Alabama coaches looking to fill defensive holes

Ben Cook

March 23, 2015 at 3:27 pm.

Reggie Ragland (19) is back to lead Alabama's defense. (Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports)

While the Alabama football players are off enjoying spring break, the Crimson Tide coaches are busy trying to figure out just how they are going to shape up the depth chart for the rest of spring.

This is going to be one of Nick Saban’s biggest rebuilding projects ever at the Capstone.

Actually, rebuilding is not exactly the right term. Sure, Alabama only returns two starters on offense and seven on defense. But that is not the true picture at Alabama. Remember, this is the defending Southeastern Conference champion and Saban has prepared for situations like this by playing a lot of players on both sides of the football. So the term “starter” could and should be substituted with “experienced” and Alabama’s true picture could take shape.

Center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson are the starters back on offense, while the defense is in a much better shape with the return of defensive ends Jonathan Allen and Jarran Reed, nose guard A’Shawn Robinson, linebackers Denzel Devall and Reggie Ragland and cornerbacks Eddie Jackson and Cyrus Jones.

Alabama also returns three specialists in placekicker Adam Griffith, punter JK Scott and long snapper Cole Mazza.

Alabama’s defense struggled at the end of last season and then lost its acknowledged leader in Landon Collins, but Ragland is waiting to step up and assume a leadership role. Ragland could have declared himself eligible for the NFL Draft, but he chose to return to Tuscaloosa for his senior season.

“One of the big factors for me and my family is earning my degree and I’m on track to graduate,” said Ragland. “You only form a brotherhood like this once and I look forward to spending another season here with my teammates. Roll Tide.”

Ragland was second on the team last year with 95 tackles, including 10.5 tackles for loss (-27 yards), 1.5 sacks, three pass breakups, one interception, one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. He is the only returning player out of the team’s top four tacklers.

He has already assumed a leadership role which he demonstrated after injuries to Jones and Devall knocked both out of spring drills.

“Like I tell Tim (Williams), Rashaan (Evans) all the time, ‘Denzel’s out, it’s time for you to step up,’” Ragland told Marc Torrence of Bleacher Report. “I told Tim, ‘You’re going on your third year and it’s time for him to step up and be the man that you can be because if he puts his mind to it, he can be the best pass-rusher in the country. He can lead the country in sacks, that’s how fast and physical he is. He’s just got to keep getting in that playbook and keep learning it, because I know he’s physical. He’s got to come in, and if he does what he’s got to do, he’s going to be hard to stop.”

With seven “starters” back, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has plenty to work with. One of Smart’s biggest concerns is retooling a secondary that was torched in the last three games of the season, which included a 42-35 Sugar Bowl loss to eventual national champion Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.

The safeties are the primary focus with Collins and Nick Perry gone, but Geno Smith and Maurice Smith, two former corners, are expected be the starters going into the spring, but anything can still happen there. The cornerback position looks a little more stable, with Cyrus Jones and Jackson projected to be the starters. Jones is missing the spring because of injury and Jackson is back after an ACL injury last spring took its toll on him in the fall. There is as lot of interest in a newcomer Marlon Humphrey.

“Any time you lose experienced players it is a work in progress to try and replace them,” Saban said after the only workout of the spring.

One area that does not appear to be a concern is the defensive front, where all three starters — Reed, Robinson and Allen — are back and ready to be another strong force for the Crimson Tide.

Alabama ranked 59th in the nation in pass defense and that needs to improve if the Tide is going to defend its SEC title and perhaps make the college football playoff once again.

With only one spring practice behind them, Alabama returns from spring break next week and will hit the practice field for the rest of the spring drills leading up to the annual A-Day Game.

“They seem to have a great attitude, they’ve worked really hard and got a pretty good leadership group,” Saban said after the first practice. “I’m excited about it. I know we’ve got a lot of holes to fill, especially on offense. But we also have a lot of veteran players who have played a lot of football here that are going to get the opportunity to maybe take advantage of having a greater role on the team.”