TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban opened spring practice by saying it was a time for re-invention. When you lose 25 percent of your team each season, it has to be. Who would be this team's leaders? Who would be the ones to step up and set an example?
Then, in the next breath, the head coach of the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide spoke about three players trying their hands at new positions. Running back Dee Hart and wide receivers Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones are all playing cornerback this spring. And through three practices, they've done their best to pick up the new, yet somewhat familiar position.
"Coming out of high school they were athletes, so it was a smooth transition," he said, "because they've played on defense before. It's not their first time."
But for the secondary as a whole, it might as well be starting from scratch. Milliner is gone, as is veteran safety Robert Lester. Even rising senior cornerback John Fulton is out for the spring as he recovers from surgery on his toe, leaving few experienced options for Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to work with. Thus the experiment with Hart and the Jones receivers. Belue isn't guaranteed anything after an up-and-down first season, and though rising sophomore Geno Smith played well down the stretch, he's not being handed anything. Competition, Belue said, is at a premium.
"It's the University of Alabama," Belue said matter of factly. "All we do is compete all year around. In the summer, spring -- it doesn't matter. If the spot is there, just put your best foot forward and we'll see who comes out with it."
Even rising junior safety Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix is battling for starter's reps. Though he started 10 of 14 games at free safety and finished strong with a standout performance against Notre Dame in the championship game, he's not considering himself a shoo-in. Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri, Nick Perry, Landon Collins and Jarrick Williams are competing for two spots.
"There's a lot of competition going on," Clinton-Dix said, adding that Hart, his former high school teammate, is coming along quickly and recovering well from back-to-back knee operations. "The safeties, the corners -- like I said, no one has a starting job. So everyone is out there competing, going after it, balls to the wall, so you never know who could step up and who could step down."
Collins is one player poised to rise up the depth chart. The former top-rated prospect in the 2012 signing class and the No. 1 safety in the country played primarily on special teams last season. But with Lester gone, he has his chance. So far, he's earned the praise of his teammates.
"Landon’s coming along very well," Clinton-Dix said. "He’s maturing a lot. He loves the playbook now. He’s competing.
"He’s fast, he's strong, he can break on the ball really well -- he has it all down pat."
Whether that will translate to game situations remains to be seen.
Said Saban: "It takes time. We're very patient with the players we have."
He'll have to be, with so many new and young faces. He's called the team a work in progress, and for a coach who specializes in the secondary, that's where it will start. Thankfully for him, he has the spring to get his affairs in order.
"We feel like we can make a lot of progress toward getting where we want to be by the end of the spring," Saban said. "Then being able to work on the things that they need to do over the summer so we have an opportunity to continue to progress in the fall."