Alabama is on top of the college football world....until September 4 when the 2010 season kicks off. That is exactly how Nick Saban wants it, having a hungry team ready to not defend, but win again.
How has the focus been for the Tide in the off season? Can Mark Ingram become just the 2nd back-to-back Heisman winner? And could the defense possibly be better after losing so many starters from last season?
To find out the answers to these and other questions, I contacted Roll 'Bama Roll for their insight on the Crimson Tide.
Q: Take out the great players. What do you think makes Nick Saban such a good coach?
A: First, we probably ought to define the term "great players" as it pertains to Saban. We've all crowed about all the flashy stars next to the names of the most recent recruiting classes, but a lot of them have yet to even see the field despite being arguably better, at least on paper, than the guys getting the snaps.
Take Eryk Anders and Corey Reamer, two starters on a truly dominant defense last season. Saban himself said he never thought either one of them would have a place on the team, but there they were, and they did it because they worked their butts off to know the schemes and their roles in it.
There are guys all over last year's team with the same story, players who worked hard, bought in, and gave everything they had on every snap, and most of them didn't even get a sniff from any other major BCS programs coming out of high school. So when we are talking about "great players" where Saban is involved, great has more to do with their character and work ethic than their 40 times and what they can bench.
That being said, I don't know that you can take out the great players and we'd still be talking about how great of a coach Saban is. All the attention to detail, organization, game planning, and just flat immense knowledge of Xs and Os in the world (which are the things I'm sure you were expecting me to say) won't do you a lot of good if you don't have the right kind of players to pull it off, and Saban knows this. That's why he's so focused on recruiting, and specifically recruiting the kinds of players that fit his schemes and his style of football.
A lot of that is measurables, but he's also very aware that whoever he offers a scholarship to has to have the right kind of work ethic, be it at practice or in the film room, and the desire to get better every day so that they can be successful on the field.
Q: Will Saban and OC Jim McElwain give QB Greg McElroy more freedom at QB this year to sling the ball around?
A: I think they'll honestly just go with what's working. Both have expressed a desire to generate more "explosive" plays on offense, and opening up the passing game will be key to that, but both coaches are pretty pragmatic when it comes to the offense and if it's not there, they aren't going to force it.
I do believe that the passing game has the potential to be more wide open than it was, though, so in that regard I can say that I believe McElroy will be slinging the ball around more this season. He's got a year under his belt, he showed massive improvement towards the end of the season after a terrible slump, and the WR position is getting deeper each year (and that's not mentioning the RBs out of the backfield and the TEs) so all the ingredients are there.
Q: I think Mark Ingram will not win the Heisman again because he will have to split more carries with Trent Richardson. Am I right or wrong?
A: You're probably right that Ingram won't win it again, but not necessarily because of splitting carries with Richardson. Richardson is going to be a big part of the offense this year, no doubt about it, but if the passing game takes off like we think it will then that takes even more focus off of Ingram. And let's face it, if he hadn't been pretty much the entire offense during an important part of last year's run, Ingram probably wouldn't have even sniffed Manhattan, but because of his heroics against South Carolina (and then Florida), he was propelled into the Heisman race despite having zero hype at the start of the season and no orchestrated campaign from the university.
I mean, Greg McElroy was being talked about as a dark horse candidate before Ingram's name was even mentioned, so that ought to tell you a little something about how out of left field his winning it was.
Q: How healthy is Julio Jones and is there another guy who can step up and replace him if he gets hurt again?
A: He's at 100% now and hopefully can stay that way, though he's had a bit of a hard luck streak on the injury front for the past two years. You wouldn't have known it by watching him, but in 2008 he managed to play through both a sports hernia and a wrist injury (both were revealed after offseason surgeries) and then last year he was clearly bothered by a nagging knee injury suffered early on against FIU.
During that stretch he still played reasonably well, but was clearly not himself, and both Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze stepped up their games to take some of the burden off of him. Of course, that was also a pretty frustrating stretch for McElroy as well, so we really don't know what might have been with a seasoned QB spreading the ball around. Hanks and Maze are going to be significant contributors again this year, but I would also think Earl Alexander, Kevin Norwood and Brandon Gibson all have a good chance of getting into the rotation a good bit as well.
Q: Alabama lost alot on the o-line after 2008, but played even better in 2009. Which players are going to step up to keep the tradition going?
A: James Carpenter (LT), William Vlachos (C), and Barrett Jones (RG) are all back and all had great seasons last year. I'll single Carpenter out for praise because his ability to come right in from JUCO and fill Andre Smith's shoes at LT was probably the biggest single key to the o-line's success last year. He had his faults (took him a few games to get settled after a string of frustrating holding and false start penalties), but he was a serviceable SEC caliber tackle to begin with and fortunately developed over the course of the season into a more than solid player for us.
As for the vacated spots, mammoth recruit D.J. Fluker is getting a look at RT (though there's been some interesting shuffling the past few days) and by all accounts will likely wind up starting there, and Chance Warmack has effectively locked down the LG spot vacated by All-American Mike Johnson.
Warmack is an interesting case since he looked like a monster at RG during spring camp last year before being supplanted by Barrett Jones in the middle of fall camp. That took a lot of people by surprise, but he's a natural guard and has pretty well been the clear cut front runner at LG since spring camp.
Q: Who steps up in the NT spot vacated by Mt. [Terrance] Cody and how effective can they be in replacement?
A: You're going to see several players rotating in at NT this season, but the top two are going to be Josh Chapman and Kerry Murphy. Chapman has been Cody's backup the last two years and he's a fine NT on his own merits, often replacing Cody in passing situations and just generally providing a little more speed and athleticism from the inside. I would look for him to be the preferred guy this year against the run, though, and he'll probably see the most action, but Murphy really brings a pass rushing presence in the middle of the line that we just haven't had without having to move our ends inside and I think gives the coaches a little bit more versatility in their groupings.
You'll also probably see Darrington Sentimore getting in as well. There hasn't been a lot of talk of him this fall, but he looked good in the spring and is another high motor player like Murphy, so look for him on 3rd and longs.
Q: Who steps into the departed Rolando McClain's shoes as the captain of the defense?
A: Dont'a Hightower is the signal caller this year after missing most of last season thanks to a horrific knee injury against Arkansas. He was already well on his way to being a dominant force after starting every game as a true freshman, but I think what really speaks most about his leadership and the faith the staff is putting in him was the simple fact he was still learning and trying to help even on crutches.
Go back and look at the games from last year, and anytime the camera shows the defense huddled on the sideline he's right there with the linebackers telling them what he's seeing from the sidelines. He's moved over to Mike from his Will position, and will also put his hand down some as a DE, so he knows the defense. Now all we need is for him to show he has the same smarts and ability to get the defense into the right call as quickly as McClain.
Q: Where could the potential weak link be on this defense?
A: The secondary is giving us nightmares right now. We lost so much to graduation and the NFL, and adding insult to injury (or injury to insult, as it were) we've got guys getting banged up left and right all through fall camp. B.J. Scott and Dre Kirkpatrick pretty well have the starting corner spots locked down, and both have all the talent and athleticism in the world. Unfortunately, neither has any significant game experience.
Behind them DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton are highly touted true freshmen, DeQuan Menzie was a coveted JUCO corner, and LSU transfer Phelon Jones is now eligible after sitting a year. Milliner is already looking like he's going to be in the mix after enrolling early, but he's missed the last several practices with an ankle sprain. Menzie injured his hamstring before spring practice even started and wasn't expected to play this year, but he's miraculously out on the practice field and by all accounts looking good, even if still a little bothered by the injury. So for the most part the corner situation is at least reasonably manned with significant talent even if it does lack experience. Safety, on the other hand, is too depressing to even think about. Mark Barron is a super star, but opposite him we have no one.
Robby Green is ineligible after a mysterious violation of NCAA rules, Robert Lester has shown some talent but is far from being as consistent as we'd like, and Kendall Kelly, who moved over to DB from WR in the spring and did a pretty good job of it, just today returned to practice after suffering from dizziness and other "heat related" issues the very first day of fall camp. Even though he could contribute later in the season, he's missed so much practice that there's no way he'll be up to speed enough by the first game.
We're down to walk on Will Lowery getting a lot of quality snaps and Saban saying he's going to probably play a significant role this season, so if there's a "potential" weak link, look at the safety position and pray with me that there aren't any injuries there this season.
Q: Who are some of the freshman that are likely to contribute?
A: I already talked about DeMarcus Milliner at corner, and beyond him a couple of guys that are definitely going to see action are true freshman kickers Cade Foster, Cody Mandell, and Jay Williams.
We graduated multi-year starters Leigh Tiffin and P.J. Fitzgerald last year, so we're looking at platooning our kickers depending on what essentially boils down to Saban's game time gut feelings. Maybe I should have put that in the 'weak link' answer, too. On offense, redshirt freshman Eddie Lacy is fighting hard to be the #3 running back behind Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson.
RB coach Burton Burns remarked that he's a blend of those two, and watching him at A-Day you could see the scary blend of strength and speed that those guys possess. He's going to be good when he gets a chance, so whenever he does get into the game keep an eye on him.
There's also been some talk that true freshman receivers DeAndrew White and Corey Grant have been turning heads this fall with their speed, but WR is so loaded with experience right now that I just don't see the staff burning redshirts on them unless they manage to work their way onto special teams.
Q: Describe a successful season. Describe a disappointing one.
A: As you know, we are Alabama fans, and Alabama fans can't consider a season successful unless we win it all. That's not to say that we will, but as long as I can remember the stated goal of the Crimson Tide is to win championships, both of the league and national variety, and when you have a top program that should always be your aim.
So I honestly feel like, for teams like Alabama or Texas or Ohio State or Florida, a season's success needs to be measured by that standard. Even though nine or ten wins and a New Year's Bowl would be considered "successful" by most standards, if it doesn't include at least a conference title then somewhere along the way the season went off the rails.
For us specifically, I would consider, at the least, winning the SEC a successful season (and winning whatever bowl would be nice, too). A disappointing one would be losing more than one regular season game and/or not making it back to Atlanta.
Q: What is your prediction for this season?
A: I can't make predictions when it comes to Alabama because I simply cannot pick against the Tide. I do believe we'll lose a regular season game, though, but I also believe we'll win the SEC West and play in the championship game again, though.
My Take on Alabama...
I think Nick Saban has a better chance to repeat with this program than he did at LSU. Even a control freak like Saban couldn't keep the Tigers hungry (much less Les Miles), but in Tuscaloosa I think he has a shot.
Offensively, as long as the offensive line is as physical as it has been the last two years they will be fine. Having Jones healthy for a season is just a bonus. One concern could be if Greg McElroy gets hurt. Saban has not had a starting QB miss a start due to injury since he got there and that luck has to run out some time.
On the defensive side of the ball, the talent level is higher than it was last year, but there will be more of a learning curve. I can see some bumps this year, early on especially, but in the next few years this unit has a chance to be Miami Hurricanes of the 1980s-esque.
Much has been made of the schedule and the opponents bye weeks. I think more important is the fact Alabama has gone two seasons undefeated in the regular season. Three is very tough in a league as deep as the SEC. I think the Tide will slip up somewhere and it may be before the 'bye week palooza' hits.
11-1, 1st in SEC West
Thanks again to Roll 'Bama Roll for their insight.