TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It doesn’t seem long ago that Robert Lester and Dee Milliner were the young guys in the secondary, keeping their heads down and learning from old hands like Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick.
With that much talent ahead of Lester and Milliner, it was easy to watch and wait.
But in 2012, with Barron, Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie all off to careers in the NFL, the time for waiting is over. Now, the two young guys have made the rotation into old hands, veterans to shepherd along underclassmen still learning the position.
“We’ve got a lot of new guys out there who are anxious to get started, put the pads on, do what they know, and show how they can compete,” Lester said of the new crop of defensive backs. “Since I’m one of the only ones who came back – (Dee Milliner) came back – I just want everybody to be on the same page and I’m going to do whatever it takes that if they don’t know what’s going on, look back at me, and I’ll give you the call.”
Lester, who passed up the NFL after a solid junior campaign, said his role with the team has changed since his return. Without the safety net of Barron controlling the defense, he has had to step up and fill the void.
“It’s all about what the team needs and if leadership is something the team needs from me, I won’t think twice about stepping up,” Lester said. “Mark brought a lot of comfort and we didn’t have to make a lot of checks and recognize formations, but we’re capable of doing it. We’ve just got to actually do it, pay attention more, and not rely on somebody who’s not here anymore. We’re capable of doing it.”
Milliner, who has been thrust into a starting position with Kirkpatrick and Menzie gone, said the spring has gone well so far. With him being the only experienced defensive back on the roster, he said he’s been playing the left corner position, a spot usually reserved for the top cover guy.
The junior from Millbrook, Ala., said he remembers being the youngest player on the field his freshman year, learning from Javier Arenas, Justin Woodall and Barron. Now he can look around at any time and see mostly new faces.
And with that comes a sense of responsibility.
“I got to tell everybody what to do,” Milliner said. “Trying to just help the young guys out, since I’ve been there and done it. So, just trying to help them out so they get better.”
Yes, Milliner and Lester have been charged with handling a very inexperienced group, but they’re not your average first-year players. Two potential starters, Travell Dixon and Deion Belue, came to Alabama by way of junior college and already possess a firm grasp on the game.
Lester said he’s been impressed with their skill, adding that he puts his faith in coach Nick Saban when it comes to bringing in the best talent.
“They are athletes and Coach Saban trusted they could come in and play,” Lester said. “If he trusted they can, we will too. We’re going to do whatever we can do to encourage them, motivate them, let them know they can play here, and hopefully they can get on the right track and play here.”
Saban, who spends much of his time with defensive backs during practice, broke down how the unit was coming along on Monday afternoon.
“Deion Belue is a a really good cover guy and done a really good job,” Saban said. “Bradley Sylve is a young guy that looks like he's got some potential. Travell is doing a good job and getting better everyday too. Dee Milliner is one guy that's been very consistent and played well all spring. There's a lot of competition at the position.”
In 2011, the UA secondary allowed the fewest passing yards in the country. This year, Saban wants his group to be equal to the task.
“If there's a big play given up, somebody back there usually made some kind of mistake whether it was loss of leverage or didn't cover somebody correctly or whatever,” Saban said. “That's something we've been pretty good at in the past, especially last year, and something that will be challenging for this group to master and match.”
Lester said he hopes this year’s group can meet the challenge of being as good as the unit that won two championships in three seasons.
“That’s exactly what we’re working for,” Lester said. “We never want to take a step back. We always want to get better. Improve, make progress. We want to maintain everything we were number one in stats-wise last year, and look at our weaknesses and try to pick up on those things and get better.”