Friday, May 21, 2010

2010 Preseason Questions for the Alabama Crimson Tide

What are the major strengths of the team?

Going into this season, for the first time in ages, it appears the Tide offense will be the major strength of the team as the defense spends at least some part of the season sorting itself out amongst an abundance of talented but inexperienced players. And obviously the strength of the offense will be the two-headed monster of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson running the football. If both stay healthy and the carries pan out the right way, both could top 1,000 yards rushing this year. And if they accomplish anything close to that, the passing game will be like shooting fish in a barrel for sure-handed quarterback Greg McElroy. There could be lots of big throws open down the field for a veteran receiving corps headlined by Julio Jones.

What are the major weaknesses of the team?

Much will be made of the turnover on Bama’s defense, and rightfully so. The secondary will be a work in progress as they replace 4 starters, true. But at least the secondary will have an amazing front 7 to take some of the pressure off them. The real thing Alabama fans should be concerned about is the special teams. Alabama must find new starters in every facet of the game after losing their place kicker, punter, long snapper, and return specialist to graduation. Despite never being truly embraced by the fanbase, Leigh Tiffin worked himself into a Groza finalist in his final season at Bama. The Tide would have lost to Tennessee last year if Tiffin had not hit 4 FGs that day. Now he’ll be replaced by a true freshman. PJ Fitzgerald wasn’t known for booming punts, but he was reliable for a solid kick every time and rarely shanked one or got a punt blocked. Now he’ll also be replaced by a true freshman. Brian Selman never botched an official snap in his entire career as long snapper. Doubtful the new guy will be that consistent. These are the little things that you don’t notice until they go wrong and cost you points, but they’re big, unsung reasons why Alabama was a championship caliber team the past two years. And you could talk all day about how Bama will miss Javier Arenas returning punts.

Looking at the schedule, who will be the first major test?

Alabama’s first major test will be at Arkansas on September 25th. I honestly don’t think Penn State will be much of a problem for Alabama. Their offensive line looks pitiful. They won’t be able to run the ball on Bama’s defensive front, and they don’t have the quarterback capable of exploiting Bama’s inexperienced secondary. But Arkansas does. Ryan Mallett has one of the biggest arms in college football and the Gunslinger Syndrome to go along with it. If Arkansas can protect him, which they couldn’t do against Alabama in 2009, he and his experienced receiving corps will put this young secondary to the test. This game could be eerily reminiscent of last season’s Arkansas-Georgia game, where Mallett and Bobby Petrino abused an inexperienced secondary to the tune of 408 passing yards and 5 passing TDs in an early season match-up. Of course, the trick will be keeping the other team from scoring 52 this time around.

What team on the schedule do you fear the most?

Are the reigning National Champions even supposed to acknowledge “fear?” Florida will still be a tough game, but its difficult to work up much fear of them at this point. Not after how badly Bama beat them in 2009 and all the Gators have lost since then. I’ll never be afraid of a team quarterbacked by Stephen Garcia. Or a team coached by Les Miles that is devoid of Nick Saban recruits. Nor will I ever be scared of the University of Auburn Family, ever. So I guess if I had to pick a team to be scared of, it would be Arkansas for the reasons stated above. But it feels awfully strange to say that, too.

Who is the best player on the team that nobody outside of the state talks about?

Courtney Upshaw, Jack Linebacker

This would have been Marcell Dareus before the Texas game happened, by a long shot, but now the whole country has gotten well-acquainted with him and he will haunt Colt McCoy’s dreams forever and ever. So this was a bit tougher of a call. Ultimately, I went with Upshaw, whom Texas fans might also remember as the guy who recovered Garrett Gilbert’s fumble late in the 4th to basically seal the game. He’ll take over as the full-time starter at Jack linebacker after splitting time with senior Eryk Anders last season. Upshaw is an impressive physical specimen who started picking up the defense better and better as the season went along, ultimately playing some of his best ball against Florida and Texas. He was a holy terror during spring practice. If opponents try to double-team Mr. Dareus, and they will, Upshaw will make a lot of noise this year.

Who is the best offensive player on the team?

Mark Ingram, Running Back

Julio Jones and Trent Richardson are more physically gifted, but Julio drops too many balls and Trent has yet to master the little nuances of the RB position that Ingram has. And that’s what really makes Ingram what he is. Much gets made out of his toughness and determination to make yards after contact, and rightfully so, but it’s his combination of patience and vision that made him the Heisman winner. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a college player as calm and collected behind the line of scrimmage as Mark Ingram. Most kids either want to get the ball up field as quickly as possible once it hits their hands or they frantically stretch their run laterally the instant the play doesn’t open up like it’s supposed to. Ingram sets up behind the line waiting for a hole or a crease to hit like a QB waits for a receiver to get open. And he has this crazy vision that lets him see openings that nobody else sees.

Who is the best defensive player on the team?

Donta Hightower, Do-Everything Linebacker

Imagine Rolando McClain, except more athletic. That’s Hightower. He brings the size of your classic 34 Mike with the explosiveness of an outside linebacker. That’s why you can expect to see him vacate his post in the middle of the defense and put his hand in the dirt on the defensive line as a rush specialist in certain passing situations. It’s highly possible he could be more productive than McClain in the flashy categories that win awards. And just as McClain was the key cog in 2009’s championship defense, so will Hightower be to the 2010 defense. His job will be tougher, though. He’ll be tasked with shepherding a much less experienced unit that will need a bit more hand-holding, at least in the early going. The only thing that will stop this guy from being one of the most dominant players in the country is any nagging effect of his catastrophic knee injury, or worse, a re-injury.

What player has the biggest ability to impact the game by himself?

Marcell Dareus, Defensive Lineman

He’s the total package of size, athleticism, and technique. And the technique is probably the most important part of that combination, because its his confidence in what he’s doing that has made him about a half-step faster off the line, and thus about 10x more devastating. There is no one offensive lineman who will be able to handle him one-on-one this season. Teams will have to scheme their offense around him or risk getting somebody hurt. He’s a scary, scary man.

What player(s) need to step up this year in order for the team to reach its full capability?

Two men. First, Julio Jones. After a great freshman season, Julio seemed to plateau as a player in 2009, and his production dropped off. Many excuses were made at the time, chief among them was that he was hurt for a big part of the year. And that was true. But then he showed up at the spring game, reportedly the picture of health, and proceeded to play exactly as he had in 09. If he finally realizes his potential on the field, this Alabama team could be unstoppable on offense. Legitimately unstoppable. If not, it’ll resemble the 09 offense: hot and cold. Secondly, Mark Barron. The top safety in a Nick Saban defense normally bears a great deal of responsibility in communicating the plays, but as the lone returning starter in the secondary, Barron’s leadership will be crucial. The new defensive backs don’t lack for physical ability, but they’ll need a veteran to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do on any given play. If he fails in this job, you’ll see Bama giving up a lot of passing TDs in 2010.

Who is the top offensive newcomer that can make an impact this year (Fr, RS Fr, JUCO)?

There really isn’t a lot of room for newcomers to make significant contributions in 2010. Veterans with a high degree of job security return at QB and all the skill positions. If anybody tries to convince you AJ McCarron is going to take an undefeated, championship-winning Greg McElroy’s job, laugh directly into their ear, as loudly as you can. The one position on offense where a newcomer could grab a starting position is at the Right Tackle spot, recently vacated by departing senior Drew Davis. The leading candidate there appears to be redshirt freshman DJ Fluker. Fluker was a high-profile recruit out of Foley, Alabama, in 2009 and many fans seriously thought he would come in and start immediately at Left Tackle. Well, obviously that didn’t happen. He showed up to campus out of shape due to offseason surgery, and having spent only one season as an OL in high school, he failed to impress coaches with his footwork and overall technique. So his stock quickly fell from “Day 1 Starter” to “Long-Term Project.” However, with the Tide lacking in true offensive tackles, the coaching staff appears to be giving Fluker every opportunity to win a starting job this season. Fluker worked on the 1st team offensive line all spring and was put through a trial by fire by the likes of Marcell Dareus and Donta Hightower in the A-Day game. While he didn’t exactly impress in that particular performance (which included getting the football equivalent of “posterized” by Donta Hightower), indications are he’ll hold onto that job heading into fall camp.

Who is the top defensive newcomer that can make an impact this year (Fr, RS Fr, JUCO)?

On the opposite side of the ball, there are considerably more opportunities for newcomers to make an impact due to attrition in the secondary. Coming out of spring, sophomores Dre Kirkpatrick and BJ Scott seem to have firm grips on the top 2 cornerback spots, but beyond that its all newcomers, all the time. LSU transfer Phelon Jones will be eligible this season, but reports are that he hasn’t done much to distinguish himself thus far. Freshmen John Fulton and Demarcus Milliner enrolled early and participated in spring drills, which may turn out to be the most important offseason development for the Tide’s chances of a repeat championship season. Both were highly-touted recruits (at this point, who at Alabama wasn’t?), but Fulton appears to be the more polished corner of the two. It will not surprise me if Fulton is the #3 corner by the time the season starts.

What are your overall thoughts on your coaching staff?

You can search far and wide and still not find an Alabama fan who has a single problem with Nick Saban & Company right now. I think Nick Saban has transcended college football’s mortal plain as far as Alabama fans are concerned. Going 26-2 over two years with two undefeated regular seasons, an SEC championship, and a National championship, while appropriately subjugating Auburn and Tennessee along the way, will do that for a guy.

Gut feeling on the team’s final record at the end of the regular season?

Without any obviously great teams on the schedule, it’s tempting to call for another 12-0 regular season and another run at all the hardware. But Alabama’s own internal questions, along with the pure statistical improbability of stringing together 3 straight undefeated regular seasons in the modern SEC, won’t let me go quite that far. And then there's the small matter of 6 SEC opponents scheduling bye weeks prior to playing Bama. Still, anything less than 10 wins would be considered a major disappointment. I’ll split the difference and call for the Tide to go 11-1 and make their third straight appearance in the SEC championship game.


Kevin said...

I definitely see Bama repeating this year but like you I see them losing at least one game. I think that game is Florida. It's just tough to beat Urban twice in a row. I think Arkansas is being highly overrated this year (see also: Ole Miss last year). I'm not saying they will be bad I just don't see them having improved at all on defense. They have the worst defensive backfield in the SEC and one of the worst lines and their line backers aren't exactly stellar. They won't be able to stop anybody all year long. I think they finish 4th in the West.

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