October 21, 2013 9:23:02 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix returned to the top-ranked Alabama football team's defense at a fortuitous time.
The free safety has rejoined a secondary that has been in near-constant shuffle mode this season. The changes likely will continue after starting strong safety Vinnie Sunseri suffered a left knee injury Saturday in a 52-0 victory against Arkansas. Alabama coach Nick Saban said the injury could be serious. Neither Clinton-Dix's two-game suspension nor changes in starters opposite cornerback Deion Belue have kept Alabama and the nation's top scoring defense from rolling along.
Alabama (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) is in position to become the first team to lead the nation in scoring defense three years in a row.
Now one of its defensive leaders is back in the fold, while another's status is uncertain. The NCAA reinstated Clinton-Dix on Friday after he sat out games against Georgia State and Kentucky 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."
He took to social media Sunday to address his situation with fans.
"I just want to apologize to my Family, teammates, university and fans for the mistake I made during the summer and I have learned from it," Clinton-Dix posted on Twitter.
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 game against Tennessee on Saturday with a high ankle sprain sustained against Arkansas. Saban is expected to update Sunseri's status today.
Teammates said Sunseri will remain a presence 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."
Alabama has two shutouts and has allowed just 16 points and one touchdown in the past five games.
If Sunseri is out, Landon Collins could fill in at his old position. He moved to free safety to replace Clinton-Dix during the suspension.
The depth reflects Alabama's recruiting prowess that the nation's top safety prospect of two years ago replaced the No. 1 safety of three years ago.
"It's another important role that our defense needs someone to step in to," Collins said. Still, he said, Sunseri "is going to be missed on this defense."
Alabama didn't miss a beat without Clinton-Dix, who said that time spent on the scout team defending players like quarterback AJ McCarron and wide receiver Amari Cooper might 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."