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August 17, 2011
OVERVIEW: The Tide never is going to wow anyone with their schemes or be tricky with their play-calling. Coach Nick Saban and coordinator Jim McElwain are rather simplistic in their preferences, running an old-fashioned pro-style attack, complete with two-tight end sets. Yes, there will be use of three- and four-receiver sets, but for the most part, the Tide wants to line up and out-tough its opponents.
BACKFIELD: In 2009, Alabama was breaking in a new starting quarterback and a new tailback - and it won the national title. The Tide are hoping history repeats. That season, it was hoped that TB Mark Ingram could make the jump from productive backup to productive starter. Fast forward to 2011, and the same thing is happening, with junior Trent Richardson assuming the Ingram role. Richardson has rushed for 1,451 yards and 14 TDs in his first two seasons, and as the focal point of the offense, he could surpass those numbers this season and contend for the Heisman. Depth at tailback is iffy, and if Richardson is lost for a significant amount of time, the Tide will suffer. In '09, Greg McElroy led the Tide to the national title as a "game-manager" quarterback. This season, the same will be asked of either sophomore A.J. McCarron or redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. McCarron has an extra year of experience and that should be enough to assure that he will be the starter. As always with Alabama's quarterbacks, McCarron (or Sims) won't be asked to win games; rather, he will be told to make sure he doesn't lose them.
RECEIVERS: The Tide is going to miss WR Julio Jones, who might've been the most talented receiver in school history. While there are some solid receivers still on the roster, none of them is going to scare opposing corners like Jones did. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks should share go-to duties, and senior Brandon Gibson, sophomores Kenny Bell, Michael Bowman and Kevin Norwood and redshirt freshman DeAndrew White will vie for time. JC transfer Duron Carter, who began his career at Ohio State before running into academic issues, signed with the Tide this spring, but hasn't been cleared academically. Like his dad, Cris, Duron is not a burner, but he runs crisp routes, is physical and has good hands. Starting TEs Michael Williams and Brad Smelley are better blockers than receivers, but they will get some passes thrown their way in this offense.
LINE: Junior Barrett Jones is the Tide's best lineman, and he should receive postseason attention. The question is at what position. Though he starred at guard last season, he was moved to left tackle early in summer camp because Saban wasn't pleased with the line's performance. Jones unquestionably is a starter - but will it be at guard (his natural position) or tackle? Senior C William Vlachos and sophomore RT D.J. Fluker are the other potential standouts, with Fluker, especially, a talented physical specimen who has a ton of promise. If Jones stays at tackle, the guard spots will be filled by returning starter Chance Warmack, a junior, and sophomore Anthony Steen. If Jones moves back to guard, Steen and Warmack will battle it out for the other starting spot. Jones' return to guard might hinge on five-star freshman T Cyrus Kouandjio. Saban has singled out Kouandjio for praise, but it certainly would be a gamble to start a true freshman at left tackle on a team that has legit national title aspirations. Depth looks fine in the interior, especially if Jones moves back inside, but iffy at tackle.
OVERVIEW: Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart run a 3-4 set, and linebackers blitz from everywhere. There is some concern about the starting front this season, but the back eight should be the best in the nation, with four potential All-Americans.
LINE: The Tide is going to miss Marcell Dareus as much, if not more, than they miss Julio Jones. As with Jones, Dareus turned pro early and was a top-10 pick. NT Josh Chapman is an established starter in the middle, but the other two spots along the front bear watching. Two highly touted JC transfers, E Quinton Dial and T Jesse Williams, arrived in time for spring ball, and both could start. Both also could be reserves, but each will see a lot of time. Converted LB Ed Stinson is in the hunt for a starting job at end, as is junior Damion Square, who was a part-time starter last season. Nick Gentry, Undra Billingsley, Brandon Ivory and true freshman LaMichael Fanning also should see time. This is a bulky, physical group. The Tide lost part-time starter Kerry Murphy to a knee injury.
LINEBACKERS: There are no concerns here. ILB Dont'a Hightower and OLB Courtney Upshaw should vie for All-America honors. Hightower missed most of 2009 with a knee injury and didn't seem to be fully back until late last season; he still was second on the team with 69 tackles. Upshaw led the Tide with seven sacks. Senior Jerrell Harris and junior Nico Johnson look as if they will start at the other two spots, though sophomore C.J. Mosley is coming off an excellent freshman season (67 tackles, a team-high 10 pass breakups) and will push Johnson. Depth looks good, too.
SECONDARY: This is another Tide strong suit, as all four starters return. Alabama has the best set of safeties in the nation with senior SS Mark Barron and junior FS Robert Lester. Barron is heading into his third season as a starter and was the team's leading tackler with 75 last season; he also had three interceptions and six pass breakups. Lester filled a big hole at free safety last season - and did it so well that he garnered some All-America notice; he had four picks and eight breakups. CB Dre Kirkpatrick had an up-and-down freshman season, but turned into a steady performer last season; he has excellent size (6-3/192). Dee Milliner was thrown into the fray as a true freshman last season and performed admirably, with four interceptions and seven breakups. DeQuan Menzie is a solid No. 3 corner and will see a lot of time. Depth at safety is a bit iffy, though.
Ks Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley combined to go 19-of-25 on field-goal attempts, with Foster's 49-yarder the longest. P Cody Mandell needs to improve; he averaged just 39.2 yards per attempt last season. Maze did a good job as the punt returner last season, and Richardson was excellent as a kick returner. Saban has hinted, though, that he might not use Richardson in that role this season, instead going with White. The punt coverage was good, the kickoff coverage inconsistent last season.
Dial and Williams need to make an impact along the defensive front. Other than Chapman, there really isn't an established player in the front three, and the two JC transfers will be given every opportunity to get on the field. As good as Alabama's back eight is on defense, it needs some help from the guys up front.
There are tough games early (Game 2 at Penn State and Game 4 vs. Arkansas), in the middle (Game 5 at Florida) and late (Game 9 vs. LSU, Game 10 at Mississippi State and Game 12 at Auburn). Still, it's also a navigable schedule, and, truthfully, the only game the Tide realistically could possibly lose is the contest to LSU. The game against Mississippi State, though, shapes up as a "trap game," with Alabama playing the Bulldogs on the road the week after they meet LSU.
This looks a lot like the 2009 Alabama team - you know, the one that won a national title. First-year starting quarterback? Check. First-time starter at tailback? Check. Potentially devastating defense? Check. A lot hinges on Richardson, who has to produce at Ingram-like levels if the Tide is to fulfill its potential. The passing attack should be adequate, nothing more, which means Richardson must come through. The defense was spotty at times last season, especially in the secondary. That shouldn't be a concern this season. And you have to figure Saban and Smart can get the needed production from the defensive front three - as well as disguise any weaknesses up front. In short, this shapes up to be a memorable season - if Richardson is as good as we think.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.