TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban doesn't want a repeat of 2010 in Tuscaloosa. No one at the University of Alabama does.
The Crimson Tide, fresh off their 13th national title and first since 1992, came back as the No. 1-ranked team in the country two years ago and stumbled out of the gates. The defense gave up crucial big plays and the offense wasn't as effective as the one that defeated Texas for the national title. Alabama ended up in the Capital One Bowl, and ever since it's been used as motivation for Saban, his coaching staff and the players.
As the start of a new season approaches and the long shadow of yet another title looms over the Tide, 2010 has been brought up again -- this time, in reference to the defense.
Alabama lost six starters to the NFL following the 2009 championship. This past season was no different, surrendering seven starters to the pros. As fall camp enters its second full week on the Alabama campus, a new crop of talent is emerging in an eerily similar manner.
When Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson bolted for the pros two years ago, junior college transfer DeQuan Menzie and sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick stepped in. As both Menzie and Kirkpatrick prepare for another stage in their careers, it's up to another veteran to step up and a junior college transfer to fill a need. Enter Dee Milliner and Deion Belue.
Milliner played heavily as a sophomore last season and is poised to catapult to the top of the depth chart. As is Belue, a highly-touted transfer who has drawn rave reviews from Saban.
The vision of new faces in the secondary has Saban seeing 2010 all over again, the parallels not lost on the meticulous head coach.
"It really reminds me a lot of two years ago when we got a new guy Menzie, Dre's a young player who started," Saban noted. "It's a work in progress. How quickly those guys develop is going to be really important to how successful we are on defense."
Vinnie Sunseri was a freshman on last year's defense, starring on special teams and playing a supporting role in the secondary. Now, he is one of the leading candidates to start at the star and money positions, along with Milliner, Jarrick Williams and true freshman Geno Smith.
Sunseri, for his part, said the defense, including the younger, more inexperienced players such as Smith, understand there can't be a letdown like the one two years ago. They have to learn in a hurry.
"We always have a standard at Alabama," Sunseri said. "We want to be fast, strong, relentless. Stop the run, play everything right. We're definitely working hard trying to do everything the right way, how coach Saban wants it."
Like Sunseri, Trey DePriest played special teams and learned on the fly as a backup linebacker a season ago. Entering his second season at Alabama, things have gotten easier for DePriest, but he understands he's only one player with experience in a group peppered with freshmen and sophomores just now glimpsing the upper rung of the depth chart.
"We're trying to help them out as much as we can," DePriest said. "They've been picking it up well in meetings and going out there and trying to execute it. I mean, sure, they're going to mess up. But they take the criticism well and they go back out there and bounce back and try not to make the same mistake twice."
Repeating the same mistake isn't something Saban is apt to do. As he looks around the secondary, there's inexperience but there's also talent. If, a year from now, he's looking at a similar problem, that's probably a good result. You only lose talent when it has proved its worth.
Arenas went pro, so did Kirkpatrick. Now, it's Milliner and the rest of the secondary's turn to follow their lead.
"Anytime you see a fellow teammate that gets picked up in the draft, whether it’s in the first round or second round or wherever it may be," Milliner said. "For them to get drafted and you be alongside them playing with them, that motivates you to go out there and want to compete and be in the same suit that they’ll be in once it comes your time."