The presence is back

TUSCALOOSA _ The difference is noticeable with just a mere look.

He’s more physically imposing despite having lost weight. The hesitation and uncertainty of a year ago appear to be gone, discarded along with his knee braces. There’s not only a re-found confidence and swagger, but the hunger has returned.

Yeah, Dont’a Hightower’s ready to go, and he’s dragging everyone else on the Crimson Tide defense with him.

“I feel good,” Hightower said after Monday’s first practice of spring. “I finally got my weight back down to where it was. My knee’s not giving me any problems. I’m feeling one-hundred percent and ready to go.”

If there was one problem in particular on the Crimson Tide last year, besides the brutal schedule and key injuries, it was lack of experience on the defensive side. Looking back it seems obvious now, especially during the losses: The 19-game winning streak snapped at South Carolina, the breakdown at LSU and the collapse against Auburn.

They were all games Alabama (10-3) felt it could have, if not should have, won.

“One of the things in our offseason studies that we found was that we made more mental errors on defense even though statistically we didn’t fall off a whole lot,” Coach Nick Saban said. “A lot of the statistics were similar (to the year before), but the mental errors were way up. A lot of plays that we gave up were because of people not being in the right place at times, and mental errors, and I think that was largely due to lack of experience.”

Nine new starters on that side of the ball, including everyone in the secondary except All-American safety Mark Barron, obviously contributed a lot, but it didn’t stop there. This time a year ago a much heavier Hightower was just trying to re-acclimate himself after having season-ending knee surgery;

… and trying to learn a new position ;

… and filling the void left by Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain.

He could have used a lot more help, only there was little to be found. The outgoing seniors could be counted on two hands, with the starters on one.

Now it’s the exact opposite. Alabama is replacing only one defensive starter, defensive end Marcell Dareus, who may be the top-overall pick in next month’s NFL Draft, with veterans riddled throughout the roster.

“There’s a lot out there,” junior running back Trent Richardson said.

That includes at least 20 scholarship seniors, with all but cornerback DeQuan Menzie, who transferred in after the 2009 season, remembering what it was like to win the national championship and what it took.

Specific to the defense, fans saw its potential when the Crimson Tide destroyed Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, 49-7. The Spartans may still be licking their wounds after Alabama completely dominated the line of scrimmage, knocked two quarterbacks out of the game and held the running game to minus-48 yards.

With co-captains Hightower and Barron, who is coming off a torn pectoral muscle, holding off on the NFL, experience and leadership shouldn’t be anything but a strength, and Alabama has already added some depth with more on the way in the fall. While junior-college transfers Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial have the potential to contribute immediately on the defensive line, early enrollees Trey DePreist and Vinnie Sunseri are already impressing teammates.

“The fourth quarter drills they were the first in line, the first to do the drills or the running regardless of if it was linebackers, DBs or running backs,” Hightower said. “They surprised me a lot coming in, to be running as well as they did and did a good job.”

Mostly though, there’s already a different presence felt at practice, with teammates saying that Hightower, Upshaw and Barron are determined not to have a repeat of last season, and want something more along the lines of 2009.

“I just feel like this defense is going to be back to where it needs to be,” Hightower said. “Not necessarily about me making the plays or the big hits, but more of me pushing my teammates to make that extra step, to beat me to the back, to beat me (to the ball) before I get there.

“I feel very confident in this defense.”

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