TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- By now, they're used to hearing how they're not good enough, how they're the weak link in the chain that binds a national champion. The rest of the team can have the glory. Alabama's secondary is fine with playing the part of the underdog. The chip on its shoulder has become comfortable after hearing season after season how well it fits there.
It was only a year ago that Dee Milliner was the one watching Dre Kirkpatrick and Mark Barron walk out the door, the one subsequently being told time and time again how the secondary would suffer without them. What did he do about it? Milliner remembered every word, and he went from being a third cornerback to becoming a starter and the country's top NFL prospect at his position, leading all FBS players in passes defended. In spite of losing three quarters of its starting defensive backfield, Alabama finished among the top 10 in passing yards allowed.
"Each year that I've been there, they talk about the secondary as a weak point, they can't do this or can't do that, this guy or that guy is gone," Milliner said last week. "And we just feel like, if they're going to talk about us, we're going to go out there and prove them wrong, go out there and make plays and show them that we're one of the top secondaries."
But there is no "we" anymore. Now it's Milliner's turn to leave a vacuum on defense as he takes his talents to the NFL as a likely first-round selection in Thursday's draft. He and former three-year starter Robert Lester watched Saturday's A-Day scrimmage from afar, as many wondered how the secondary will fare without their familiar faces in it.
Even Nick Saban was pessimistic. Just moments before kickoff he was asked by a television reporter to discuss the one area with which he was most concerned. He said it was the secondary, citing a lack of depth and experience at the position.
By the time A-Day was done, though, it wasn't the secondary that was being questioned. Six interceptions and 10 pass breakups saw to that. Saban instead had to answer for a passing game that seemed buried under high expectations.
Facing the best
Milliner saw it coming. The public at large might not know the names Deion Belue, Geno Smith, Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry, but Milliner believes they will soon. What happened Saturday was the meet-and-greet stage of what has become a yearly process of overcoming expectations for the secondary.
"Whoever comes in there to play is going to do the same thing," Milliner said. "We have people that they haven't seen on the field, but when they get out there and play, they're going to change the minds of everybody in the nation."
Belue was picked on by quarterbacks last season to the tune of a 43 percent completion rate on passes thrown in his direction, but in his second year in the system he appears to be on more solid footing. He broke up a team-high three passes at A-Day against a first-team offense that featured the likes of AJ McCarron, Amari Cooper and a host of other weapons.
Alabama's offense scored two touchdowns all day, and the quarterbacks combined to complete less than 60 percent of their passes.
"We just sort of looked at each other before the game and said we were going to give as much as we can," Sunseri explained. "And that's what we did. Try to make as many plays as we can against one of the best offenses in the nation."
After two scrimmages of being throttled by its offense, reportedly surrendering 19 touchdowns while creating just two turnovers, the defense had its turn to shine in the final showing of the spring.
"I was pleased with the fact that we did make some big plays today in the secondary," Saban said, slightly changing his tune from the start of the game. "I do think we have some players that have some experience that are playmaker types."
Moving in the right direction
The back-and-forth battles between offense and defense are just beginning, the heated competition making each unit that much better as Alabama marches toward the start of the regular season. A-Day was a building block, and a promising one at that. The secondary showed that even without star power it could do more than hold its own.
"The great thing about the guys that left -- Dee Milliner and Robert -- they helped us out last year and prepared us for this upcoming season," Perry said. "Me, HaHa [Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix], Vinnie and Landon [Collins], we learned a lot of things from Robert and even Mark Barron. We're all trying to pull all that together and make the secondary even better from last year."
If there's one area in which that's possible, it's the turnover department, where Alabama finished tied for 20th in the country for 2012, with 29 total turnovers gained.
"We have a lot of work to do with our overall defensive team when it comes to overall pass defense," Saban said. "I'm talking about pass rush, I'm talking about discipline in coverage, breaking on the ball. I thought it was a lot better today, which is a good sign. But that's something that we've worked hard on all spring long."
Said Perry: "We have a long way to go. It's going to be a tough season. We've got a couple of big games at the beginning of the season, but our goal is to play our best every week. And I don't think we're there yet."