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Challenges on defense

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- After five seasons with the University of Alabama, Kirby Smart hasn't slowed down. On the practice field, he still screams and cusses his players when they're out of position or using bad form, he still jumps up and down and hugs their neck when they finally get it right.

His boyish flop of hair bounces up and down as he shuffles around the linebackers, showing them how to complete the drill. He adjusts his visor and moves cones around for another exercise, barking orders at his assistants fumbling to get in position.

By the time he's done, his voice has given out, his energy seemingly spent, the weary look of a coach having put in a full day's work.

That was just Day 2 of preseason camp. Monday marked the halfway point: 12 practices down, 13 to go.

This season hasn't been like the previous one for Smart, Alabama's spirited defensive coordinator. The most vocal leaders have since left. Dont'a Hightower and Mark Barron could run the defense in their sleep after four years under Smart and head coach Nick Saban.

Now, the 36-year-old career assistant walks on the practice field to unfamiliar faces. He recruited many of them, and now the fun part is just beginning. Now, he gets to see if all the hard work getting them here will pay off.

The good news is he has recruited very well the last few seasons, stockpiling four- and five-star recruits as if the athletic complex was his own personal safe deposit box. But having so much talent can be a double-edged sword.

The Alabama defense in 2011-12 was historically effective. It finished No. 1 in all four major statistical categories: Scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and rushing defense. It pitched the first shutout in the national title game, making LSU's beloved Mad Hatter out to be a bumbling Elmer Fudd on that day in New Orleans.

The defense, quite obviously, raised the bar.

And from where Smart sits, that might not be a good thing, nor is it fair.

"This defense is different than last year's, as you all know," Smart said when he met with the press on Alabama's media day. "I'm sure you'll talk about it. That defense is gone and we're not holding these guys or making any comparisons to that defense."

That's good news considering seven starters must be replaced -- all of them in NFL camps.

"They're being held to the Alabama defensive standard, not the 2011 defense standard," Smart added.

The Alabama standard isn't easy to live up to either. The Crimson Tide have finished in the top five nationally in total defense each of the last four seasons.

Keeping up that pace starts with securing the back end of the defense, because there's no covering up a weak secondary.

Alabama lost three starting defensive backs from a season ago, two of them first-round draft picks. Saban has drawn comparisons to the 2010 defense that lost Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson to the NFL. That defense, while effective, surrendered a number of big plays that would cost Alabama a shot at defending its title. A repeat of that isn't what anyone wearing crimson is hoping for.

"Any time you've got the back end of your defense, those are the areas the rest of the world sees," Smart said. "You don't see a guy mess up up front, you don't see a linebacker mess up sometimes. When that guy on the back end -- which I played back there -- messes up, everybody knows your number, everybody knows your name.

"Those are the mistakes that usually cost you games."

Smart said he's optimistic that sophomore Vinnie Sunseri can step in at safety and be a strong last line of defense.

"Vinnie has done a great job adjusting in that role," Smart said. "He's not Mark Barron, he's not trying to be Mark Barron; he's trying to be Vinnie and he's done that well. [He] makes a lot of big plays."

It helps that Sunseri will have senior Robert Lester beside him at safety, one of the few holdovers from a season ago.

Linebackers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley are two more who returned to Tuscaloosa, but the unit as a whole is still very green. Smart knows it won't be the same without All-Americans Courtney Upshaw and Hightower carrying the load. Xzavier Dickson, Adrian Hubbard and D.J. Pettway have shown promise, Smart said, while hedging his bets.

"Those are some names, we've got to keep developing those guys," Smart said. "They have to change the game on third down. We've got to have a change up and say, 'Hey, we're not going to be heavy and hit you in the mouth, we're going to try and run around you."

Smart looks at it like a challenge. After five seasons in Tuscaloosa, it might be his biggest yet.

For his part, Saban believes his coordinator is up for the test. The tools are in place. It's up to Smart and Saban to sharpen them to a point and prepare them for battle before kickoff against Michigan in less than three weeks.

"Kirby has always demonstrated is whatever the quality of player, whatever the level of experience that we have on our team, we've gotten to where we've been able to get those players to play to their full potential," Saban said. "I think that's the challenge that we have this year, and Kirby will do a great job of helping us get there."