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December 24, 2010One can't help but be excited for University of Alabama sophomore Will Lowery.
A year ago, the walk-on from Hoover was buried on the depth chart and there were thoughts of maybe it was time to hang up the cleats. There usually aren't many opportunities for walk-ons to contribute on Saturdays for the Crimson Tide, especially the way Nick Saban recruits, but with an ultra-thin depth chart at safety he decided to give it everything he had this season.
Consequently, imagine what's being said during the family Christmas gatherings, especially considering that Lowery is expected to make his first career start next week against Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl.
"They're buzzed about the fact that I even get to show up at the practice facility," Lowery said with a laugh. "They're pretty fired up."
Yet when it comes to the Crimson Tide's success in Orlando, he may have more of an impact on the game's outcome than a Heisman Trophy winner, the team MVP or any of the 300-pound lineman. Lowery will be taking the place of injured All-American strong safety Mark Barron, who not only was voted a team captain, but has led Alabama in tackles with 75.
Barron, of course, sustained a torn pectoral muscle and finished the game against Auburn despite being unable to lift his right arm and make the play on a crucial 70-yard touchdown. Following surgery he probably won't be able to do anything football-related until at least March.
"He is a guy who really has a great attitude," Saban said about Lowery. "He's a hard worker. He's an overachiever. He's worked hard to get where he is in the program, and he's made a significant contribution. He's one of our best special-teams players. He's been a role player for us on defense.
"Mark Barron is a guy you really can't replace and Will should not play to replace him. He should just do his job the way he can do it best. That's what I always tell guys when they're taking the place of somebody who's been a really, really good player. Mark is the leading production guy for us on defense all year from his position. His experience and quality of performance and physical play is something that any team would miss, but we have a lot of confidence in Will to go in there and do the right things and be in the right place. He's made some plays for us as well this year."
However, as Lowery put it, "This is a bit different." He played in all 12 games and made 30 tackles this season but primarily as the dime defensive back when the secondary featured six players and on special teams (which he will do less of in Orlando). Still, he made two interceptions and broke up two other passes.
Lowery specifically filled in for Barron just one play, against LSU.
Backing him up will be true freshman Nick Perry, who figures to also inherit Lowery's dime responsibilities. He's played in three games and made one tackle.
Should one of them or starting sophomore free safety Robert Lester get hurt, sophomore Wes Neighbors is pretty much the only other option shy of throwing a cornerback into the fire and hoping for the best. Robby Green is still suspended and true freshman Jarrick Williams is slated to medically redshirt due to a shoulder injury.
Knowing the scheme and responsibilities isn't a concern with Lowery, though.
"Me and Will have a lot of history and communicate well," said Lester, who has a team-high seven interceptions. "I don't think it'll be a problem at all."
Teammates say that Lowery knows the position as well as anyone and he's obviously had a little extra time to study the Spartans. So have his coaches, who after a season of dealing with opponents going away from Barron figure to tweak things with him out.
"What do they do on that end?" Michigan State offensive coordinator Don Treadwell said. "It will be interesting to see. Does it simplify things more for them or do they feel like they have enough time in four weeks of prep to still get up and run the variety of things they do. That's one thing they do very well on the back end, they present a lot of different coverages, have a lot more wrinkles than a lot of the teams we've played up to this point.
"(Mark Barron's) a tremendous player. Not only does he appear to be the one that gets those guys all lined up in the back end, he has range, he's a very physical tackler, and has very good ball skills. He certainly was one of the complete packages when you look at an individual in evaluation."
Where Barron's absence figures to be felt the most is with this simple comparison: While he's listed as 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, and hits has hard as anyone on the defense, Lowery is 5-foot-9, 172 pounds - and many believe that's being generous.
It's pretty obvious that Michigan State will test him with both its biggest and fastest weapons, from wide receiver Mark Bell to 6-5 tight end Charlie Gantt. Similar to Arkansas isolating running back Broderick Green (6-foot-2, 248 pounds) on Lowery for a 13-yard gain, he might be alone in the flat when the ball gets dumped off to senior fullback Nick Bendzuck, who's listed as 6-foot-2, 240 pounds.
How might the change affect the run defense? That he only has to withstand the pounding of one game works to Lowery's advantage, but what some Big Ten teams may lack in speed compared to their Southeastern Conference counterparts is usually offset by their rugged style.
"Playing against Penn State, that was one of the most physical games that I've played in, and I expect them to be extremely physical, very sound," junior center William Vlachos said.
So for better or worse, it wouldn't be surprising to see junior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who completed 216 of 320 passes this season (67.5 percent) for 2,705 yards with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions, look to see where Lowery is before every snap and attack him more than anyone else.
"They can try if they want," Lowery said. "I'm just going to do my best."
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