The slide down the mountain has been undeniable. Especially last year. That's when the slide turned into a full-fledged, foot-slip-off-the-rock tumble.
Alabama ranked No. 1 in the country in pass defense in 2011. That ranking fell to No. 7 in 2012 and then fell again to No. 11 in '13. Last year, it plummeted to No. 59. Yes, Alabama, a program Nick Saban has now built into a perennial national power, was 59th in college football last year when it came to defending the pass.
Even Kentucky, which went 5-7 overall, 2-6 in SEC play and finished sixth in the SEC East last season, performed better against the pass last season than Alabama. The Wildcats ranked 44th.
So is a trend reversal in store for Alabama in 2015? Or will the slide continue? All signs right now point to the former.
In January, Saban hired former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to coach Alabama's defensive backs. So far, it's looking like just the shot in the arm the secondary needed. Tucker isn't really teaching anything new to Bama's defensive backs as far as technique or philosophy. The difference he's making has more to do with his own personality, and how it's spilling over to the guys he's coaching.
"I do see more energy and enthusiasm from the (defensive backs) coach, which I think is important," Saban said Thursday night. "And we really haven't had that here since Jeremy Pruitt left (following the 2012 season), in all honesty. (Pruitt) did a great job with the players that way, spent a lot of time with them.
"People think I coach the secondary. I help coach the secondary, but as the head coach I don't have time to spend with those guys in terms of developing relationships with them and all that kind of stuff as much as the position coach can, and I think that's really, really important. And I think that's important to this group, and I think they've responded really well to Mel, and I think Mel has done a really, really good job with the players we have."
Speaking of the players Tucker has to work with, two new guys, in particular, have stood out this preseason — two superb athletes who were so impressive during fall camp that they earned top spots on the team's season-opening depth chart released this week despite their inexperience. Marlon Humphrey, a redshirt freshman, is penciled in as the starter at one of the two cornerback spots. Minkah Fitzpatrick, a true freshman, is slated to start at the Star position.
"Marlon has done a really, really good job this fall camp," Saban said. "He is more confident in terms of what to do and how to do it. He's really worked hard in practice every day to try to improve himself, and he's been very, very competitive, and we've been very, very pleased with where he is.
"Minkah Fitzpatrick has been a guy that — not to anyone's surprise because we thought he was a really good player when we recruited him — has been able to learn, pick up on and do things very, very well."
Having two safeties with cornerback backgrounds can't help but bolster Bama's pass defense too this season. Geno Smith and Eddie Jackson might not be the most physically imposing safeties around, but they've got coverage skills most safeties do not — coverage skills Alabama needs.
"In the day and age of football that we see right now ... safeties in the box don't really happen very often," Saban said. "It only happened in two games last year. Being spread out where guys have to make plays, have range, have cover ability, that's much more predominant in the style of play that most people play offensively now. So having more athletic safeties has a benefit."
Then there's senior Cyrus Jones. He's back at the other cornerback spot after showing flashes of being an All-SEC-caliber performer last season.
"I do think the secondary is better," Saban said. "Last year I thought our young players were better in some cases than our older ones — they just weren't ready to play. So those (young) guys are much more ready to play. I'm talking about the Marlon Humphreys, the Tony Browns of the world and even Maurice Smith as well as Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is a true freshman and has done a fabulous job in the secondary."
Oh yeah, go ahead and throw in a little chip on the shoulder, too.
"We're just hungry," Jones said. "We're just eager to get out there and show everybody we're not the weak link of the defense."
No. 59? That's looking like the bottom of the mountain for Bama's secondary. And the climb back up? Looks like it's about to start.
— Written by Erik Stinnett, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Stinnett is an experienced college football beat writer who has been covering Alabama since 2009.