Editor’s note: Every Tuesday and Thursday between now and national signing day, TideNation will review each position and look at who figures to start, who could rise up the depth chart and who might be on the way. Today we’ll look at the safeties.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's hard to imagine that Robert Lester came to Alabama in the same recruiting class as his high school teammate Julio Jones. Lester, now a fifth-year senior is about to compete in his final collegiate game while Jones is set to play in the Pro Bowl in his second season with the Atlanta Falcons.
The two friends took the same track but at vastly different speeds.
It's been a long career for Lester, who was widely viewed as a throw-in to sign Jones out of South Alabama. But the soft-spoken safety's talent eventually came through. After redshirting his first season and playing sparingly in 2009, Lester hauled in eight interceptions in 2010 and became known as one of the best defensive backs in the SEC.
"He's pretty much the general back there, telling everybody what they need to do, how they need to do it," UA linebacker Nico Johnson said. "He's holding everybody back there to a standard."
When Lester leaves school to enter the NFL draft in the coming weeks, he'll create a vacuum of experience at the position. But the safeties will also have to deal with the loss of their position coach. Jeremy Pruitt, who worked almost exclusively with the safeties, will leave to become the defensive coordinator for Florida State after the BCS title game.
The position that always had a constant in Lester will now have to find a new way in 2013.
Battling for No. 1: Given the way coach Nick Saban has rotated in defensive backs, Alabama won't be without options to fill Lester's role as strong safety. Nick Perry, Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri have all spent time in the back end of the defense this season. Perry is the purest free safety but doesn't have the top-end talent of Clinton-Dix who played more and more down the stretch. Suneri went the other direction late in the season, coming on primarily as a nickel defender after showing lapses in pass coverage. Freshman Landon Collins, a five-star safety prospect in the 2012 class, is the wild card. He's talented enough to play either strong or free and will likely compete to step in where Lester left off.