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November 13, 2010Imagine for a moment what it was like for University of Alabama junior safety Mark Barron during the first practices of spring.
He looked one way and there was no Javier Arenas. Wearing No. 28 was DeMarcus Milliner.
He turned the other direction and Kareem Jackson was gone, too. The only No. 3 on the team was running back Trent Richardson.
There was no Justin Woodall at the other safety spot, his No. 27 would be issued to incoming freshman Nick Perry. Marquis Johnson, Ali Sharrief, Tyrone King Jr. and Chris Rogers had all moved on as well, with Robby Green facing a year-long suspension.
Yeah, things were different ... really different, with the Mobile native going from feeling like the new guy of a top-notch secondary to essentially the only returning player from the two-deep depth chart, and everyone else looking to him.
"When you're out there with guys like Rolando (McClain), and what he was, and Justin Woodall, Rashad Johnson, people like that, you don't really have to be that vocal because those other guys are the leaders," sophomore defensive end Damion Square said. "So you kind of take that back seat, this is what's going on and observe because one day you'll have to be more vocal.
"Mark is the kind of guy he doesn't talk a lot but if he opens his mouth it's important so you might want to listen."
A perfect example was during the filming of ESPN's "Training Day: Rolling with the Tide" preseason special. Ask Alabama fan if they remember anything Barron did you might get a blank look, but they all remember the show's final line when he said the best thing about being at Alabama was "Winning."
Thus, the biggest challenge this season for Barron, the hard-hitting safety who can play with a linebacker mentality, had more to do with leadership than anything else.
"I had to do a few things different in terms of helping more people and communicating," he said. "It wasn't too hard for me. It's not like I didn't know what to do or what to tell them. Instead of just having it in my head I had to tell them."
A glance at the roster helps demonstrate the impact he's had. The closest thing Barron had to a familiar face among the expected starters was sophomore Dre Kirkpatrick, who played in 12 games last season as a reserve and made eight tackles, six on special teams. The next most-experienced player was sophomore free safety Robert Lester, with eight games.
"I don't know exactly what it was that motivated him, but I could kind of tell in practice last year that he was picking it up and playing a little bit different, a little harder," Barron said about Lester.
Everyone else was brand new to both the Capstone and Nick Saban's complex scheme, if not college football as a whole. Milliner was a true freshman and junior-college transfer DeQuan Menzie tore his Achilles while playing basketball and was initially thought lost for the season only to somehow make fall camp.
Will Lowery, a walk-on, and LSU transfer Phelon Jones stepped up, while true freshman John Fulton became a reserve and special-teams regular. Perry and Jarrick Williams helped fill out the depth chart, but coaches hope to redshirt both freshman safeties.
The players they replaced, which included an All-American and a first-round draft pick, had combined for 109 starts and during the national championship run tallied 284 tackles, including 20 for a loss and 6? sacks, 12 interceptions, 47 passes broken up and 10 quarterback hurries.
Yet coming off its bye last week, Alabama was tied for third in the nation with 15 interceptions, five by Lester.
"After they got a couple of games under their belt they started figuring out how things were working, how things go in a game, communications and signals," Barron said. "You can't really help much because of the crowd and fans. After a few games they learned."
Teammates, though, say Barron's being modest.
"He means a lot (to us)," Jones said. "Mark is basically the brains of the secondary. If anyone doesn't know what to do or they come out in a formation we haven't practiced everyone will look to Mark. He tells us something to play and we'll correct it on the sideline if we have to."
Another area it's shown up is in explosive plays allowed. Coach Nick Saban defines one as a pass 17 yards or more (13 for a run), and after Alabama gave up six to Penn State and nine to Arkansas, there was a steady drop of five against Florida, three to South Carolina, zero by Ole Miss and two against Tennessee.
It's evidence of the unit growing and maturing together.
"Mark's a really good, a quiet guy, but a leader in his own way," Saban said. "He's one of those guys who sort of speaks softly but carries a big stick. He's really respected by his peers and his teammates. In his own way is a very good leader, is a good person and has played some outstanding football here for us.
"Last year he had a phenomenal year as well as this year. He's one of the leaders on our team in terms of production points, making plays and doing the right things. It's important to him, he pays attention and he's really one of those guys who does everything he can do to help our team be all that it can be."
As a sophomore in 2009, Barron finished second in team tackles with 76 (behind McClain's 101) and also led the Southeastern Conference with seven interceptions to be named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press. He considers Mississippi State his best game, where he had two picks.
This season he hasn't had quite the same success with interceptions, but went into the bye topping the team in tackles (52), was tied for the lead in passes broken up (six), and was among leaders in sacks, tackles for a loss and hurries.
"It kind of seems that a lot of things are going away from me," he said.
Nevertheless, he's been Alabama's most consistent defensive player this season, with some of the guys he's been helping out in the running for second place.
"I was talking at dinner last night, me and (center William) Vlachos, and we were talking about how good Mark really is," senior quarterback Greg McElroy said earlier this season. "I think a lot of people think of him as a playmaker, a guy who's just so great in coverage, but one thing he does is just (make) reads has such great instincts. He can be disruptive on his blitzes because he has great timing and he understands defenses and the weaknesses of offenses in certain protections.
"He does such a great job for our defense."
Consequently, Barron is one of the candidates for this year's Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation's top defensive back.
"He deserves it," Square said. "Mark is a special guy."
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