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December 31, 2010ORLANDO _ For University of Alabama sophomore safety Robert Lester, the coming of age really began at A-Day.
As a freshman he had almost exclusively played on special teams and the speed of the spring scrimmage initially threw him a little, but he soon settled in and held his own. It was that Saturday afternoon that Lester fully realized he could defend Julio Jones, keep up with Marquis Maze and bring down Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner.
It only made sense that if he could play well with them he could play against anyone.
So when the 2010 season actually began there really was no "Hey I can do this" moment because he already had the confidence, and when offenses challenged him Lester responded with seven interceptions to displace teammate Mark Barron as the Southeastern Conference's leader.
"I think it was more (them) staying away from Mark, with Mark being the bigger threat," Lester said. "I'd say they were pretty much throwing away from him."
Saturday, when the Crimson Tide faces Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, the secondary won't have Barron, who is not only a team co-captain and All-American but was the unit's safety net as the lone returning starter.
Instead, a lot of the of that leadership responsibility will fall to Lester _ the guy who still relishes his first career interception in the opener against San Jose State and remains irked by his return against Penn State, when after 89 yards he was caught from behind and lost the ball.
"I'll never forget that one," he said. "I could smell touchdown."
He wasn't the only one to experience growing pains this past year.
Offensively, with two new starters the line didn't have the same continuity and combined with everyone being sidelined by an injury at some point the running game wasn't the same. Things didn't click as hoped among the defensive front seven either. Junior defensive end Marcell Dareus was suspended for the start of the season, junior pass-rusher Courtney Upshaw had a problematic high ankle sprain, junior linebacker Dont'a Hightower was still getting up to speed after knee surgery last year and true freshman C.J. Mosley ended up taking over the middle.
The bullseye of being reigning national champions in addition to facing seven straight opponents coming off byes weeks didn't help, but through it all the biggest concern was always the revamped, young secondary that had very little depth.
"Probably for the most part we tried to cover up for those guys a lot throughout the year," defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. "Statistically we had a good year, but I don't think we did what we needed to do as far as pressure the quarterback, or tackles for a loss, we could have done a lot better in those area.
"All in all I'm proud of the kids, the way they communicated, and they got better throughout the year and it's coming together now."
Think back for a moment to what the unit looked like heading into the fall. The closest thing Barron has to a familiar face among the expected starters was sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who played in 12 games last season and made eight tackles, six on special teams. The next most-experienced player was Lester. True freshman DeMarcus Milliner won the other starting job and despite coming off an Achilles tear junior-college transfer DeQuan Menzie manned the slot.
Obviously, none of them had ever played together before.
In comparison, the unit they replaced and combined to make 109 starts and featured an All-American and a first-round draft pick. Last season they made 284 tackles, including 20 for a loss and 6? sacks, 12 interceptions, 47 passes broken up and 10 quarterback hurries.
So far in 2010, Alabama's defensive backs have already succeeded those numbers in two categories, with 324 tackles and 17 of the team's 21 interceptions (which ranks third nationally). Surprisingly, teams haven't attempted more passes (32.1 per game last year vs. 28.1 in 2010), but have been completing more (46.8 percent up to 52.7).
"I think we made some progress," said Coach Nick Saban, who believes the two areas continuity is needed most are the offensive line and secondary. "We didn't play well enough in the big games."
Most notably, a late mistake prevented the offensive from having a shot to pull out the LSU game, and Barron's torn pectoral proved costly against Auburn. But during the first six games of the season Alabama yielded 27 explosive pass plays (17 yards or more) compared to just 12 during the second half of the regular season.
"I felt that throughout the season, a lot of those guys grew up and matured a lot," Hightower said. "Dre Kirkpatrick, Dee Milliner, Phelon Jones, DeQuan Meznie, a lot of those guys stepped up and took ownership. The last couple of games they played a lot harder and a lot better and understood what was going on as far as the defensive scheme and game plan."
Saturday, all them figure to be tested, along with walk-on Will Lowery, who will start in Barron's place. Michigan State likes to move players around a lot, execute last-second shifts and throw in the occasional trick play. While it'll be a true measure of how far the Alabama defenders have all come individually, the key will be how they perform as a unit.
"The good thing is that we could not have had more time to get ready for not having Mark, we had a lot of time to prepare for that," Smart said. "Robert's done a good job taking the leadership role."