 Alabama Depth Chart
- Alabama Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006

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