'Bama secondary looking to exceed last year's group in quest for a title
Despite losing Mark Barron, others to the NFL, the 'Bama secondary is dominating
Robert Lester leads a unit that currently tops the nation in pass efficiency defense
Heading into LSU, Tide DBs want to prove they're just as good as last year's group
The only light in the hotel room Friday night is the glow from the flat-screen. Whatever football game happens to be on, Robert Lester watches it, unwinding one last time before sleeping and then revving it up again for Alabama's clinically malevolent defense. Then there is a rustling in the other bed. Then Vinnie Sunseri is on the floor, in the gloom, doing push-ups and sit-ups. As to why his teammate does this, Lester remains in the dark.
"I gotta get a workout in," Sunseri will say.
"Man," Lester will say in reply, "you need to get rest."
But rest never comes, not in those wee-hour moments in hotels, not on practice fields when the slightest misstep earns rebuke and not on Saturdays that have become surgical deconstructions. There are relentless pursuits of perfection, and then there is the secondary for top-ranked Alabama's top-ranked defense, a group of disparate personalities and experience levels aligned in lock step, a unit always in Cover Whew.
Heading into this week's showdown at LSU, the Crimson Tide ranks No. 1 nationally in pass defense and pass efficiency defense. Only three teams are harder to complete a pass against, percentage-wise. Only four teams have more interceptions than Alabama's 14. It is the consequence of hard work from HaHa and the "Workhorse," from the "Small Bully" and his veteran brother overseeing it all. They are not alike except on weekends, when they are instinctively and inflexibly in synch.
"It's the most disciplined secondary I've ever faced," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "Regardless of what zone fires come or coverages they're in or whatever kind of deception you give them with motion or looks, they do not get out of position or blow coverages. I see that sometimes they're aggressive and go for balls and sometimes misplay the ball a bit, but if that's the worst thing you can say about a defensive backfield, they're doing a real good job. They're so disciplined and they understand exactly what their job is with every single scheme they have."
Now would be the time to mention that Alabama's secondary returned just one starter from 2011: Lester, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound safety and oracle for the 2012 unit, given his 26 career starts entering the year. Gone is safety Mark Barron, a two-time All-America and the seventh overall pick in 2012 NFL draft. Gone also are cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick, another first-round pick, and DeQuan Menzie, a fifth-rounder. After winning the BCS title in January, the Tide, it seemed, rolled out.
So in came some things old and some things new, and one thing both borrowed and Belue. Lester held down his spot and now ranks eighth in program history with 13 interceptions. He mentored Sunseri, who is now Alabama's second-leading tackler as a sophomore. Fellow sophomore HaHa Clinton-Dix emerged as starting safety and has two picks, while juco transfer Deion Belue has started all eight games at one cornerback slot and Dee Milliner, a 2010 starter, came out with the first-team defense in all seven games he's played. Milliner has recorded two interceptions and a team-high 13 pass breakups, more than twice as many as the next best total.
Like every other position group, Alabama's defensive backs compete internally for "Production Points" accrued based on plays made during games. That explains some of their success. But not nearly all of it. "At the beginning of the season, we had a lot of naysayers," Lester said. "Nobody thought this group could match last year's group. I think a lot of the young guys are feeding off that. When you have somebody telling you you're not going to be as good as the last guys, it's going to motivate you to work hard and try to be better. This group is trying to prove that."
The message of rigorous attention-to-detail was absorbed immediately. The young-meets-old dynamic has a proven, well, dynamic. "We do have a couple guys that have played a lot of football, Robert Lester and Dee Milliner, and those guys set a really good example," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "They're good leaders, they've made the younger guys very aware how important it is to prepare properly for the game and have a good understanding of what we need to do to be successful. You always want to play with good fundamentals on the back end especially, because of the skill level of people you play against. That's really helped our young guys develop."
This collision of personalities with different polarities somehow resulted in a positive charge. It begins with Lester and Milliner, indeed, close friends for years. On the field, they are the equivalent of really fast, really athletic crotchety old men bellowing at each other, because that is how they communicate. Lester calls the 5-11, 179-pound Milliner the "Small Bully," based on the spitfire cornerback's tendency to yell at anyone for transgressions large and small.
"He's going to be seen," Lester said of Milliner. "You're going to look for him whenever you mess up. He can't really bully me, because I'm on top of my game, and he has to listen to me to get the call. If he starts anything with me, I'll tell him I won't give him a call."
Which is fine. Milliner turns his attention to the rest of the group. Everything from on-field mistakes to wearing earrings or forgetting to remove a hat in meeting rooms to donning tank tops upstairs in the football building in the incurs his wrath. If a player doesn't complete a tackle in practice, Milliner reminds him that if he isn't finishing plays, he should get off the field. "I always yell at guys who violate the rules that we have around here," Milliner said. "Just messing with guys, keeping it fun. But at the same time, it's all business."
This mentality applies particularly to Sunseri, the "Workhorse" of the group. During the summer, Alabama players lifted weights and ran in the morning and then ended the day with a 7-on-7 afternoon workout. At least, most of them did. Sunseri hit the weight room again for another session. "If you want to be the best, hang out with Vinnie," Lester said. "He pushes himself to the extreme."
Comic relief, fittingly, arrives via HaHa. The 6-1, 209-pound Clinton-Dix reminds Lester of his old partner, Barron, in how much he keeps to himself. Unlike Barron, Clinton-Dix's keen sense of humor deflects the ire of teammates and coaches. Last weekend against Mississippi State, Clinton-Dix undercut a receiver, seeking the interception. His timing was off and the pass was completed.
When Clinton-Dix returned to the sideline, Saban was waiting. Trainers might have done hearing-loss appraisals of Clinton-Dix afterward, so in-the-red was the Crimson Tide coach. But as he approached his teammates after the tongue-lashing, Clinton-Dix's eyes went wide and he raised his eyebrows with a small smirk. "I'm definitely not letting that happen again," he deadpanned.
"Just by him saying that, and the way he looked when he said it, it had every DB over there laughing," Lester said.
And all this coalesces in stone-serious preparation. In pre-practice film work, the defensive backs will be assured that the offense won't run trick plays. Then the offense will run trick plays, specifically to test the secondary's discipline and reads. "If they get out, we know somebody wasn't doing what they were supposed to do," Milliner said. "That's when the coaches step up and tell [the player] that he should have done this, know your assignment, stay at home."
It's a fool-me-once, shame-on-me, fool-me-twice, we'll-plug-in-a-different-five-star-guy philosophy that sucks the oxygen out of any room for error. "They're certainly well-schooled, they seem to be in great position, there's a real understanding of adjustments," LSU coach Les Miles said. "You seldom get them in positions where they're not capable of coverage."
When Lester recorded his latest interception, the first person to jump on his head was Sunseri. Clinton-Dix followed with a tackle that wouldn't show up in any scoresheets. These are the moments that remind the Crimson Tide's stalwart senior safety of his first couple seasons in Tuscaloosa, when he redshirted and waited his turn. He remembers being impossibly eager. He remembers getting on the field and, finally, getting his chance. Now he sees a restocked and revitalized Alabama secondary putting doubts to rest, with a chance to add an exclamation point Saturday.
"They're eager to show the world," Lester said, "just like I was."
Brian Hamilton is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. You can follow him at @ChiTribHamilton.
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