Lester comes into his own

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Todd Watson remembers having the best wide receiver and defensive back in the state of Alabama four years ago. The high school coach would go to practice and watch the two go head-to-head in one-on-one drills and revel in the exhibition of talent and will, the 6-foot-4 receiver trying to bully the unrelenting safety, who stood a few inches shorter and nearly 20 pounds lighter.

He'd watch the most skilled athlete in all of high school football go up against a player whom evaluators viewed as flawed, imperfect for the college game. He'd watch the unheralded safety stonewall the No. 1 receiver in the country time and time again, holding his own against a prospect scouts compared to former Dallas Cowboys star Michael Irvin, except more explosive.

Julio Jones had no problem getting noticed by Division I schools at Foley High in South Alabama. The consensus five-star prospect held offers from everyone but the Green Bay Packers. Meanwhile, his teammate, the soft-spoken safety with an underlying tenacity, held just a handful of offers. He worked hard, kept his mouth shut and waited his turn.

Those who saw Robert Lester play in person understood. It took flocking to watch his star teammate for coaches to realize what they couldn't see on his film. It took them watching Jones and Lester practice against one another to understand that the battle wasn't one-sided. The safety on the other side of the ball could play, too.

"It was fun to watch," Watson said. "Sometimes practice would shut down just to watch those kids. When they got to competing, when they got to picking on each other, people wanted to see what was coming next."

Lester didn't have the measureables -- he wasn't the fastest, clocking a 4.59 40-yard dash, nor was he the most athletic. On paper, Jones was supposed to demolish safeties like him, beating them with his other-worldly blend of speed and strength. He toyed with every other defender in the country, but Lester was his match.

"The thing about Robert is he would step up and challenge Julio in practice," Watson said. "They would go against each other in one-on-ones, in drill work, so they pushed each other and made each other better.

"That caught the attention of college scouts. They would come down to look at Julio and say, 'Wait a minute. Who's this Lester kid?' "

The home-state Crimson Tide, hot on the trail of Jones, offered Lester a scholarship late in the recruiting process -- one he eagerly accepted. Jones followed suit a few months later.

The two were at opposite ends of the player rankings, Jones far and away the top recruit in Alabama's class, Lester barely edging out two other commits as the lowest-rated prospect. Three other defensive backs in Alabama's 2008 class ranked higher.

Jones and Lester were viewed as a package deal before the term spurred headlines, before a player such as Clemson commit Robert Nkemdiche helped get half his team Division I offers. Whether those other players see the field is irrelevant to coaches who are after a player who can be a difference maker.

When Lester got to Alabama, his career and Jones' seemed to be going in that direction. While Jones was busy earning SEC Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-American honors, Lester was forced to redshirt the 2008-09 season.

Instead of wallowing in a lost year, Lester worked out and waited his turn.

"I remember talking to him and he was going to 6 a.m. workouts," Watson said, "He was going to class, coming in for position meetings, going to practice and then going to study hall and finishing at 9:30, 10 o'clock, and then get up and do it all over again.

"Come Friday, they'd say, 'Hey, you're not going to make the trip this week, sorry.' For someone to endure that and continue to persevere and push through and push through and understand his role takes a lot of character."

Lester worked his way into eight games the next season and a starting job in 2010. He led the SEC with eight interceptions that year and was named a second-team All-American.

After Alabama's beatdown of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, Jones announced he was turning pro. Despite a breakout redshirt sophomore season, there was no thought from Lester of following suit.

Jones would come first and he would wait his turn, same as always.

The Atlanta Falcons traded a hoard of picks to take Jones in the first round. Lester returned to school and helped Alabama win its second championship in three seasons. Alongside All-Americans including Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick, the UA secondary allowed the fewest passing touchdowns and total yards in the country.

Again, Lester watched as his teammates were courted by NFL teams and signed with agents. And again, he waited patiently.

Now, there's no doubt who owns Alabama's secondary.

"He's grown a lot, especially as a leader," said linebacker Nico Johnson. "He's pretty much the general back there, telling everybody what they need to do, how they need to do it. He's holding everybody back there to a standard."

Lester said he has learned a lot from his former teammates, including Dont'a Hightower, Rashaad Johnson and Barron, and has drawn from his own experience to teach the younger players on defense this season.

"Just to see them develop, it kind of reminds me of myself," he said. "Because I remember being down and not thinking I was ever going to play. And just to know that, I went from there to where I am now. And I'm like, 'I'm watching myself in you right now.' "

Through one week of play, Lester's secondary has shined. It manhandled No. 8 Michigan to the tune of three interceptions, derailing quarterback Denard Robinson's Heisman campaign well before the fourth commercial break.

Said Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges, "Nobody lights the scoreboard up against them.

"You've got to hold on to the ball, not make mistakes and hope you can punch it out and have one more point than they do at the end."

While the rest of the country tuned in to see Robinson put on a show against the Alabama defense, Lester had other things in mind. Just like the days when college coaches would come to watch his high school teammate toy with the defense during practice, people left the field with a different impression of the safety on the other side of the ball.

Jones beat Lester to one thing -- the NFL.

Now, it's Lester's turn to show once again that the two of them belong on the same field.