April 27, 2007

Spring Review: Corner play highlights secondary

The Players: Cornerbacks: 2 Simeon Castille; 16 Lionel Mitchell; 3 Kareem Jackson; 24 Marquis Johnson; 28 Javier Arenas; 36 Eric Gray; 23 Tremayne Coger.Safeties: 49 Rashad Johnson; 20 Marcus Carter; 27 Justin Woodall; 26 Ali Sharrief; 43 Sam Burnthall; 8 Chris Rogers; 29 Tyrone King.

2007 signees: Cornerbacks: Kareem Jackson (Macon, Ga./Fork Union Military); Chris Lett (Pensacola, Fla.). Safeties: Tarence Farmer (Houston, Tx.); Michael Ricks (Cortland, Ala./Northeast CC).

2006 Season: Castille: Led the team in interceptions (six) and fumble recoveries (three). Was second in pass breakups (six) and fourth in tackles (71). Gray: 17 tackles and two pass breakups. M. Johnson: Seven tackles. Mitchell: His four interceptions were second best on the team. Also had 25 tackles. Burnthall: Nine tackles. Carter: 31 tackles, one tackle for loss and one forced fumble. R. Johnson: 33 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Rogers: Nine tackles and one fumble recovery. Woodall: Six tackles, one pass breakup, one quarterback hurry and one blocked kick.

Good to see: After leading the SEC in turnovers last season, Castille's knack for big plays carried over to spring drills. The senior posted defensive scores in each of the first two scrimmages -- one on a fumble return and another on an interception. On the surface, it doesn't appear as if Castille's role in the new defense will differ much from the one he played under the previous regime. When the Tide goes to its nickel package, he'll slide from left corner to the "star" position -- something he did quite frequently in his first three years in the program.

With Gray struggling with a hamstring strain, Mitchell was the top option at right corner. Mitchell's ball skills rank second behind those of Castille, although Marquis Johnson and Jackson are not far behind. Speaking of Johnson, in getting his hands on three passes and making six tackles, he had the best A-Day scrimmage of any of the corners.

Jackson wasted no time in establishing himself as the top backup to Castille. With the first-team defense coming out in the nickel to start the A-Day game, the prep school signee got the nod at left corner. Jackson is a physically gifted corner who apparently doesn't struggle with the mental aspect of secondary play.

While some will point to Arenas' height when reviewing the fade pass from Greg McElroy to Matt Caddell that went for a Crimson touchdown in the A-Day scrimmage, the sophomore actually had solid coverage on the play. He's not likely to win every jump ball situation, but above-average strength and instincts will give him a chance while in man coverage.

Need to see more of: At safety, the Tide came out of spring drills in pretty much the same shape that it headed into the stretch of 15 practices. We knew Rashad Johnson could play the run and blitz effectively. We also knew that playing in coverage wasn't a real strength at either of the two positions. As things stand right now, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart will go into training camp still in search of a playmaker in the middle of the field.

After making the switch from tailback to safety, Sharrief joined Woodall in working with the second-team defense. While he held his own, Sharrief still has a lot to learn from a coverage standpoint -- which, given the transition he was asked to undertake, is more than understandable. As for Woodall, his anticipated march to the top of the depth chart hit a speed bump. The sophomore was hampered by an ankle sprain in the spring.

Burnthall and Rogers, who made the move from corner, makeup the third group, with walk-on Tyrone King also in the mix.

Overall: While there appeared to be some improvement at safety, there's little doubt that opposing offenses will look to exploit the two spots via the pass in the fall. With that in mind, expect to see the Tide's top three corners on the field in a nickel package that will support a blitzing scheme. Of the newcomers, if Ricks completes his A.A. degree in the next month, he will likely factor quickly at one of the safety positions.

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