Nearly everything went right for Alabama in a 14-0 season capped by a national championship game victory over Texas. The team suffered only one major injury (the destruction of star linebacker Dont’a Hightower‘s knee against Arkansas) and avoided any off-field distractions. Avoiding injuries and maintaining focus are still the keys as the Tide attempts to become the first team to repeat as BCS champs.
Nearly all the major contributors from the 2009 offense return, with the exception of two starters on the offensive line and the starting tight end. In particular, the Tide boasts probably the two best running backs in the conference, and a starting quarterback who hasn’t lost a game since middle school. With the defense suffering major losses, it may be up to the offense, sporadically effective in 2010, to carry the load until the defensive talent is totally up to speed.
Greg McElroy, the starting quarterback, didn’t get a whole lot of respect last year and still doesn’t, but it’s hard to argue with the results — again, 14-0. McElroy is a game manager-type, who lacks the mobility or top arm strength to make plays on his own. Still, he is intelligent (a Rhodes Scholar) and makes very few mistakes (only four interceptions last year) and if he gets good pass protection can be very effective. When Alabama needed him, most particularly in the comeback win against Auburn, he always delivered. Redshirt freshman A.J. McCarron wound up the backup last season after starting fourth on the depth chart — at least, if something had happened to McElroy and the game was in doubt, McCarron would have come in, though the now-departed Star Jackson was the actual relief quarterback. (Anyway, McElroy wouldn’t leave the game for just anything; it turned out that he played the entire national championship game with broken ribs.) McCarron has the physical abilities that McElroy lacks, leading to the predictable fan chatter about the 14-0 quarterback getting replaced. Behind those two are only Phillip Sims, the nation’s top quarterback recruit, and legacy walkon Morgan Ogilvie. Presumably the same rules as last year will be in place, with Sims being redshirted unless both McElroy and McCarron go down, with Ogilvie serving as a mopup man if needed. Another true freshman named Sims, Blake Sims, played quarterback in high school and has worked some at the position, but is expected to wind up at defensive back.
Like McElroy, there are some people who think that junior Mark Ingram should be replaced by his backup, and all Ingram did last season was set the school record for rushing yards while winning the Heisman Trophy and BCS Championship Game Offensive Player of the Game honors. Ingram lacks pure straight-ahead speed, though he broke plenty of long runs anyway. What he brings to the table mostly are power, shiftiness, effort, and most vitally, extraordinary field vision. He simply finds holes where none seem to be, and combined with his motor and second effort, this leads to a lot of extra yards, two to four yards at a time. Many of his most impressive carries were four or five yard runs that at first looked to be stops. Ingram also very rarely fumbles, only once in each of his two seasons. Finally, he was the tailback in the wildcat formation that Alabama employed at various times in 2009, most particularly against South Carolina, where he clinched the game by running for all the yards on a touchdown drive, most of them on direct snaps. Backup Trent Richardson was impressive as a true freshman, and possesses more pure speed than Ingram and at least as much power. He doesn’t have Ingram’s moves or vision, but that should come in time. He also showed good hands as a receiver in spring practice, and may join Ingram as a key target in the passing game. He’s the second-best back on the team, conference… country? Third-stringer/utility back Roy Upchurch made several big plays last season as his injury-plagued career came to a close, and no one player will fill his variety of roles. While Ingram and Richardson will apparently assume his third-down duties, his role as third-team back will go to redshirt freshman Eddie Lacy, a big-time recruit in 2009 who actually was, briefly, ahead of Richardson in fall practice last year before redshirting. He’s another power back in the mold of the two top names. Demetrius Goode is good enough to play most places, but will apparently spend a second year as the fourth-stringer, getting mopup carries and maybe some more special teams duties. Redshirt freshman Mike Marrow worked at tight end/H-back in spring but has been used as a back this fall. It’s possible he’ll play some fullback in goalline situations, a role Upchurch filled the last couple of years.
At receiver, Julio Jones had several injuries that weren’t enough to get him out of the lineup but were enough to curtail his production. He was still by far the team’s leading receiver, and late in the season began to come on, breaking a screen pass for the go-ahead score against LSU, and catching most of the balls on the go-ahead drive against Auburn. He is also a premium blocker on running downs (even playing a pseudo-tight end wingback role in some short-yardage formations) and was the usual motion back when Alabama ran the wildcat, though they didn’t take much advantage of that. The second receiver is Marquis Maze, a speed guy who caught some deep balls and almost caught a lot more. Alabama plays three receivers about half the time, and usually Darius Hanks fills that role. Hanks is a natural slot receiver who hasn’t quite broken through. All three listed starters are juniors. Brandon Gibson, a longtime workout warrior who hasn’t been able to show much outside of practice, seems to have locked up the fourth receiver spot with a strong spring camp and was the leading receiver in the spring game, but it remains to be seen what he can do against players wearing other uniforms, and he has also worked some at safety. Senior Earl Alexander has lost most of his career to injuries and to making the adjustment from quarterback in high school, but has contributed sporadically and should be in the rotation, together with sophomore Michael Bowman, who caught one pass last year, redshirt freshmen Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell, and three incoming freshmen.
Alabama doesn’t use a fullback as such, but plays two tight ends with an H-Back quite a bit, both with the quarterback under center and in the shotgun. The one skill position starter to depart was TE Colin Peek, who battled through foot and ankle injuries to be a major contributor as a blocker and a threat in the passing game. His spot will likely be filled by sophomore Michael Williams, a converted defensive end who started a couple of games in Peek’s place and showed surprising quickness and hands, though he didn’t play very well in spring. At the H-Back spot, senior Preston Dial returns, and could play a larger role in the passing game with the departure of Peek. Dial took over the second TE role from now-junior Brad Smelley, who was unsuited for the task; a converted quarterback, he was too light to take on the blocking duties. Smelley is likely to play a good bit on passing downs, though, after a lost season that saw him drop several passes and commit several blocking penalties on special teams. Marrow, if he winds up back at tight end, would seem to be a short-yardage option.
The one unit on offense that was really hit by graduation was the offensive line, which lost all-conference LG Mike Johnson and two-year starting RT Drew Davis. Both will be missed, Johnson as the line’s best and most experienced player, Davis as the man who stabilized a position that had long been a trouble spot. But three starters remain, all of them potentially postseason award candidates. The rock of the line is senior center William Vlachos, who with his stumpy legs and powerful upper body was born for the position. Fellow senior James Carpenter stepped right in as a junior college transfer and ably replaced the Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith at left tackle; not as massive as Smith, he’s big enough and has better technique, particularly in pass protection. Junior Barrett Jones returns at right guard, where he may be the best of the three; he’s good enough that you almost never heard his name called last year, which is about the highest praise you can give an interior lineman.
At right tackle, the battle is between redshirt freshman D. J. Fluker and junior Alfred McCoullough, with Fluker, a top recruit who had trouble getting up to speed last year (having played only one year on offense in high school) getting the first-team nod on A-Day. Redshirt freshman Chance Warmack seems to have the lead over sophomore John Michael Boswell at left guard, even though Boswell played a good bit as a reserve last year. In addition to the runners-up at those two positions, Alabama has the best offensive line depth it has had in years with center/guard David Ross, who is likely to play a lot, and tackle Tyler Love.
Only one player who started all season returns on defense, together with four other players who started at least one game for a dominant unit. However, there’s actually a lot of experience in the front seven, as Nick Saban’s habit of using a lot of different players paid off in getting game action for youngsters. The talent, after three consecutive top-five recruiting classes, is unquestioned; it’s getting that talent to click that will be the problem.
Though all three of last year’s starters graduated, the defensive line may actually be the most experienced unit on the defense, as Alabama constantly rotated players and all three expected starters received major playing time. The unquestioned star up front is junior end Marcel Dareus, the defensive player of the game against Texas and the team leader in sacks and tackles for loss. Dareus is facing an NCAA investigation over the recent agent flap, and it is possible that he will miss some early games, though unlikely that he would be declared ineligible. Dareus is simply a physical freak, a player with tackle size (6-4, 306) and linebacker quickness, who looked if anything even more devastating in spring practice. At the other end senior Luther Davis returns after playing every game last season; he is more of a run-stopper and gap-plugger in Alabama’s scheme, almost a tackle. At the nose, Josh Chapman faces the forbidding prospect of replacing Terrance Cody, but should be up to most of the challenge, having started a couple of games in 2008 and played much of the time, particularly on passing downs, the last two years. Key reserves include sophomore Damion Square, a rush end who went down in the second game last year with a knee injury just as he seemed to be becoming a force, Darrington Sentimore, a redshirt freshman who opened eyes working at both end and tackle in fall practice last year, and sophomore Kerry Murphy, the principle backup tackle who gives more bulk than Chapman but isn’t as strong.
Losing Butkus Award winner, leading tackler, and defensive quarterback Rolando McClain, who left early for the NFL, is a blow, no question. Fortunately, Alabama has an able replacement in Hightower, who is apparently fully healed from his knee injury (in fact, he says he could have played in the Texas game if needed) and will slide into McClain’s vacated “Mike” position and as the main signal-caller on defense. Hightower may also slide outside as a pass-rusher on certain downs, depending upon how other linebackers work there. At the other inside position (“Will”) sophomore Nico Johnson started after Hightower went down, but fell out of the starting job this spring due to injuries and the strong play of Chris Jordan, a converted runningback who started the spring game. Those two and redshirt freshman Tana Patrick, technically Hightower’s backup, are still fighting for the job and playing time.
Outside, the spots appear set, with the “Sam” position held by junior Jerell Harris. Harris was the top linebacker reserve entering play last year, but was suspended for rules violations the first half of the season, and saw work mostly on special teams when he returned. With no problems yet this year, it’s his turn to shine. Junior Courtney Upshaw actually started one game last year at the “Jack” (rush linebacker) position, right after Hightower’s injury, before returning to a reserve role, and did play every game. He had a bit of an odd year in that he was in the middle of a lot of action (returning a fumble for a touchdown against Kentucky, recovering the key late fumble that put Texas away) but despite playing a lot in pass-rush situations didn’t register a sack and had only one tackle for loss. He needs to be more effective as a pass-rusher. Redshirt freshman Ed Stinson is the primary backup outside, but Alabama will juggle its linebackers to get the best four on the field.
The defensive backfield was devastated by graduatation, then lost two other key personnel when starting corner Kareem Jackson surprisingly turned pro (wisely, as he was drafted in the first round) and safety Robby Green was ruled ineligible for the season for undisclosed rules violations. Together with the recent transfer of safety Rod Woodson, only three defensive backs return who played at all in 2009. Luckily, one of them is All-American junior safety Mark Barron, who after a patchy 2008 beat out Green for a starting role last season and was outstanding, leading the conference in interceptions with seven, returning one for a touchdown. He is also the team’s leading returning tackler, and may take on some playcalling duties as well. The other safety spot is manned, almost by default, by sophomore Robert Lester, who played sparingly last season but beat out Woodson in practice before the latter left the team. Backing this group up are three true freshmen, Blake Sims, Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry, and converted wide receiver Kendall Kelly. Safety, despite Barron, is the obvious trouble spot on defense.
At corner, there is less game experience but more practice experience and the talent is exceptional. The starters look to be sophomores Dre Kirkpatrick (the only returning corner with game experience) and B. J. Scott (a converted wideout who sat out last season after changing positions), with true freshman DeMarcus Milliner at the “Star” nickelback position (that is essentially a starter) but JUCO transfer Dequan Menzies muddied the waters with a miraculous early return from a torn achilles tendon and has also been working with the first team at times. Sophomore Phelon Jones, a transfer from LSU, and true freshman John Fulton, provide depth. With the troubles at safety and the multiple-DB packages Saban likes to run, all should see extensive playing time; Milliner, who played safety in high school, may wind up as the top backup there as well.
There is almost nothing returning from special teams, where the placekicker, punter, snapper, holder, and principal return man all are gone, together with several key coverage players. This collection of three- and four-year starters includes record holders at kicker (Leigh Tiffin) and punt returner (Javier Arenas) and was intact so long that Saban hadn’t had to even tinker with it since inheriting it from Mike Shula. Tiffin’s replacement appears to be scholarship true freshman Cade Foster, who did most of the kicking in spring, though it may be that Foster winds up working on kickoffs and longer field goals with someone else, perhaps sophomore Jeremy Shelley, taking short kicks. Punter was such a disaster in spring that the leader was converted offensive lineman Taylor Pharr, only to then see Pharr have to quit football and take a medical scholarship. Scholarship freshman Jay Williams and walkon Cody Mandell will fight for the job this fall; Williams enrolled early but was unimpressive.
Returns are completely up in the air, but there’s plenty of talent there. Though he seems tall for the role, Julio Jones has returned some punts at times and may wind up with the role, but there are all sorts of other candidates. Best guess is that he takes that job, with Trent Richardson and one of the wide receivers, perhaps Marquis Maze, taking kickoffs, but that is really a guess and we probably won’t know for sure until games start. Corey Grant, a jitterbug-type true freshman running back, may also be in the mix. Coverage may be a problem initially; it was for much of last year, and that was before many of the team’s top special teams tacklers graduated. But with the talent available it shouldn’t stay that way.
Rather than play a neutral-site game with an ACC opponent, as in the first three seasons of the Saban era, Alabama will play the home end of a home-and-home series with Penn State in 2010, the second game of the season. There is a peculiar trip to Duke following that, a game Alabama tried to get shifted to Charlotte but the Blue Devils refused. There are also the usual sacrificial lambs, San Jose State for the season opener and Georgia State, in its first season of football and coached by former Alabama head man Bill Curry, coming to Tuscaloosa in November for a game where Alabama could easily — but won’t — score 100.
In conference, Kentucky is replaced in the rotation by Florida, an obvious step up in class, coming to Tuscaloosa in October for a game that will probably get some national attention. The Tide travels to South Carolina for the other rotation game. Of the annual opponents, Alabama travels to Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU and hosts Auburn and the Mississippi schools. I used to call this a “bad schedule” year, but it’s no longer clear that Tennessee is more to be feared than Ole Miss.
Alabama hasn’t lost a regular season game in two years. Surely that can’t continue. There’s no game on the schedule that Alabama shouldn’t be favored in, but there are lots that they could lose, and it seems like sooner or later they’ll catch a bad break. That being said, they’re still the favorites in the conference and nationally, and one loss isn’t the death knell, thanks in part to the conference championship game. Beating Florida twice (everyone assumes that the two teams will win their divisions again, as Florida does almost every year) is a tall task to be sure. A repeat championship is still doable, if they maintain focus.
Sept. 1: Mark Ingram will miss the opener against San Jose State after minor knee surgery (perhaps a simple arthroscopic cleaning). He may be back for the second game against Penn State, and Alabama could beat SJSU with anybody playing running back.
The offensive depth chart was pretty much as predicted, no surprise considering the number of returning starters. The biggest surprise on the defensive side came at linebacker, where Jerrell Harris was moved inside to start next to Donta Hightower (and will probably be the playcalling LB in passing situations with Hightower moving to rush end) and Chavis Williams, a senior I didn’t mention in the original post, taking over at the Sam position. Meanwhile, DeQuan Menzie beat out BJ Scott as the second cornerback, but both will play a lot, with Menzie moving to nickelback (“Star” in Alabama’s terminology) in extra-DB situations, which is probably more than half the time. At both specialist spots, Alabama has co-starters. Cade Foster will do long kicks and kickoffs, with Jeremy Shelley taking short kicks, and Jay Williams and Cody Mandell both listed at punter.