Editor's note: This is Part II in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Alabama faces this offseason.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There are a lot of things that make Alabama's defense work. Contrary to Nick Saban's public assertions, it's a difficult scheme to learn -- many players have said so -- because it's filled with so many moving parts. There's the disguised coverage on the back end, the pressure that comes off the edge, and the idea that fitting the gaps is priority No. 1.
But one of the linchpins in Saban's system is that of a shutdown cornerback. Saban himself would shudder at the term "shutdown corner," but that's what it takes for his defenses to go from good to great. Every top Alabama defense since his arrival has featured one, from Javier Arenas to Dre Kirkpatrick to Dee Milliner. This past season it looked like Deion Belue might have developed into that type of guy, but he didn't and we all saw how that affected the defense against the pass.
"We are not used to that," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said of not having consistent play at cornerback. "We've kind of always had one key guy with all the first -round, second-round corners we've had, we've always had a staple guy there, then kind of an understudy that was the other one who was an up-and-coming corner. Hasn't been that way this year. It's been frustrating. Some of that has been because of injury.
"Deion we feel like has been our best corner, but he's been in and out because of injury. Opposite him, it's been musical chairs. Eddie Jackson played pretty well. But he also got injured so it pulled him out for a while. We've had other guys play well one game, not play well the next. We've not gotten the consistency we want out of that position. And we don't have the depth that we've had in the past, so it's been a struggle."
With so much of Alabama's defense turning over this spring -- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Belue are all gone from the secondary -- it's vital that Smart and Saban establish who the one-two punch at cornerback will be. In fact, outside of finding a starter under center, finding an anchor at cornerback is arguably the second biggest challenge facing the Tide this offseason. Otherwise we'll continue to see more poor performances against the pass like we saw against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
The good news for Alabama is that there's plenty of young talent at cornerback and a decent mix of veterans to rely upon in soon-to-be juniors Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve. Though Jones struggled at times last season, let's not forget that it was his first full season on defense since joining the Tide. And Sylve didn't play half bad when called upon either. Had he not developed a high ankle sprain, he might have been a more regular starter.
But the more intriguing bets are on either Maurice Smith or Jackson, the two true freshmen who saw the most significant time at cornerback in 2013. Smith played in all 12 games to Jackson's seven appearances, but Jackson was the first to start at corner, doing so Week 4 against Colorado State and then again the following week against Ole Miss. He fell off the map after that, succumbing to an injury and what Saban said was something of a rookie regression, but he'd come back and start again in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma.
Beyond Jackson and Smith, there are a few other options. Both Anthony Averett and Jonathan Cook will benefit from redshirting their first year on campus, and early enrollee Tony Brown, a five-star prospect out of Texas, will look to compete for a job right away.
Be on the lookout for position changes, too, as last spring Saban moved Cyrus Jones, Dee Hart and Christion Jones from wide receiver to defensive back. With Lane Kiffin taking over as offensive coordinator, could someone like ArDarius Stewart be asked to try his hand on defense?
We'll see what changes are made come spring practice. Smart and Saban have plenty of pieces to move around, but finding the right fit won't be easy. The hope has to be that somewhere among the bunch will emerge a shutdown corner they can rely upon and build around.
Read Part I: Find a quarterback