Published January 13, 2015
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix returned to Alabama's defense at a fortuitous time.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide's free safety has rejoined a secondary that has been in near-constant shuffle mode this season.
Starting strong safety Vinnie Sunseri went down early in Saturday night's 52-0 romp over Arkansas with a left knee injury that coach Nick Saban said could be serious. Neither Clinton-Dix's two-game suspension nor changes in starters opposite cornerback Deion Belue have kept the Tide and the nation's top scoring defense from rolling along so far.
Alabama (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) is still in position to become the first team to lead the nation in scoring defense three years in a row.
Now, one of the defensive leaders is back in the fold, while another's status is uncertain. Clinton-Dix was reinstated by the NCAA Friday after sitting out the Georgia State and Kentucky games for reportedly receiving a short-term loan from an assistant strength and conditioning coach.
"It's been very tough," said Clinton-Dix, who had five tackles and an interception off the bench. "I've been trying to do my best to keep my head up and let God deal with it."
The defense has dealt with various absences quite well.
The front seven has been a consistent force led by linebacker C.J. Mosley but Saban has started eight defensive backs at least two games apiece. Only Sunseri has started every game, thanks either to injuries or players getting jumped on the depth chart.
The secondary was already replacing starters Dee Milliner and Robert Lester, who moved on to the NFL after last season.
Plus, cornerback Bradley Sylve, who has started the past two games, is day to day for the Tennessee game with a high ankle sprain sustained against Arkansas. Saban is expected to give an update on Sunseri's status on Monday.
Teammates said Sunseri will remain a presence for the team even if he's sidelined.
"For leadership, he's still going to be there," Mosley said. "If he's playing or not, he's going to be on the sideline helping the younger guys out. The younger guys will have to step up and get adjusted to it. When Ha Ha went out, young guys come in. It'll be no different. It can't be an excuse not to be a great defense."
The Tide still has allowed just 16 points and one touchdown in the last five games, with two shutouts.
If Sunseri is out, that could mean Landon Collins pulls fill-in duty at his old position. He moved to free safety to replace Clinton-Dix during the suspension.
It's indicative of Alabama's recruiting prowess that the nation's top safety prospect of two years ago replaced the No. 1 safety of three years ago.
"I had to step up for Ha Ha, it's another important role that our defense needs someone to step in to," said Collins. Still, he said, Sunseri "is going to be missed on this defense."
The Tide didn't miss a beat without Clinton-Dix against weaker competition.
He said that time spent on the scout team defending players like quarterback AJ McCarron and wide receiver Amari Cooper might actually prove beneficial.
"I'm going against the No. 1 offense, going against AJ and Coop and all the good receivers," Clinton-Dix said. "I felt like I was getting better myself."