The statistics aren’t quite as sterling as a year ago, but then again, the Crimson Tide’s 2011 defense set a standard that few may reach. That team led the nation in total yards, points, rushing yards and pass defense, and only one other team (1986 Oklahoma) led all four categories that since the NCAA began keeping track of national statistics in 1937.Even so, Alabama ranks first nationally this season in total yards and rushing defense and second in points. The 2012 defense allowed 63 more yards a game than the 2011 version, but if you’re curious how Alabama made the BCS National Championship Game for the third time in four years, point to a group that somehow produces big numbers despite having a mostly revamped lineup.
For defensive end Damion Square, a senior captain, it’s hardly puzzling a Nick Saban defense would produce even if several different guys than before are wearing the crimson jerseys.
“We’re great players that are fortunate enough to get scholarships and come here and play in his system,” Square said. “We bought in and give credit to that guy to get 11 guys to buy into his system and play shutout football. We’re great players and great players come to this university. And this university is great. But credit to Coach Saban and what he does here and the system he runs.”
Alabama lost seven starters from a year ago, including six who NFL teams took in the first five rounds of the annual draft. Safety Mark Barron, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick went in the first round. Outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw went in the second, while noseguard Josh Chapman and cornerback DeQuan Menzie were taken in the fifth.
The only starter who wasn’t drafted? Linebacker Jerrell Harris, who spent the season on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad.
Three full-time starters returned, including senior safety Robert Lester, who was set for his third season on the first team. Square has started since midway through the 2010 season. Tide senior Jesse Williams returned after starting full-time at defensive end last year but he switched to noseguard.
Cornerback Dee Milliner and linebackers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley — a pair of juniors — returned after starting part-time in 2010 and 2011. Those three, Square and Lester are the only five guys on this year’s defense who played much in 2010, either as a reserve or a starter.
For Saban, the lack of experience didn’t bother him as much at the start as lack of consistency.
“When you have a young team, I think you’re going to basically do how well your team learns to execute on a consistent basis,” Saban said. “I think that’s probably one of the biggest goals that we have every fall camp.”
But Alabama managed to find consistency in every section of its defense. Newcomers provided it on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
Junior Ed Stinson started all 13 games at end and ranked second with 8.5 tackles for loss. Sophomore linebacker Adrian Hubbard started 12 of 13 games and ranked first with 10 tackles for loss. Sophomore middle linebacker Trey DePriest started 12 games and made 56 tackles, which are second on the team. Junior college transfer Deion Belue started all 13 games at cornerback, made two interceptions and broke up six passes, which ranked second.
Those four started only a combined two games before this season. Stinson had a couple of token starts early in 2010 but struggled and fell out of the playing rotation.
A couple of stars emerged, too. Mosley and Milliner each spent 2010 and 2011 as role players but turned into consensus first-team All-Americans this season. Mosley led the team in tackles with 99, while Milliner broke up 18 passes.
Both have long since reached that point Saban calls the “I got it” moment, when everything they’ve learned begins to fit together and they understand what they’re supposed to do.
Saban said when Milliner makes a rare mistake, he realizes it before a coach starts correcting him.
“That’s always a good thing because that means a guy has good experience and a good understanding of what’s expected of him,” Saban said. “He’s a really good player, he’s played well for us, and is probably one of the better corners in the country.”
Mosley wasn’t an every-down linebacker because Alabama doesn’t include him in its base 3-4 defense. Even so, Saban estimates the Tide used its base defense only about 20 percent of the time, and for the remaining 80 percent, Mosley took the field.
He played so well his teammates voted him the Crimson Tide’s most valuable player. In 13 games, Alabama’s coaches voted him one of the team’s players of the game 10 times. No other Tide player got more than five awards.
“C.J.’s a great guy on and off the field,” Williams said. “He’s a leader vocally and he leads by example. … He’s an unselfish guy. He does his job, just like everyone else. He’s a physical freak and he gets things done for the team. He’s a great guy and I think he deserved MVP — 100 percent.”
Other young players emerged in the secondary, including sophomore HaHa Clinton-Dix, sophomore Vinnie Sunseri, junior Nick Perry, junior John Fulton and freshman Geno Smith. All five weren’t consistent parts of the regular rotation until this season, but as Alabama used five and six defensive backs at a time more and more, they became about as important as the full-time starters.
But even with different personnel, the philosophy remained the same, according to Johnson: Stop the run, and everything else will fall into place.
He said he and his teammates always gotten their best work at this while going against their own offense, which wants to run the ball first.
“In order to make a team one-dimensional, we’ve got to stop the run,” Johnson said. “Every Tuesday and Wednesday we go at it. When fourth period comes around, it’s competitive, and both sides don’t want to lose. That’s what makes us so good at stopping the run or running the ball because we do it everyday full throttle, and it’s just best on best. When we get in the game, it’s easy to us and we just want to go out and show that we can do it.”
Saban said the key to it all was getting these young players to go out and play — no worries about what mistakes they might make. He said that’s always the biggest chore every year with young players.
“When I went over to visit the Mercedes plant for the first time and they gave me a tour of the plant, they had this clothesline working through the whole assembly line,” Saban said. “I said, ‘Well, what’s that for?’
“And they said, ‘Well, we don’t have very many cars that need working on when we get finished here because of what our quality control is. Whatever you’re doing at your station, if it’s not working exactly right, you pull the cord. We stop the assembly line. We reengineer that circumstance so that we fix it, so that we don’t do things incorrectly.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s great. That sounds wonderful. What’s the biggest problem?’ Getting people to pull the cord, because nobody wants to think that their part of it’s not working, that they’re doing it wrong, that they’re not doing it the right way.
“You’ve got all these new players that don’t know what they’re doing, but they don’t want anybody to think they don’t know what they’re doing so they become very risk aversive and sort of don’t go play fast and don’t want to make a mistake.”
Saban doesn’t mind the occasional mistake, especially when they come with the results he’s getting from his defense.