Lester feels good about Tide's secondary

All of a sudden, Robert Lester is the veteran in the Alabama secondary.

It seems like yesterday that he was one of the unknowns trying to crack the rotation and prove himself.

“In 2010, I was that guy who hadn’t played yet,” Lester said. “I had been around the program, but I hadn’t really played. I was hungry to go out there and make my mark.”

Lester did just that with a team-leading eight interceptions as a sophomore, and was playing in a secondary that included eventual NFL draft picks Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie.

It’s also a secondary that was gutted from the year before. The Crimson Tide lost seven defensive backs off their 2009 national championship defense.

Mental breakdowns plagued the Alabama secondary in 2010, and they were glaring in all three of the Tide’s losses.

“You’ve got to remember that we had three guys back there who had never really played in a game -- me, Dre and Menzie,” Lester said. “We were all inexperienced and pretty young, too.”

So when Lester is asked if he sees a lot of similarities between that secondary and the one Alabama will put on the field in 2012, he’s not necessarily ready to make that comparison.

Sure, the inexperience factor is there, but he also thinks this secondary will be ahead of the one in 2010 because the guys stepping in have been around the program longer and have a better understanding of the defense.

“You look at this year, and it’s not so much that we have a lot of young guys,” Lester said. “Some of these guys are juniors and sophomores who played a lot last year, and I’m a fifth-year senior. These guys have been here and know what it takes. They know how to execute in this defense. So, really, it’s nothing like it was in 2010. And the other thing is that the leadership is a lot better.”

What the makeup of the Alabama secondary will look like against Michigan in the opener is still up in the air.

Lester returns for a third season as a starter at one safety spot. But sophomores Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri are battling for that other safety spot.

Junior Dee Milliner, who started last season when the Tide went to five defensive backs, will be an every-down starter at cornerback this season. He has a chance to be this season’s version of Kirkpatrick, a player that goes from a lesser role to a first-day NFL draft pick.

“You can see it in his eyes,” Lester said. “It’s his time, and I can’t wait to see what he’s capable of.”

Junior college transfer Deion Belue, one of the stars of the spring, is battling junior John Fulton for that other starting cornerback spot.

Alabama’s depth in the secondary has taken a hit over the past week or so with junior college transfer Travell Dixon leaving the program for personal reasons, and junior safety Jarrick Williams tearing his ACL last week in practice.

The Crimson Tide routinely play five defensive backs, which means they’re probably going to need a couple of the freshmen to contribute. Safety Landon Collins and cornerback Geno Smith are the most likely candidates.

Developing young players in the secondary has been one of Alabama’s specialties. It’s a big reason the Crimson Tide have had seven defensive backs drafted in the past four years, including three first-rounders and a second-rounder.

“I’m excited by what I see out of these guys,” Lester said. “They’ve got the talent, but they also have the focus that it takes to play in this system.

“I know people keep asking about 2010. This is a totally different team. I know when a team is hungry and when a team is ready. That team wasn’t hungry (in 2010). This team is.”