The Tide has turned at 'Bama

Alabama kicked off spring practice on Monday looking to replace a trio of offensive stars who are preparing for life in the NFL after becoming household names throughout the country the last few seasons. Greg McElroy, Mark Ingram and Julio Jones may have moved on from Tuscaloosa, but the cupboards are never bare at a Nick Saban-led program — especially on the defensive side of the ball, where ‘Bama will enter the 2011 season more experienced than in 2010.

Let’s take a look at some of the key storylines for the Crimson Tide as they begin early preparations for the 2011 campaign.

Alabama (10-3, 5-3 SEC)

No longer a secondary concern

Mark BarronICONMark Barron's mates in the secondary are more experienced entering the 2011 season.

Entering last season, there were major questions as to how the Tide would adjust to losing so much talent to graduation and the next level following their national championship season. They lost the leader of the unit, Rolando McClain, as well as all three starting trenchmen on the defensive line. But it was the secondary that really posed the biggest problem, as only one member of the defensive backfield, safety Mark Barron, returned with any extensive experience.

So it came as no surprise that defending the pass gave ‘Bama the biggest problem in its three defeats.

Whether it was bad technique, being in the wrong spot or a key mental error, youth on the unit made it tough to repeat as national champs. It also didn’t help that the dominant pass rush displayed in 2009 just didn’t seem to be prevalent.

But last season’s new starters are a year older now, and they have the benefit of playing a full league schedule. And it bodes well that as many lapses as the unit may have had, the Tide still finished tied for third nationally in scoring defense. In addition, ‘Bama tied for the SEC lead with 22 interceptions in 2010.

Cornerback may now be a strength for this unit with rising senior DeQuan Menzie and junior-to-be Dre Kirkpatrick leading the way. Menzie played mostly in the nickel last year after being limited by an Achilles injury in fall camp. Dee Milliner will also figure greatly into the rotation after being thrown to the wolves as a true freshman. Saban recently suspended rising senior Robby Green, but the defensive backfield likely won’t be a sore spot as it was last season even if Green doesn’t return.

Regaining the 2009 form

As noted earlier, the Tide’s pass rush in 2010 wasn’t the dominant force as it was in its national championship season a year earlier. With Marcell Dareus departing, Saban will be looking to a collection of defenders to fill the void.

Courtney Upshaw will anchor the defense as a hybrid edge defender at the Jack position, a spot he excelled at last season when healthy. However, a high ankle sprain limited his effectiveness throughout the year. If he stays healthy in 2011, he is a likely first-round pick in 2012.

Dont’a Hightower didn’t look comfortable switching to Mike ‘backer and struggled with the lingering effects of his knee injury. However, he played his best ball toward the end of the season. And if he can regain his ’09 form, the defense can be even better than expected.

Alex Watkins should emerge as one of the consistent pass-rush specialists, while converted linebacker Ed Stinson will contribute at defensive end. Arizona Western College transfer Jesse Williams, meanwhile, could emerge as an impact nose guard. The 6-4, 330-pounder enrolled in January and could assert himself in spring drills. In addition, fellow junior college signee Quinton Dial will fight for reps at defensive end.

The Tide should get to the quarterback with more consistency — it just may be with a combination of defenders rather than one standout as in years past.

The void under center

AJ McCarronAJ McCarron is vying to replace Greg McElroy under center.

The consistent play of Greg McElroy was one of the more underappreciated aspects of Alabama football the last two seasons, as the steady signal-caller tossed 39 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions while compiling a 24-3 mark and leading the Tide to a national title. Who will step in and replace the savvy veteran’s leadership and intelligence?

Redshirt sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims will compete for the starting gig, with McCarron as the leading contender to line up under center in the season opener. True freshman Phillip Ely will also get reps, while redshirt freshman Blake Sims will likely change positions.

McCarron completed 30 of 48 passes for 389 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions last season, and his 47-yard strike to Julio Jones against Tennessee underscored the type of talent he possesses. But is he ready for the big stage week after week?

Injury concerns: Nose guard Kerry Murphy will miss spring practice and is expected to take a medical scholarship because of chronic knee problems. Wide receiver Kendall Kelly and defensive back Wesley Neighbors will also miss spring practice due to injuries. Safety Mark Barron will be limited while recovering from a torn pectoral muscle.

Note: Alabama will play its A-Day spring game on April 16, which will be televised on ESPNU.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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