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Unlikely cast key to Tide's defensive success

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Before the season started, we knew Alabama's defense would be good. There was simply too much talent and a coaching staff too well credentialed for it not to be.

Landon Collins would be an impact player at safety, Trey DePriest would be a stabilizing force at linebacker, and A'Shawn Robinson would lead a defensive line as deep and talented as any in recent memory.

We knew, given that he has been molding top defenses his entire coaching life, Nick Saban would be there to make everything fit into place.

But to what end?

It was what we didn't know that gave us pause. It was what we didn't know that made us wonder whether Alabama's defense could be not good but great.

After all, greatness was the standard we'd come to expect. Ever since 2008, Alabama finished in the top 10 nationally in total defense.

But would this be the year that changed?

Even Kirby Smart sounded skeptical. Speaking at the start of fall camp, the veteran coordinator wondered aloud about his cornerbacks, the youth of his linebackers and how the safety spot would look without long-time starters Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri. He was optimistic, of course, but cautiously so.

"In terms of where we are right now, we've got a long way to go," he said. "But where we can go, I'm really enthused about the group we've got."

For those who heard creaks in the defense's foundation, the season opener against West Virginia suggested there might be some trouble. Bama's smaller cornerbacks were picked on, and its safeties weren't much help over the top. Rushel Shell popped off a few good runs, and Clint Trickett threw for 365 yards on 64 percent passing. If it hadn't been for a handful of drops, the Mountaineers might have made Alabama's 10-point win considerably closer.

Ultimately, though, West Virginia proved to be the prelude to Alabama's return as a defensive power, rather than the beginning of some long, strange eulogy.

A group of four players who looked shaky the first week of the season grew solid and dependable. In doing so, they bucked a trend that under Saban's watch goes something like this: If you haven't produced in your first two years on campus, chances are you never will.

But Cyrus Jones and Nick Perry proved they weren't busts like John Fulton or Burton Scott. Meanwhile, Reggie Ragland and Xzavier Dickson showed they wouldn't wind up flops like LaMichael Fanning or Tana Patrick.

The four longtime reserves stepped out of the shadows to anchor a defense that now ranks sixth nationally in yards per game (290.5) and yards per play (4.35). It has allowed the second fewest touchdowns (12) and the third lowest red zone efficiency (38.5 percent) in the country.

Who would have thought we'd be asking where the secondary would be without Jones and Perry?

Jones, a receiver turned cornerback, was routinely picked on by larger targets last season. Perry, on the other hand, came off the bench in two games before he was lost for the year with an injury.

Today, Jones has developed into the team's most reliable corner. The junior is still on the small side, at 5-foot-10, but he's been locked up with bigger receivers and more than held his own. Thanks in large part to Jones, Mississippi State's 6-foot-5 De'Runnya Wilson was held without a touchdown and was unsuccessfully targeted six times Saturday.

Neither Marquez North, Laquon Treadwell, Travin Dural nor Demarcus Robinson had more than 60 receiving yards against Alabama. Among them, they found the end zone only once.

"[Jones] has done a really good job all year long for us," Saban said. "I think he has certainly been our best cover corner."

Perry, whom Saban called a "very bright guy," has been a part of that success, too. The senior has not just been serviceable alongside Collins at safety -- he's been a perfect compliment.

With Jones and Perry playing well, the rest of the secondary has come together nicely.

"Early on, we had guys hurt, different combinations in the lineup that sort of affected us," Saban said, noting how true freshman Tony Brown was forced into action. He later added, "Our secondary has improved through the course of the year."

In fact, every phase of the defense has gotten better.

Who would have thought we'd be saying Ragland and Dickson are Alabama's most productive linebackers?

Neither started a game as sophomores in 2013, and together they combined for only one sack.

Now Ragland's a Butkus Award semifinalist who leads the team in tackles (79) and is third in tackles for loss (7.5). He's recovered a team-best two fumbles and has defended four passes, including one interception.

Dickson, on the other hand, ranks sixth in the SEC with seven sacks. His 9.5 tackles for loss are the most of any Alabama defender.

If anyone tells you they knew that kind of success was coming from Dickson, they're most likely lying. The same goes for any weighty predictions regarding Jones, Perry or Ragland.

At Alabama, it's more often the case that veterans are passed by recent blue-chip recruits than that they find their way and mature into impact players as upperclassmen.

But the opposite has happened this season, and without their contributions, it's difficult to imagine where the defense would be. It most certainly wouldn't be ranked first in the SEC.

They were good all along, said Perry, the elder statesman of the defense. All it took was a little confidence.

"Saban recruited all of us," he said. "We all knew that we're great players. When we're out there, you just have to play with confidence and basically play like you belong out there."