9 starters return to high-ranked Tide group; drills start Tuesday
By Gentry Estes
DAILY Sports Writer
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TUSCALOOSA — Three seniors from the secondary grace the front cover.
Defensive linemen and linebackers are on the back, encircling a photo of four Alabama defenders gang-tackling a Mississippi State tailback.
On the exterior of the spring football media guide, there's little trace of offense, much like the bulk of the Crimson Tide's 2004 season.
Truth be told, Alabama defensive coordinator Joe Kines would probably like it another way.
"The biggest mistake we can make going into this thing is to think things roll on naturally," Kines said.
Kines heads into Tuesday's start of spring practice with what — on paper — looks to be the best defense in his 38-year coaching career. Nine starters return from a unit that finished the 2004 regular season rated second nationally in total defense, second in pass defense and 12th in scoring defense.
Alabama's defense was hands-down the strength of a 6-6 team whose struggles can be linked mostly to decimating injuries on offense.
Unlike the 2003 season, the defense was a credit, not a liability. It's safe to say the Tide's defense has come a long way since the days when no one knew where to go, and has a chance to be one of the better defenses in school history.
But for Kines, the biggest trick this spring will be to not let his guys believe that.
"We understand what it takes a little bit more now, I think," Kines said. "What we've got to do is use that to our advantage. We've got to really bear down."
Thus far, his words have hit home to players tired of losing close games.
"We can't fall into those traps of people saying how good our defense is," said senior linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who chose another year at Alabama over an early draft-day induction into the NFL. "We need a team to win a ballgame."
For now, it may not be the company policy for Alabama's defenders to pat each other on the back for a stellar effort in 2004.
But it's not difficult to notice the excitement.
"I sense the momentum," Ryans said. "With the guys back, there's no telling what we can do."
At first glance, the starting lineup should be loaded.
Only defensive end Todd Bates and middle linebacker Cornelius Wortham graduate, leaving the entire secondary and linebacker crew rounded out with players who have started multiple games.
The only new face in the lineup will be sophomore left-side defensive end Wallace Gilberry, who led Alabama with 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss, earning a spot on the Southeastern Conference's all-freshman team.
"He took a few snaps and made some really big plays out of them," said Kines of Gilberry. "We need to take a lot of snaps and see if we can't keep that same intensity up."
Senior linebacker Freddie Roach moves into Wortham's spot, opening up the weak-side position for former Austin High standout Juwan Garth, who started the first five games in 2004 before injuring his shoulder and thus losing starting job to Roach.
Unlike the Tide's offense, the defense made it through 2004 without many injuries. As 2005 approaches, Alabama must overcome several lingering injuries, especially on the defensive line.
Defensive tackles Jeremy Clark, Justin Britt and Dominic Lee are recovering from offseason surgery. All are expected to miss time during the spring.
"The surgery boat, first guy out of the boat is the winner," Kines said. "Those guys have to get out of that boat quick."
Head coach Mike Shula said: "We're still beat up. We've got to get those guys healthy."
Up front, if there's a positive to the injuries, it's that younger players like Gilberry and Keith Saunders will get addition work.
"You've got look at it also in a positive way," Gilberry said. "The guys who probably wouldn't have a chance if those guys were there, this spring, will have that opportunity."
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