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October 8, 2013

Alabama defense short on turnovers in 2013

Outside of a trip to Texas, stopping people has not been an issue for Alabama.

Forcing turnovers, however, hasn't come so easily.

Blemishes are rare for a defense that hasn't allowed a touchdown in three games, the longest such streak in Alabama coach Nick Saban's tenure in Tuscaloosa. But for a coach always looking for places his team can improve, Saban says Alabama's defense can turn its attention getting its hands on the football more often.

Alabama ranks 86th nationally and is tied for ninth in the Southeastern Conference in turnovers forced through five games this season. It has created seven: four interceptions and three fumble recoveries.

"I think it's something that we emphasize a lot here. It's a little bit disappointing that we haven't been able to get more turnovers this year," Saban said. "I think turnover ratio is one of the most important things in being successful. How many you give up, how many you get. We emphasize it all the time."

Saban and cornerback Deion Belue said the low number isn't because of a lack of practice.

"We work on it every day, we try to get it every chance we can," Belue said. "In practice we even work on scoop-and-scores, when the ball is on the ground, we pick it up because in a game-time situation you never know."

Forcing and recovering fumbles is a particular sticking point. Alabama is in a tie for 64th nationally in recovered fumbles (3) this season. It wasn't much better the previous three years. Alabama corralled 11 in 2012 (53rd nationally), seven in 2011 (95th) and just four (117th) in 2010.

Practice may help, but to some extent, forcing turnovers is an inexact science. While getting players in the right position and learning techniques can improve chances of forcing a turnover, the opponent's playing style can limit opportunities. With fumbles especially, it can also be the luck of the bounce.

"Sometimes it just happens," linebacker Trey DePriest said. "But other times you have to attack the ball, wrap up and sometimes you have to keep him stood up to where your other players can hit at the ball, rip at the ball."

Saban believes getting players in position and improving their chances of forcing turnovers is "very teachable."

"I think that some players just sort of have a mentality for being able to do it and make it happen, where other players have a more difficult time sort of developing the kind of habits as a player that would enhance their opportunities to get the ball out," he said.

In two ways, Alabama may also be a victim of its own success. The Crimson Tide have been among the nation's best in getting opposing offenses off the field on third down and winning the possession battle, two factors that limit the number of plays the opposition can run. Fewer plays mean fewer opportunities to force those coveted turnovers.

Alabama ranks 22nd in third down conversion defense (30.3 percent). Since 2008, Alabama has ranked 14th nationally or higher in that category. Alabama has also ranked 12th in the nation or better in time of possession in five of the past six seasons.

Most of the turnovers Alabama has created to date have been impactful. Safety Vinnie Sunseri has returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Sunseri's touchdown return and Cyrus Jones' interception of Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel in the end zone were turning points in the Crimson Tide's 49-42 win in College Station.

Alabama forced a fourth-quarter fumble against Colorado State and scored from 30 yards out on the ensuing play. It picked up a Georgia State fumble on a kick return and punched it in on the next play, too.

The turnover stat that mirrors success nationwide - turnover margin - has remained solid. Alabama's offense is doing its part to keep that margin positive, giving the ball away only four times this year.

But Saban wouldn't be opposed to seeing his defense give that offense an extra possession or two on its own.

"It's something that we're going to continue to emphasize and something that we're going to continue to try to teach so that this can be something that's to our advantage in the future," Saban said.

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Reach D.C. Reeves at DC.Reeves@tuscaloosanews.com or 205.722.0196.

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