Nick Saban breaks down Robert Lester

Alabama has nine returning starters on defense, many of them four- and five-star recruits whom Nick Saban and his staff have groomed into starring roles. Safety Robert Lester of Foley, Ala., didn’t attract a lot of attention in high school. Last season, he led the Southeastern Conference with eight interceptions.

On the ESPNU College Football podcast on Tuesday, I asked Saban what he and his staff saw in Lester.

"When we look at players, we have critical factors that we look at for every position,” Saban said. “And for defensive backs, it’s ball skills, tackling and can you judge the ball in the deep part of the field? Robert Lester really played corner in high school and was probably speed deficient for that position. But had good enough size that we thought he could play safety. He lacked in none of the critical factors.”

Judging the ball in midair, like an outfielder getting a break on a fly ball or a rebounder sizing up a shot on its way up to determine where it come on its way down, may not be a skill that a player can learn. Defensive backs may be born, not made.

“I think it has something to do with perception,” Saban said, “and I think perception is innate to some degree. I think you can improve those things maybe ever so slightly. But you can’t make a guy who has really poor ball judgment have really good ball judgment.

“Same thing in baseball -- is it a ball or a strike? Is it a good pitch to hit or not? Should I swing at it or take it? Those are split-second decisions. There is something innate about that. There is some athletic intuition in that you can function quickly and make that decision."