BamaInsider - HURT: Special year for Bamas defense
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HURT: Special year for Bamas defense

As the University of Alabama football players emerged from the north tunnel at Bryant-Denny Stadium for the media portion of their Fan Day gauntlet (reporters, practice, fans) on Sunday, there was an understandable rush of reporters to the offensive players. That's where many of Alabama's big names play. It's where many compelling storylines of 2011 will emerge.
Chances are, though, the other side of the ball will be the ultimate determinant of success for Alabama. Of course, all three phases have to be in sync. Offense is clearly important. So are special teams (although the only aspect on full display on Sunday, the punting, can stand some improvement.) But the rock upon which this team is built will be defense.
The talent is there. Offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who spoke before defensive coordinator Kirby Smart on Sunday, was asked about "SEC defenses," but he might have been describing the defense he faces in daily practice sessions as the prototype.
"The one thing that you see in this league, difference wise, is the size on the defensive fronts and the quickness and speed up front," McElwain said. "The skill positions, the safeties, the size of the linebackers - the speed and the size - is what really differentiates this league from a lot of places. I'm not saying that other places don't have it, but on a day-in, day-out basis you're seeing that.
"You really have to focus in a game plan situation where there are some elite players that you have to actually game plan around, much like you do in the NFL."
Alabama has just what McElwain was describing. The "skill positions" - in the secondary - are perhaps the strength of the defense, but the "size of the linebackers" (who just keep getting bigger, it seems) is impressive. There is also size - if not experience - on the defensive front.
But in listening to Smart, when he took the podium for his annual defensive preview, it sounded like there was another word besides "size" or "speed" that could be applied to the defense. There is also maturity.
"I'm really excited about this group," Smart said. "You ask why? We have a lot of good leaders, and this is one of the first complete groups that we recruited here at Alabama; from top to bottom, offense and defense. They're all of our kids that you have a relationship with from when you recruited them. You went in their homes. I'm really excited about these guys because they have good attitudes. They're excited, so they're fun to coach."
Another Smart answer was perhaps more notable. Asked if there was a Rolando McClain-type leader on this year's defense, Smart could have responded with platitudes. Instead, he immediately came up with a name - and just the name Alabama fans want to hear.
"Sure, Dont'a Hightower," Smart said. "He's the guy. Mark (Barron) is a little like that, but Dont'a is a little more vocal than Mark. I certainly think that Dont'a has the capability to do that and be that leader. He wanted to be that last year. He could just never get around to doing it because he wasn't 100 percent (after a serious knee injury in 2009.)
"It was noticeable because it wasn't the Dont'a that we all knew (last season)," Smart said. "Throughout spring ball and even going into fall, although he has only been in shorts, he looks a lot faster and quicker."
It isn't that Hightower has to dominate this defense, which has plenty of All-SEC talent. But if he can stabilize it - and the front three can replace Marcell Dareus "by committee," as Smart suggested, then this could be one of those special defensive years for the Crimson Tide.