The culmination of spring football with the annual A-Day game this weekend will be the unofficial kickoff to the 2009 Alabama football season, a fact not lost on fans still giddy from the Tide’s impressive 2008 run.
Before spring ball comes to a close and preparations for summer begin, the Weekly previews the Tide’s offense, defense and special teams for our 2009 Spring Football Year in Preview.
LINE – Much of Alabama’s success on offense, and by proxy Glen Coffee’s NFL Draft stock, can be directly attributed to the play of Antoine Caldwell, Marlon Davis and Andre Smith upfront. Alabama owned the league’s third-best rushing offense, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, in 2008. The Tide ran the ball more than any team in the SEC (568 carries) and scored the second-most touchdowns on the ground (32). Now it’s up to rising seniors like Mike Johnson and Drew Davis to pick up the slack, as well as groom young talent like John Michael Boswell, William Vlachos and Tyler Love for the future. No one factor can make or break a team’s season more so than the chemistry shared between the offensive linemen.
TIGHT ENDS/RECIEVERS – Bama lost its top two tight ends from 2008, but the replacements (Preston Dial, Brad Smelley and transfer Colin Peek) should be able to pick up the slack in an offense that actually targets the tight end on a regular basis (something Tide fans have begged for over the past several years). The buzz continues to surround WR Julio Jones, who is Bama’s most dynamic receiver certainly since Freddie Milons and perhaps David Palmer. WRs Mike McCoy, Earl Alexander and Marquis Maze should contribute heavily in 2009. Incoming freshmen Kendall Kelly and Michael Bowman should figure to see some playing time as well.
BACKFIELD – The loss of Glen Coffee means that someone – Mark Ingram, Roy Upchurch, Terry Grant or newcomer Trent Richardson – is going to have to become an every-down back. Ingram was one of the Tide’s biggest surprises last season, but his primary role was as a relief or change-of-pace back. He’ll probably get the starting nod, likely rotating in and out with Roy Upchurch. But if Richardson – one of Bama’s four five-star commits from earlier this year – is as good as advertised, he could make a play for the starting job, a la Terry Grant in 2007.
QUARTERBACK – No one can or will be able to force Nick Saban to name a starting quarterback before he’s ready, and he probably won’t be ready until week one. But if the spring scrimmages are any guide, the job is Greg McElroy’s to lose. A pocket passer with some ability to stretch the field, McElroy’s style appears similar to his predecessor John Parker Wilson. McElroy’s two main competitors on campus now are Star Jackson and Thomas Darrah. Jackson, one of the top recruits from last year’s class, looks to be the wave of the future at the Capstone, while Darrah’s size (6-6, 212 lbs) is his biggest selling point at this time. Right now, it’s far too early to know whether or not incoming freshman A.J. McCarron will be redshirted or not.
LINE – Bobby Greenwood is the only 2008 starter missing from this year’s unit, which includes last season’s story of the year, nose guard Terrence Cody. Cody and Josh Chapman should see most of the reps in the middle of the line, with Lorenzo Washington and Brandon Deaderick on either side of him. Without question, Bama’s glad to have Kerry Murphy eligible and available to provide depth. Look also for contributions from junior Luther Davis and newcomers William Ming and Quinton Dial.
LINEBACKERS – Bama’s got some depth at linebacker with the emergence of young stars like Rolando McClain and Dont’a Hightower in 2008. Waiting in the wings is former starter Prince Hall (who has spent time in Nick Saban’s doghouse recently due to various off-field shenanigans) and rising sophomore Jerrell Harris. McClain will be one Tide player looking to fill the leadership void left by the departure of Rashad Johnson. Seniors Cory Reamer and Brandon Fanney will look to continue their strong play from a year ago. Alabama’s run defense was stifling in 2008, giving up just 74.1 yards per game and 2.7 yards per carry, both tops in the SEC.
DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD – Outside of QB John Parker Wilson, no one player will be more sorely missed than FS Rashad Johnson, who led one of the SEC’s most efficient pass defenses in 2008. His overtime interception at LSU last season alone was one of the biggest plays of the year for the Tide and a key component of the team’s SEC West title. Ali Sharrief and Justin Woodall will try to pick up his slack. Otherwise, Alabama returns most of their playmakers here from a year ago, including dynamic athlete Javier Arenas. Newcomer Dre Kirkpatrick should also factor into the playing time argument.
Leigh Tiffin returns for his senior season, coming off a terrific 2008 campaign. The scion of the legendary Van Tiffin was true on 46 of 47 extra points and 20 of 29 field goals. P.J. Fitzgerald also returns for his senior season after improving his average per kick from 38.7 yards in 2007 to 41.1 yards in 2008. The aforementioned Arenas will serve as the primary punt and kick returner, after racking up more than 600 return yards in each category last season.
This story is part of Birmingham Weekly’s Alabama Spring Football Preview Package. Check back frequently through the month of April for more on Alabama, Auburn and UAB football.