Friday, September 3, 2010

The Key to 2010: Alabama's Class of 2008 Comes of Age

I've been gradually working on this piece for a bit now, all the while thinking, "Aw, I've got plenty of time before the season starts." Well, the season is here, and I've just finished it in the nick of time, a little over 24 hours before Alabama kicks off the 2010 season. It's...lengthy. Enjoy. Or not. Whichever.

February 6th, 2008 was a day of monumental importance in the history of Alabama football and the personal history of head coach Nick Saban. To say it had been a rough first year for Saban would be an understatement. The subject of almost unanimous scorn outside the state of Alabama for the manner in which he departed the Miami Dolphins in January the previous year, Saban endured a mediocre 7-6 season, losing 4 straight games to end the regular season, including a humiliating loss to Sun Belt opponent Louisiana-Monroe on Senior Day. Clearly the talent on campus had fallen to a level far below the standards set by the great Crimson Tide teams of old. But worse, the team was plagued by malcontent upperclassmen who refused to buy into Saban’s intense coaching style and philosophies after years under the soft leadership of Mike Shula, almost the total opposite of Saban in every way. To add insult to injury, Saban’s previous team, the LSU Tigers, won the BCS Championship that same year. Many began to wonder aloud, “Did Nick Saban really make LSU, or did LSU make Nick Saban?” Across the nation, there was a growing belief that college football had passed the University of Alabama by, that it would join the likes of Notre Dame in the ranks of once-proud programs that were no longer truly relevant to the championship discussion. After a decade of scandal, sanctions, and general incompetence, with precious few high points in between, there were times it seemed difficult to disagree.

For Saban, the solution was clear. In order to return the Tide to prominence, he and his coaching staff would have to engineer almost a total overhaul of the roster. And it couldn’t just be about recruiting “talent.” It had to be the right “talent,” young men with strong work ethics and team-first attitudes who could not just endure, but flourish under the rigor of his system. And it had to happen THEN. If they failed to achieve their goals on 2/6/08, the gap between Bama and the best of the SEC would only grow wider. The program would fall even further behind, years maybe.

Fortunately, the state of Alabama produced more elite talent that recruiting cycle than in many years before and every year since. It was simply a matter of Saban & Co. putting in the work to build the relationships and sell these kids on ultimately being the guys to lead the Crimson Tide back to glory. Nobody puts in more work than Nick Saban. With a strong pull from Alabama and a few key grabs from out of state, the timing was perfect to pull off a recruiting coup.

And they did it. Receiving 32 signed letters of intent (18 from Alabama players), the Tide’s recruiting class received almost universal acclaim as the #1 class in the nation. Many called it one of the greatest signing classes in the 85-scholarship limit era. Some were even so bold as to declare it one of the greatest of all time. We can argue those last two points all day long, but needless to say, this was an extremely talented group of players who arrived on campus under enormous expectations. You could understand if they cracked under the pressure. Projecting the success of high school kids to the college level is a risky business in and of itself, let alone when everyone is already anointing you the savior of one of the most storied programs in the history of the game.

But they didn’t crack. In the 28 games played since the Class of 08 stepped onto the field, Alabama is 26-2. They have notched 2 consecutive undefeated regular seasons. They have won 2 straight SEC West division titles. They have appeared in 2 BCS bowl games. They have captured one SEC Championship. And, of course, they won the school’s 13th national championship.

Individually, the class has produced 4 All-American performances, 3 Freshmen All-Americans, 6 All-SEC performances, 5 Freshmen All-SEC players, one SEC Freshman of the Year, and a Heisman Trophy winner, among other honors.

I list all that out for 2 reasons. 1. To show that these guys have already lived up to the hype. 2. To say that for as much as they’ve done to this point, the 2010 season will mean more to the Class of 08’s legacy than any other. This is their year. They made a lot of plays in 2008 and 2009, but when times got tough, it was guys like Rolando McClain who stepped up and showed the way to victory. It was Rashad Johnson, Antoine Caldwell, Kareem Jackson, Javier Arenas, Mike Johnson, etc. These guys were the leaders and now they’re gone. And in 2011, it’s highly likely that important 08ers like Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Marcell Dareus, and Mark Barron will be gone on to the NFL. Many will continue on and be important players in 2011, no doubt. But 2010 is the last year this group will play together as a solid unit. From the best player to the least player, whether on the All-American team or the scout team, they will define how the 2010 season goes down in the history books. Not just through their play, but through their leadership. Are they going to be remembered as men who led the way, who made others better around them? Or as a bunch of really talented players who just followed others to a title?

Look, no one can take the championships of 2009 away from them. They will always be remembered as champions. But, as Saban is so fond of pointing out, you’re remembered for how you finish.

With all that in mind, I’d like to take a bit (okay, a while) to acknowledge the 08ers on the team, what they’ve accomplished so far and how they’ll figure into 2010. Of the 32 recruits originally signed, 21* remain on the team. Of those, 10 are currently listed as starters at their position. 6 more are listed in the two-deep roster and figure to get significant playing time. Whether you're for Alabama or against them, they're worth knowing. The performance of these players is going to shape the course of the 2010 season in the SEC and beyond.

(*Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the incomparable Terrence Cody, who completed his eligibility with the 2009 season. Also, I did not include MTV Two-A-Days star Kerry Murphy in this group. He signed in 2008, the 2nd of this 3 attempts to enroll at Alabama, before finally getting in with the 2009 class.)

Unless you’re a diehard Alabama fan or a college football information junkie, you should probably turn back now. Thanks for reading.

Mark Barron, Safety (Mobile, AL)
Rivals Rank:
4* Athlete. Scout Rank: 5* Linebacker.
Career Statistics: 94 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 interceptions, 11 pass break ups, 1 defensive TD
Notable Awards & Accolades: 1st Team All-SEC (2009), 3rd Team All-American (2009)
The First Two Seasons: A great athlete with the speed and ball skills to play safety and the strength and toughness to play linebacker, Barron was perhaps the most exciting defensive prospect in the class when he arrived on campus in 2008. The defensive coaches felt like kids on Christmas morning, imagining the myriad ways they could use him. As a result, they now admit, they overloaded his brain with too many positions, so Barron became a “jack of all trades, master of none” and failed to see significant playing time aside from special teams. In 2009, he made up for lost time. He won a starting job handily and proceeded to have an All-SEC season, leading the conference in interceptions and putting up comparable numbers to the great Eric Berry.
Outlook for 2010: Based on his play last year, a repeat performance this season will most assuredly propel him into high-round NFL draft status. But as great as he played in 09, the fact is Barron was also surrounded by NFL talent in the Bama secondary. All he had to do was know his job and fly around the field making plays. This season, everyone around him will be seeing the first meaningful playing time of their careers. If that unit is going to perform even half as well as the 08 DB’s, Barron must become a more vocal leader. He’s going to have to know everybody else’s job and make sure they’re doing it, every play. That’s a huge responsibility, but that’s the job that’s fallen to him. How he lives up to it will largely determine the success of this year’s defense.

Undra Billingsley, Defensive End (Birmingham, AL)
Rivals Rank:
3* Defensive End Scout Rank: 3* Defensive Tackle
Career Statistics: None
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: Billingsley redshirted in 08, then switched to tight end for the 2009 season, where he played in two games as a reserve.
Outlook for 2010: He returned to the defensive side of the ball this offseason and is currently slotted in behind Marcell Dareus on the depth chart, meaning he should see solid playing time for the first time in his career as part of Bama’s DL rotation. Slightly undersized for a 3-4 end right now(260-ish lbs), he mainly presents as a pass rusher.

John Michael Boswell, Offensive Lineman (Northport, AL)
Rivals Rank:
4* OL Scout Rank: 3* OL
Career Statistics: N/A
Notable Awards & Accolades: Freshman All-SEC (2008)
The First Two Seasons: While never earning a start, Boswell has been a significant contributor on Alabama’s offensive line since his arrival. Capable of playing both tackle and guard, he played a critical role as the unofficial “sixth man” on the line during the 2008 season.
Outlook for 2010: Unfortunately, he’s perhaps not physically gifted enough to compete with the level of talent Bama has been recruiting to the OL since his freshman year, and he’s yet to secure a starting spot. That said, he’s capable of stepping in and playing well at a moment’s notice. As a testament to his versatility, he’s listed as #2 at left guard and #3 at right tackle on the initial 2010 depth chart. And, trust me, if the right guard goes down, he’ll be the first guy off the bench there, too. Boswell is a heady, reliable player.

Marcell Dareus, Defensive Lineman (Birmingham, AL)
Rivals Rank:
3* DE Scout Rank: 4* DT
Career Statistics: 37 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 10 hurries, 1 interception, 2 pass break ups, 1 defensive TD
Notable Awards & Accolades: 2009 BCS Title Game Defensive MVP
The First Two Seasons: Despite his already enormous reputation, Dareus has only officially started 3 games in his career thus far. As soon as he set foot on campus, it was obvious he was the most physically gifted defensive lineman on the team. It was just a matter of him grasping the mental aspects of the game. You saw that process play out last season. By the end of 2009, he was playing at such a high level, some high profile draft pundits were already projecting him as a top 5 pick.
Outlook for 2010: In the wake of his performance in the BCS Title game, Dareus appeared ready to carve a Path of Destruction through the 2010 schedule. Then we hit a little snag. AgentGate hit, and no one could be certain Dareus would play at all. (As of last night, word came down that Dareus would be suspended for 2 games. Bama will appeal for a 1 game reduction. If it stands, feel sorry for the Duke OL that has to take him on when he returns.) The word “freak” gets thrown around a lot in football, but Dareus is the definition of the word. Now that he’s got the knowledge and technique to go with his natural size, strength, and speed, I don’t know if any one man can block him in this, his first year as a full-time, every down player. Enjoy him while you can, Bama fans. He’s going to the League in 2011.

Robby Green, Safety (River Ridge, LA)
Rivals Rank: 4* DB Scout Rank: 4* DB
Career Statistics: 39 tackles, 1 interception, 6 pass break ups
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: Green has played in 26 out of 28 games since he stepped onto campus, starting 6 times. As the 3rd safety in 2009, he saw extensive playing time when Mark Barron moved up to play the “Money” position in passing situations. Perhaps his most satisfying career moment thus far (aside from the championships) was picking off a pass against LSU last year, sealing the game and sticking a dagger in the heart of LSU fans who had denigrated him relentlessly since spurning LSU for the hated Saban.
Outlook for 2010: Green was an absolute lock to take over as a starting safety in place of the departing Justin Woodall…until he was suspended for the year for allegedly failing an NCAA drug test. He’ll return to the field in 2011, but for the time being, he’ll be the best scout team safety in the country.

Glenn Harbin, Linebacker (Mobile, AL)
Rivals Rank:
4* DE Scout Rank: 3* DE
Career Statistics: None
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: Harbin is an impressive physical specimen (6’5”, 260 lbs), but his career thus far can only be described as a disappointment. After redshirting in 08, he didn’t play a down for the Tide in 09. Not even on special teams.
Outlook for 2010: This was an important offseason for Harbin. He needed to impress coaches or risk getting passed over for the young defensive talent Saban has been stockpiling at linebacker. Apparently, that didn’t happen. Harbin is currently listed as the 4th string Jack linebacker, behind two freshmen. Unless he’s a late bloomer in the mold of Cory Reamer or, apparently, Chavis Williams, he may never play a meaningful down at Alabama.

Jerrell Harris, Linebacker (Gadsden, AL)
Rivals Rank:
4* LB Scout Rank: 4* LB
Career Statistics: 6 tackles
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: Mostly a special teams contributor as a freshman, Harris had a star-crossed sophomore season. By most accounts, Harris was primed to take over the Sam linebacker position in 2009 when it was discovered he had taken an impermissible benefit. He was suspended for the first 6 games of the season. By the time he was eligible to return, his replacement (senior Cory Reamer) had acquitted himself so well, he couldn’t get back on the field. Eventually he did work his way back into a special teams role and pulled some reserve duty, but ultimately, it was a “lost year” for Harris.
Outlook for 2010: With Reamer graduating, it seemed certain that Harris would retake his spot at Sam. But then we got thrown a curveball: he has won a starting job on the defense, but not at Sam, at Will. That’s the spot Dont’a Hightower vacated when he moved over to fill Rolando McClain’s Mike position. It’s interesting for two reasons. One, at 6’3” 230 lbs, Harris isn’t your typical Saban inside linebacker. He likes the big 250 lb guys, like McClain and Hightower, who can take on offensive linemen. Harris is more of a rangy coverage guy. Two, it tells me the coaches really like his level of play right now. The Sam comes off the field in nickel coverage (which is what defenses play most of the time these days because of all the spread stuff). The Will doesn’t. By moving him there, the coaches are basically saying, “We want this guy on the field as much as possible.” With that in mind, I expect big things from Harris this year.

Dont’a Hightower, Linebacker (Lewisburg, TN)
Rivals Rank: 4* LB Scout Rank: 4* DE
Career Statistics: 80 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 8 hurries, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries
Notable Awards & Accolades: Freshman All-American, Freshman All-SEC (2008)
The First Two Seasons: Hightower was one of two big freshman surprises for Alabama in 2008. With so much attention focused on the Julio’s and Barron’s and Scott’s, he quietly won the starting Will linebacker job in fall camp, becoming just the 11th true freshman to start a season opener at Bama since 1972. He went on to appear in all 14 games, starting 12, and earned multiple freshman honors. Hightower showed up in 2009 looking bigger and faster and with a new role as a pass rush specialist. The idea was for Rolando McClain to be the playcaller and Hightower to be the playmaker. Destruction would surely ensue. And it did, until Mitch Petrus’ helmet collided with Dont’a’s knee in the 4th game of the year, causing catastrophic damage to multiple ligaments. His season was over.
Outlook for 2010: Amazingly, Hightower returned at spring practice, full speed and full contact, and he’s suffered no major set backs through fall camp. This season, Hightower inherits the Mike position from the departed McClain, meaning he’ll now have the on-field playcalling responsibilities on most downs. And that seems like a natural fit. He’s a very intelligent guy (when he was being recruited, his #2 choice was Vanderbilt). The question is what happens to his role as an edge rusher. I think that will be dependent on Tide coaches having confidence in another player (think Harris or Chris Jordan) making the call when Hightower drops down on the line. I hope someone steps up, because he’s explosive off the end, and I’d hate to see Bama lose that weapon. Hightower applied for, and received, a medical redshirt for 2008, which would seem to indicate that he intends to hang around for another year or two. However, I think if he has a big season and proves his knee is 100%, he’ll join his buddy Ro in the NFL in 2011.

Mark Ingram, Running Back (Flint, MI)
Rivals Rank:
4* ATH Scout Rank: 3* RB
Career Statistics: 414 carries for 2,386 yards and 29 TDs. 39 catches for 388 yards and 3 TDs Notable Awards & Accolades: Freshman All-SEC (2008), Unanimous 1st team All-American (2009), 1st Team All-SEC (2009), 2009 Heisman Trophy winner
The First Two Seasons: Ingram was the second freshman surprise of 2008. Nobody saw this guy coming when he beat out veterans Terry Grant and Roy Upchurch for the #2 RB spot. He quickly established himself as a future star, rushing for an Alabama freshman record 12 touchdowns in a supporting role. And yet, heading into 2009, there were questions regarding his ability to be the #1 guy in the wake of Glenn Coffee’s early entry to the NFL. Of course, the rest is history, in the most significant sense of the word. He would go on to set the Alabama single-season rushing record with 1,658 yards, become an All-Everything, and bring home the school’s first Heisman Trophy.
Outlook for 2010: What more can you say about this guy? He’s the real deal. If not for having such a high-caliber back-up and Saban’s distaste for running up the score, Ingram would have rushed for 2,000 last season, easily. Frighteningly, the guy could be even better this year, and yet not be as productive in term so sheer numbers. Between ceding more carries to Trent Richardson and this tough, late knee injury stealing at least a game or two away from him, it’s highly unlikely he’ll collect as many plaudits in 2010. But when he’s in the game and healthy, he should be the most feared player on the field. He’s the living embodiment of what Alabama football has always been about. Here’s hoping his knee heals quickly and properly so he can enjoy a proper victory lap before taking his game to the NFL.

Barrett Jones, Offensive Lineman (Memphis, TN)
Rivals Rank:
4* OL Scout Rank: 4* OL
Career Statistics: N/A
Notable Awards & Accolades: 1st Team Freshman All-American, Freshman All-SEC (2009) The First Two Seasons: Jones appeared in 3 games in 2008 before suffering a shoulder injury and taking a medical redshirt. What was surely a disappointment at the time probably turned out to be the best thing that could’ve happened to him. He went from spending his freshman season as a backup/fill-in player to being a freshman starter at right guard. His emergence as an elite player at that positions was critical to Bama’s title run.
Outlook for 2010: Jones returns as the starter at right guard. He’ll be expected to play at the same high level this season, but he’ll also have some unique new duties. First, after playing next to a senior at right tackle in 09, the responsibility will fall to him to shepherd the new starter, redshirt freshman DJ Fluker. Bama can’t afford to have an inexperienced tackle giving up sacks because he didn’t get his assignment right. Jones will need to make sure that he does. Second, Jones is a versatile guy, and I’ve heard that if Fluker struggles in pass protection, the coaching staff may start having Jones slide out to play tackle in Fluker’s place in obvious passing situations (3rd and long, two minute, etc). Neither of those things will be easy, but when you go out and earn Freshman All-American honors, the expectations jump up a notch. I think he can handle it, and he should contend for more post-season honors.

Julio Jones, Wide Receiver (Foley, AL)
Rivals Rank:
5* WR Scout Rank: 5* WR
Career Statistics: 101 catches for 1,520 yards and 8 TDs.
Notable Awards & Accolades: Freshman All-American (2008), 2nd Team All-SEC (2008), SEC Freshman of the Year, 2nd Team All-SEC (2009)
The First Two Seasons: Most hyped recruit in the history of Alabama football? Probably. But those expectations didn’t seem to have much of an effect on Julio as a freshman. He quickly became one of those most feared receivers in the country, known just as much for his toughness and bruising running style as his hands. He dominated top competition, in particular whipping fellow freshman phenom Patrick Peterson in the Tide’s breakthrough, overtime victory at LSU. With a new, more talented quarterback, expectations were even higher in 2009. But things just went wrong. In the second game of the season, he took a hard shot on the knee from a helmet and, truthfully, struggled with that injury for the rest of the season. And just like that, a year that held the promise of building on 2008’s success turned into a frustrating sophomore slump. He had difficulty getting separation in single coverage, let alone breaking the double, and sometimes triple, coverage that he regularly faced. He still showed flashes of his capability (his gamebreaking catch-and-run against LSU, his clutch catches on the final drive to beat Auburn, once requiring all 11 Arkansas defenders to finally get him whistled down), but overall, it was a “down” year for Julio. No denying that.
Outlook for 2010: All that said, you wouldn’t have known he was struggling so badly just by judging from his demeanor (does he HAVE feelings?). He’s the absolute opposite of the modern diva wide receiver, and he gave his all every play, regardless of the number of catches he was getting. But he’s finally 100% healthy and he’s coming into 2010 with a chip on his shoulder. If for no other reason, it’s a contract year for Julio since he’s an absolute lock to turn pro after this season. But it’s for a lot of other reasons, too. He still feels he has a lot to prove. And this year, he should have the more help from his fellow receiving corps than he’s had in his Bama career thus far. If teams try to double or triple team him this year, Marquis Maze is going to make them pay. That guy is ready to break out. Between Maze and the ever present threat of IngRich, he should see more single coverage in 2010 than he has the past 2 seasons combined. No one is going to catch 80 or 100 passes in Bama’s offense, but look for Julio to return to the realm of around 60 catches and 1,000 yards in 2010, and he should at least double his career TDs.

Chris Jordan, Linebacker (Brentwood, TN)
Rivals Rank:
4* ATH Scout Rank: 4* RB
Career Statistics: 15 tackles
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: Jordan was a tremendous high school running back, but by the time he got to Alabama, he was outgrowing the position, and Tide coaches quickly identified his potential at linebacker. To this point in his career, Jordan has mostly been a special teams warrior, appearing in 24 games.
Outlook for 2010: With two linebacker positions up for grabs this offseason, Jordan pressed hard to win one, earning the “Most Improved” award this past spring. In somewhat of a surprise, Jordan routinely ran with the 1’s at the Will position over 2009 5* stud Nico Johnson (who had filled in for the injured Hightower as a freshman) throughout spring and fall camp. Most in the know considered him a lock to win that position all the way up until Saban surprised us by announcing Jerrell Harris as the starter there. So where does Jordan fit in now? He’s currently listed at #2 at Mike linebacker behind Dont’a Hightower, meaning when Hightower drops down to the line of scrimmage to rush the passer in certain situations, Jordan will be the guy who comes in to fill his spot in the middle and make the defensive calls. I’m sure he’d love to be a starter, but that’s not a bad position to be in at all. He’ll still play quite a bit and, in some ways, he can consider it sort of an audition to take over at Mike full time when/if Hightower goes pro after this year.

Robert Lester, Safety (Foley, AL)
Rivals Rank:
4* DB Scout Rank: 3* DB
Career Statistics: 8 tackles
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: Lester redshirted in 08, then appeared in only 8 games in 09, mostly on special teams.
Outlook for 2010: Lester is a guy who MUST play well if Bama is going to be successful this season. A high school teammate of Julio Jones, Lester was labeled as “the guy they signed to make Julio happy.” I don’t believe that’s true, but regardless, he didn’t do much to dispel the idea in his first two years at Alabama. Never the most athletically gifted player, he also failed to distinguish himself with his smarts and work ethic. He wasn’t expected to figure into the equation at safety this year until Robby Green was suspended. Suddenly, Lester had an opportunity, and it lit a little bit of a fire under him. It wasn’t easy. He was even pushed hard for the #1 spot by a walk-on. But he’s officially earned the starting spot alongside Mark Barron, and much of the Tide’s fortunes will be determined by how he plays.

Brandon Lewis, Defensive Lineman (Pleasant Grove, AL)
Rivals Rank:
4* DE Scout Rank: 3* DE
Career Statistics: N/A
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: Lewis initially failed to qualify at Alabama and went the JUCO route. He returned to the Tide in January of this year. I guess technically he arrived as a member of the 2010 class, but I thought he deserved a mention here.
Outlook for 2010: Currently listed as a 4th string defensive end, but I think he has a good opportunity to see time as a pass rush specialist in Bama’s DL rotation. However, he does have 3 years to play 2, so a redshirt wouldn’t totally surprise me either, since this is more a case of Saban honoring his commitment to a kid rather than one of his JUCO “play now” mercenary hunts.

Tyler Love, Offensive Lineman (Mountain Brook, AL)
Rivals Rank: 5* OL Scout Rank: 5* OL
Career Statistics: N/A
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: Love took a medical redshirt in 08 after playing in 1 game. He returned in 09 with an opportunity to compete for a job at both tackle spots but didn’t even come close to winning either. He ultimately saw limited action as a reserve.
Outlook for 2010: The right tackle position was open this offseason, but again, Love failed to make much of a case for himself. The big knock on him seems to be that he lacks the mean streak to play in Bama’s OL system. Currently listed as the 3rd string left tackle, I think Love’s ship may have sailed. The talent at his position is only getting deeper. He seems destined to be one of those 5* flops.

Wesley Neighbors, Defensive Back (Huntsville, AL)
Rivals Rank:
2* DB Scout Rank: 3* DB
Career Statistics: None
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: A 3rd generation Bama player, Neighbors redshirted in 08 and didn’t see the field in 09.
Outlook for 2010: Honestly, if his last name wasn’t “Neighbors” and Saban hadn’t been looking to do a massive roster turnover in 08, he probably wouldn’t have gotten a scholarship offer. He enters the 2010 season as a 4th string safety, behind freshmen and a walk-on. As a legacy, he’s not likely to transfer, but his best opportunity to play at Alabama is to become a reliable special teams contributor.

BJ Scott, Cornerback (Prichard, AL)
Rivals Rank:
5* ATH Scout Rank: 4* CB
Career Statistics: 2 catches for 7 yards.
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: I actually did a detailed account of Scott’s career earlier this summer, and you can read that here.
Outlook for 2010: I may need to figure out a new X-Factor. At the time I wrote that piece, JUCO transfer Dequan Menzie was considered a long shot to even be an active member of the roster, and winning the starting job appeared to be a mere formality for Scott. Since then, Menzie made a remarkably speedy recovery from his Achilles’ Tendon tear and convinced the coaching staff he was healthy enough to play. Like I said last week, Saban doesn’t bring in JUCO’s not to play. As of today, one-time presumptive starter Scott finds himself listed as Menzie’s backup. This is a crucial point in Scott’s career and how he responds to it will likely determine how the rest of it plays out. After enduring a false start in 08 and then putting his career on hold in 09, it has to be fairly discouraging to go through this a week before the season starts. And awfully tempting to jut give up and pack it in. But I think the coaching staff still considers the secondary to be a fluid situation, so he should get game opportunities to attempt to earn his spot back.

Brad Smelley, Tight End (Tuscaloosa, AL)
Rivals Rank:
3* QB Scout Rank: 2* WR
Career Statistics: 14 catches for 148 yards
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: Smelley converted from quarterback to tight end when he came to Alabama, and, naturally, was considered somewhat of a project there. However, he quickly impressed coaches and worked his way off the scout team into a role as a receiving option at H-back. Entering 2009 as the starter at that position, Smelley’s stock began to drop almost as quickly as it had risen the year before, and he eventually lost the job to Preston Dial, largely due to missed assignments and lack of toughness in his blocking game. (He most notably missed a block on the very first play of the season, the debut of the IngramCat that would have gone for a huge gain, maybe a TD, if Smelley had blocked the right guy.)
Outlook for 2010: Smelley enters 2010 firmly entrenched as the #2 H-back behind Dial. While he didn’t make much of a push for the #1 spot, he was also never threatened by younger players, which bodes well for his ability to take the job back in 2011 if his blocking improves. For the immediate future, Smelley should be in the rotation as a receiving option in passing situations.

Damion Square, Defensive Lineman (Houston, TX)
Rivals Rank:
3* DT Scout Rank: 4* LB
Career Statistics: 1 tackle, .5 tackle for a loss, 1 hurry
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: Square redshirted in 08, but quickly began to create a buzz in the offseason. He was expected to see solid playing time in passing situations, along with Marcell Dareus, in 2009, but he tore his ACL in the second game of the season.
Outlook for 2010: Amazingly, Square was back participating at full speed in spring practice and has experienced no major set backs through the summer. Expect Square to resume his postponed assault on quarterbacks in Bama’s nickel and dime sets this season. He could be due for a break out year like Dareus had in 08. He also could see significant time playing in place of Dareus while he serves his suspension.

Courtney Upshaw, Linebacker (Eufaula, AL)
Rivals Rank:
4* LB Scout Rank: 4* DE
Career Statistics: 37 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 5 hurries, 2 pass deflections, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 defensive TD
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: Of the 28 games played since he arrived on campus, Upshaw has played in 27. Much like Dareus, it was evident from the beginning that this guy had the physical tools to be a beast. He was a special teams terror in 2008 before moving into a timeshare situation with senior Eryk Anders at Jack linebacker in 2009. You could see him getting progressively more dangerous as the schemes started clicking in his head with more experience. And, of course, he was the guy that jumped on the fumble that basically sealed the national championship game.
Outlook for 2010: Going into this offseason, there were just 4 guys on defense that were truly considered “locks” to start by the coaching staff: Dont’a Hightower, Marcell Dareus, Mark Barron, and Courtney Upshaw. He’s flown under the radar thus far, but that tells you all you need to know about him. This is his year. Mark it down: Courtney Upshaw is going to blow up in 2010. He’s extremely talented in his own right, but take that talent and put it on the end of a line with a guy like Dareus drawing double teams and an occasional assist from Hightower on the other end…well, it just won’t be fair for him. He’s going to generate some numbers. Don’t be surprised if he goes from relative obscurity to a high round NFL draft pick in 2011.

Michael Williams, Tight End (Reform, AL)
Rivals Rank:
4* DE Scout Rank: 4* DE
Career Statistics: 3 catches for 29 yards
Notable Awards & Accolades: None
The First Two Seasons: A highly regarded defensive player out of high school, Williams redshirted in 08 and settled in at the tight end position. In 09, Williams appeared in all 14 games, starting 3 games. He played a critical role on last year’s team, stepping in to do some heavy lifting for the oft dinged up Colin Peak.
Outlook for 2010: He quickly asserted himself as the #1 tight end this offseason and was never challenged. At 6’6”, 270 lbs, he’s an imposing physical presence, and the coaches love how he paves the way in the running game. Word is he has soft hands to boot, but we haven’t had a chance to see that in a game yet. Bama definitely loves to throw it to the tight ends, though, so his could be a name you hear called a lot this fall.

Well, there you have it. The Class of 2008, come of age. Remember the names. For better or worse, the Crimson Tide's title hopes are in their hands. We'll see. Who knows, they may just make history all over again.


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