The faces may change on Alabama’s vaunted defense, but the standards don’t.
“If you’re going to play in this defense, you better be ready to live up to that standard every day,” Alabama senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. “Nobody wants to be the weak link and disrespect all those teams that came before us here.”
The defense that came before the one we’ll see for the first time this season Saturday night against Michigan and Denard Robinson will go down as one of the greatest in Alabama history.
The Crimson Tide ranked first nationally in all five of the major defensive categories last season, the first time that’s been done since Oklahoma did it in 1986.
Alabama suffocated opposing offenses a year ago en route to winning its second national championship in three years. The Crimson Tide held teams to an average of 3.32 yards per play. For perspective, everybody else in the FBS ranks was up over 4 yards per play.
“We’re all proud of what we accomplished last year, but we want to make our own mark with this defense,” Johnson said. “We’ve kind of got a chip on our shoulder because everybody’s talking about all the players we lost, Dont’a [Hightower], Mark [Barron], Dre [Kirkpatrick] and Courtney [Upshaw]. They’re not talking about the players who’re still here.”
Only four starters return from a year ago, and six of the seven starters the Crimson Tide did lose were selected in the NFL draft -- including four in the top 35 picks.
“That’s what supposed to happen here at Alabama. We lose great players to the NFL, but we have great players waiting to take their spots,” said junior Dee Milliner, who steps in as an every-down starter at cornerback after playing in the nickel last season.
“If you’re not ready, we move on to the next guy.”
And that’s not even counting newcomers such as junior college transfer Deion Belue at cornerback. The big move the Tide made this offseason was sliding Jesse Williams inside to nose guard, and he has a chance to be one of the most dominant interior defensive linemen in the league.
The unknown of replacing so many players is always an uneasy feeling for any coach, especially going into an opener with a dynamic offensive threat like Robinson on the other side.
The questions coach Nick Saban has about this Alabama defense don’t involve talent. Rather, they involve how quickly the first-time starters can adapt to everything being thrown at them.
“When you lack knowledge and experience, sometimes you make more mental errors,” Saban said. “What’s the consequence of that going to be? To me, that is the biggest thing I worry about when you don’t have a lot of experienced players and don’t have a lot of starters coming back.
“It doesn’t mean they’re not capable. It just takes a little time for them to develop. Sometimes, they can make the mistakes in practice and you correct them, but they always seem to have a greater impact when they make them in a game. Hopefully, we’ll be able to minimize that and play well as a unit.”
Facing a quarterback like Robinson out of the gate only raises the stakes. Johnson said former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is the only one he can think of that the Tide has faced in recent years who can break down defenses running the ball the way Robinson can.
“He’s not as big as Cam, but he’s faster and more elusive,” Johnson said. “When he’s outside the pocket is when he’s most dangerous because he can throw it better than a lot of people give him credit for.”
One of the keys Saturday will be how many times Robinson can dial up big plays on the Alabama defense and keep the Crimson Tide spread out.
Last season, Alabama simply didn’t give up big plays. But two years ago, when the Tide weren’t as experienced on defense, they had an uncharacteristic number of mental errors and gave up more big plays than usual.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re communicating and make sure we’re where we’re supposed to be,” Milliner said. “If we’re not, that’s when [Robinson] will make you look bad.”
Since the start of the 2010 season, Robinson leads all FBS players with 102 rushes of 10 yards or longer. Not since Ray Rice in 2006 and 2007 has a player in the FBS ranks had that many rushes of 10 yards or longer in a two-year span. Rice, now one of the top running backs in the NFL, had 106.
The flip side is that Alabama led the country last season in allowing opponents only 22 rushes of 10 yards or longer.
“We know what we’ve got to do and are really confident in our game plan,” Johnson said. “This is an opportunity to go out and show what this defense can do.
“We’re ready to create our own identity.”