By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
FAYETTEVILLE — The biggest question surrounding Alabama’s quest to win a second straight national championship lies with its defense.
It’s a fair one, too, considering Alabama has replaced nine starters from the 2009 group that dominated opponents and finished second in the nation in most statistical categories. Familiar faces like defensive tackle Terrence Cody, cornerback Javier Arenas and linebacker Rolondo McClain, have moved on to NFL careers.
But when Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino took a look at the top-ranked Crimson Tide, he still recognized a difficult challenge for the Razorbacks.
"They are still big and physical and fast and very well coached," Petrino said.
Alabama is performing, statistically, as well as 2009 as it prepares to play No. 10 Arkansas in Razorback Stadium. The Crimson Tide enters Saturday’s game ranked No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense, surrendering 6.3 points a game. It has been stingy in yards allowed (253.3), too.
The 19 points Alabama has given up so far in three games (against San Jose State, Penn State and Duke) is the fewest points allowed in more than 30 years.
Numbers aside, Alabama’s revamped unit knows it will get its first major test against Arkansas and quarterback Ryan Mallett. Quarterback Greg McElroy is curious to see how it responds, although he’s expecting the defense to stand up to the challenge.
"They have done a great job and we have a lot of confidence in those guys," McElroy said. "They all realize that they are no longer rookies after playing in three games. They need to step up and become veterans, and I think this is their time to do so. I think they are looking forward to taking advantage of that opportunity."
But Saban was still picking at flaws and identifying areas that needed to be fixed Monday.
He said the Crimson Tide has not played "as well as what I think we’re capable of" against the run so far this season. Saban also pointed to the 13 points Alabama allowed in the second quarter at Duke.
"Defensively, we played OK in the game in the first, third and fourth quarters," Saban said. "However, they seemed to lose it a little in the second quarter in terms of focus. They made some mental errors, didn’t play with quite the same intensity, couldn’t get off the field on third downs at times, so those things we need to get corrected."
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas last season, leads the young group with 16 tackles through three games. Alabama also has defensive end Marcell Dareus back after serving a two-game suspension for committing an NCAA violation over the offseason.
With both players leading the way, Petrino said Alabama’s front seven remains strong.
"They stop the run with a 7-man front," Petrino said. "Because of that, they can rush the passer.
"Their linebackers will be the biggest linebackers that we play throughout the year."
But the group expecting the biggest test will be Alabama’s secondary, which had to replace three of four starters and six of its top seven players.
Safety Mark Barron is the anchor, but he’s surrounded by youth and inexperience. It hasn’t shown in the statistics, though. Alabama is No. 2 in the nation in pass efficiency (73.66 rating) and 11th in pass defense (132.7 yards a game).
"They played behind some great players last year," Mallett said. "I’m sure those guys taught them a lot of things before they left. So they might be inexperienced, but I think they’ll have a pretty good understanding of what they’re trying to do."
Linebacker Jerrell Harris, who is tied for second on the team in tackles (13), was asked by the Alabama media this week how he would grade the Crimson Tide’s defensive performance so far.
His answer: "Fairly well right now."
"But we have a lot of improvements that we still have to work on," Alabama linebacker Jerrell Harris said. "We need to get better in practice. We are a young defense, so we are learning as we go."
Alabama has frustrated the Hogs under Petrino, limiting Arkansas to three touchdowns in two games. They returned two interceptions for touchdowns in 2008. They pressured Mallett last season, limiting him to 12 completions and 160 yards.
Can the new-look group perform as well as their predecessors? Harris said Alabama will find out.
"It is really a big step up for us," he said.