Spring practice preview: DBs

Freshman Landon Collins might work his way into some playing time in 2012. Brady Fontenot for ESPN The Magazine

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When spring practice begins tomorrow, no area on the University of Alabama roster will look more different than the secondary.

The unit that propelled the Tide to the No. 1 total defense in the country, due in large part to having the top-ranked pass defense, is largely gone. Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie take 75 percent of the unit to the NFL.

Despite the dearth of experience, UA must move forward and incorporate a talented group of underclassmen in time for the rigors of an SEC schedule.

The incumbents

Really, there’s just one. Robert Lester eased the minds of many Alabama fans when he decided to return for his senior season, rather than head to the NFL. The talented safety earned an honorable mention All-American selection for his 36 tackles, three pass breakups and two interceptions. His experience on the back side of the defense will prove crucial. Dee Milliner also returns, sliding right in at cornerback and picking up where he left off in 2011, starting six games and appearing in all 13 contests. He led the team with three interceptions to go with 9 pass breakups.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will get the chance to make a mark his sophomore year. The talented 6-foot-1 defensive back could compete for the second safety position. In 2011, he got in on eight games, finishing the year with 11 tackles, including five solo stops. Another talented sophomore, Vinnie Sunseri, is likely to get a long look at safety after his stellar freshman year. It will be interesting to watch his development after surprising so many by seeing the field in every game last season, starting on special teams before working his way into a backup spot at safety. Sunseri showed he’s a reliable tackler with a nose for the ball. He will find his way on to the field in 2012 one way or another.

The challengers

Alabama knew it had some holes to fill in the secondary coming into this year. That’s why the UA coaching staff looked to the junior college ranks for defensive backs in the 2012 recruiting class. The Tide signed two JUCO cornerbacks, Deion Belue and Travell Dixon, who both could make an immediate impact on the field this year. At 6-foot-2, Dixon has the size Alabama likes, and he has the ability to start opposite of Milliner his first year. Belue may not be as ready physically, but he was one of the fastest players in the Tide’s recruiting class and could slide in as a punt returner or kick returner.

The gem of Alabama’s class in 2012 had to be five-star safety Landon Collins. Not only was he regarded as one of the top prospects in the country, but UA stole the Louisiana native away from in-state LSU. There’s no doubt Collins has the talent to make a contribution as a true freshman. He could compete with Clinton-Dix for the safety spot opposite of Lester, but more than likely he will play the star position in the Tide’s nickel defense. Also, keep an eye on true freshman cornerback Geno Smith. Smith may not be ready to play one of the cover corner spots, but he’s expected to compete with Collins for time at the star position.