Alabama secondary optimistic for 2014

Alabama’s pass defense was ranked 11th nationally last season. CW | Pete Pajor

Kevin Connell

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But thanks to injuries, suspensions and inexperience, that early-season shootout against Texas A&M proved to be one of a number of poor performances, including the 45-31 Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.

In an offseason where Alabama coach Nick Saban has preached about re-establishing the Crimson Tide’s identity, the secondary is surely one of the areas he has ?in mind.

“When you look out there this year, we seem to have, even though we lost a few players, more guys that have more experience,” Saban said. “I know those were some painful times that we all had to go through, but I think that those guys are more confident, and I think they can be more consistent this year. I think we have the addition of a few young guys that are really talented that are going to be beneficial as well.”

Joining the fray this season are the nation’s top two high school cornerbacks according to 247Sports, Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, and two highly-touted safeties, Laurence “Hootie” Jones and Ronnie Clark.

With top returning cornerback Eddie Jackson still recovering from an ACL tear in the spring, Brown, who enrolled in the spring, could become the first true freshman to start in the Crimson Tide secondary since Dee Milliner ?in 2010.

Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said experience isn’t the most important factor in playing at cornerback, giving Brown and Humphrey more than their fair chance, even as newcomers.

“I wouldn’t say that’s the toughest position [to learn quickly] for the players in our system because a lot of what you get is dictated by the formation of the offense,” Smart said. “You can give them that information. We don’t ask them to understand a lot of the checks and system they have to get through communication. They have to understand the word that the safety is calling.”

Other players competing at cornerback include Cyrus Jones, who made five starts last season, Bradley Sylve and Maurice Smith. Junior Landon Collins is expected to start at strong safety. Fifth-year senior Nick Perry and junior Geno Smith are competing at free safety, and both Jarrick Williams and Smith will likely see playing time at the “Star” and “Money” defensive back positions.

Gone from last season are veteran safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and cornerback Deion Belue, who was hampered by a turf toe injury. It will be the third consecutive season with at least two new starters in the ?secondary.

Though statistics show Alabama’s pass defense ranked 11th nationally last season, the struggles at times indicated much worse, which coaches and players alike recognized. The team remains optimistic about progress in that area in 2014, with many of the same faces back this season.

“It wasn’t a good year to have down corners,” Smart said. “I put them in a lot of tough situations in some games, and they made some plays on them. Those guys have all been through that, they know playing that position and the style of play that Alabama plays that that’s going to happen. We have to try and minimize that.

“And we have to minimize that by calls, we have to minimize that by making more plays at other positions. I think those guys understand the challenges, but you know what the great thing is? I think they get to go up against a better group of receivers every day in practice than anybody in the country.”