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SEC spring practice preview: Alabama

Decimated by departures on defense, can the Crimson Tide repeat? Dave Miller

Print This March 12, 2010, 06:00 PM EST

Alabama Crimson Tide
2009: 14-0 (8-0)

Just nine weeks after celebrating its victory in the BCS National Championship game, Alabama will put its triumph in the past and start working on the 2010 campaign as spring practice begins Friday in Tuscaloosa.

Reloading the defense is head coach Nick Saban’s top priority heading into next season. Despite having a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback in Mark Ingram, the defense was the glue to the undefeated Crimson Tide in 2009. This fall, could an offense loaded with skill players actually carry the squad and be the key to a repeat title? It may need to, as “departure” seems to be the theme for ‘Bama on the heels of a new campaign. Heck, even special teams have been decimated by personnel losses.

But back to that ferocious defense losing so much bite.

The secondary loses not only three starters from the championship team, but many of the nickel backs and backups as well. Strong safety Mark Barron is the lone returning starter, but he should have an even better campaign in the fall — though it’ll be tough to top his seven interceptions, which led all Tide defenders in ‘09. Robby Green was supposed to be the new free safety, but a suspension for an undisclosed violation has the Tide looking elsewhere while the punishment is appealed. Rod Woodson and Robert Lester now have a chance to seize the opportunity for the starting gig during the spring season. The cornerback candidates include LSU transfer Phelon Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick and B.J. Scott. However, keep an eye on two big-name prospects from the 2010 recruiting class who have enrolled early — DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton. They will see the field early in the fall, most likely on special teams initially.

Alabama was also hit hard at linebacker, starting with the loss of All-America middle linebacker Rolando McClain. ‘Bama does have depth at the position, though, and good news comes in the form of Dont’a Hightower returning after suffering a serious knee injury in the fourth game of the season. However, he probably won’t be fully ready until August. Nico Johnson, who as a freshman took over for Hightower after his injury, will join Hightower in manning the inside ‘backer spots. The major question is which one will fill McClain's role as the signal caller of the defense? Jerrell Harris looks to be the leading contender for an outside linebacker spot, but he’ll face competition in Charvis Williams, Alex Watkins and Jonathan Atchison — all of whom should get playing time at any of the linebacking spots. The “Jack” position, designed for the pass-rusher, should be filled by Courtney Upshaw.

More losses occur on the defensive line, as the Tide must replace all three starting trenchmen. However, Marcel Dareus is ready to emerge as a stud at defensive end after leading the Tide in sacks last season and being named the defensive MVP against Texas. Kerry Murphy looks to compete with Josh Chapman for the spot at nose guard, but he could also be moved to end to battle it out with Luther Davis. Keep an eye on Saban’s plan for Murphy this spring.

The special teams unit not only loses Terrence Cody’s ability to block potential game-winning field goals, but it loses its kicker, punter, long snapgrper, holder and primary return man. It will be interesting to see how much wideout Julio Jones is used as a punt returner, as he backed up the departed Javier Arenas last season. Running back/wideout Terry Grant should take over for Arenas as the primary kick returner. Trent Richardson and Marquis Maze also could get some chances to return this spring.

While Hightower should assume the role of defensive leader, this team falls in the hands of quarterback Greg McElroy on offense — and that’s a good thing. McElroy faced staunch pressure and high expectations last season, and kneeling down to clinch the national title for ‘Bama will only help him for 2010. After going through a rough stretch last year and bouncing back to reach the pinnacle of college football, McElroy can go out, have fun and enjoy the game. That could be a scary thought for the opposition, especially because McElroy will have Julio Jones and a loaded backfield at his disposal.

Besides Ingram, the signal caller can hand the ball off to Richardson (who many close to the team feel may be the best back on the team), redshirt freshman Eddie Lacy and speed back Grant.

To the general public, the Crimson Tide may not have household names on defense yet, but Saban knows talent, and the cupboard isn’t bare in Tuscaloosa. A repeat national title? Stranger things have happened. Whether this becomes a more offensive-driven Alabama team or not, the future of the program remains bright.

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