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September 16, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ The moment was pretty special, but even more so because he wasn't supposed to be there - at least not in uniform.
Yet when University of Alabama junior cornerback DeQuan Menzie came out to play his first game at Bryant-Denny Stadium two weeks ago, it might have been one of the most important moments of the 2010 season.
Menzie, of course, was considered a huge late addition to the most recent signing class, with the potential to make an immediate impact at a spot where nearly everyone had to be replaced.
That is until sustaining an offseason Achilles injury that was supposed to keep him out all year, and not just a partial tear but a full rupture. As far as Menzie, the team doctors and coaches were concerned 2010 wasn't a factor. Following surgery, he started rehabbing for his future, which came a lot faster than anyone expected or dared hope.
"I never thought about it, there really was never a decision to be made," Menzie said. "I thought I was redshirting the whole time. It shocked me."
He's progressed so much that Menzie's biggest concern is trying to maintain his level of play through the fourth quarter, despite missing out on a lot of the summer conditioning program and enduring some minor setbacks during fall camp. His highlights include seven tackles and a pass broken up.
"Coming out of the tunnel was a great experience," he said. "I played JUCO ball, but we never had anything like that. It was a great experience."
The comeback nearly complete, now comes the hard part on the field and Alabama's first big test for the relatively inexperienced secondary, Duke.
With Arkansas, Florida and South Carolina, all ranked in the top 13 of the Associated Press poll and all known for their passing prowess, the Blue Devils begin a brutal stretch of opponents that will challenge each defensive back, and the unit as a whole, nearly every way imaginable.
How good is No. 1 Alabama really? We're about to find out.
"This is a very dangerous team because of their ability to throw the ball and score points," Coach Nick Saban said.
The Cutcliffe offense
Duke is coming off a 48-point performance in which the Blue Devils tallied 487 yards of total offense against Wake Forest (a team Cutcliffe has had a lot of success against).
Overall, the Blue Devils have tallied 89 points and are averaging 514.5 yards of total offense, which leads the Atlantic Coast Conference and is ranked ninth nationally. The 54 first downs tops the NCAA (just five running), Duke has converted 55.2 percent of third downs (12th nationally) and are 10-for-10 in the red zone with seven touchdowns and three field goals.
While those numbers are impressive, what really gives them weight is David Cutcliffe, who is best known for developing quarterbacks, including Peyton and Eli Manning, both as the Tennessee offensive coordinator and head coach at Ole Miss. Even last season, senior Thad Lewis was second-team All-ACC for the second time and was just the second quarterback in conference history to top 10,000 career passing yards.
His replacement, redshirt sophomore Sean Renfree, was Cutcliffe's first recruit to Durham. The 6-foot-5 pro-style passer from Arizona completed 34 of 50 (.680) passes for 330 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions last season as a reserve before sustaining a torn ACL against Georgia Tech.
However, this is his three season in the system and so far only Missouri's Blaine Gabbert has more completions, his 71.1 completion percentage ranks 13th nationally and the passer-efficiency rating of 159.4 is 20th.
Equally impressive has been the receiving corps. Senior Austin Kelly, sophomore Conner Vernon and junior Donovan Varner all caught at least 50 passes in 2009 and combined have 42 this season - four more than the entire Crimson Tide. Thanks to touchdown passes of 70 and 51 yards, Vernon is coming off a career-high 181-yard performance.
Additionally, Cutcliffe likes to get tight ends Brett Huffman, Brandon King and Cooper Helfet involved and will move all three around. Huffman and King combined have 10 career touchdown catches, while Helfet is a rare junior-college transfer to Duke.
"Last year they were in a lot of three wide outs, one tight end and a back," Saban said. "That's probably their No. 1 formation group. They were getting empty out of that. They'll back motion empty. They are doing some pistol this year for the running game, not always offsetting the back. They get in four wide outs. They do play some regular, most of the time its two tight ends and two wides, but I'd say the spread formations are probably 90 percent of what they do."
The young unit
Spread. The mere mention of the word can give even the best defensive player a headache. So far that's been junior safety Mark Barron, who has helped the Crimson Tide pick off four passes without yielding a touchdown, but there are areas that need to be improved.
Sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick got beat on a pair of slants against Penn State.
Freshman cornerback DeMarcus Milliner was on the wrong end of an impressive 31-yard over-the-shoulder sideline reception and then had a hamstring problem.
Sophomore safety Robert Lester needs to take better angles on some of his tackles.
Everyone, including reserve safety Will Lowery, has had miscues.
"I think we made improvement in the secondary," Saban said. "I think we had better eye control, read run/pass a little bit better. I think everybody made improvement. I think there's still room for adjustments, making adjustments and getting in the right position. We had a few mental errors that were costly, especially on third down, whether they were technique-type things or errors in assignment, which were not as prevalent as the week before, but we certainly made progress.
"Mark Barron played extremely well, his leadership is really helping the other players. I think DeQuan Menzie played a lot better in this game, more confident in his role. We've just got to keep improving, because this will be a real challenge for us this week."
An obvious plus is junior defensive end Marcell Dareus returning from a two-week suspension. While Alabama's pass-rush has been effective, with seven hurries, it hasn't translated into sacks.
"That's' something we're looking forward to," said Lester, who strangely enough leads the Tide in both interceptions (two) and sacks (one).
The new defensive backs are also replacing players who combined for 109 starts while even their backups hardly experienced any turnover during the past couple of years.
This has been the exact opposite, even with Menzie going from a non-factor to starting the season opener at cornerback. Last week coaches had him concentrate on the star position when Alabama was in nickel formation, which was most of the time and may not change for a few weeks.
Like everyone else, he's going to have to keep improving while being under the (shot)gun.
"A Nick Saban defense is hard, I'm going to tell you straight up, it's really hard," Menzie said. But if you buy in to what they say and how to do it, you're going to get it."
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