April 30, 2013

Spring Rewind: Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. _ University of Alabama coach Nick Saban's message to his team when spring drills began was, in essence, no different than the one he delivered to the 2010 and 2012 Crimson Tide teams that followed national championship seasons: 'You are no longer national champions. That team is gone. Your team hasn't accomplished win one yet.'

It was Saban's attempt to prevent the two things he hates to associate with his teams the most - complacency and entitlement. That message didn't sink in well with the 2010 team that lost three games. It sank in more properly last year, when the Crimson Tide followed one national title with another.

So how did this year's team handle that message in spring practice?

"I really do feel like we have a lot of the components to develop as a team. I don't think we are where we need to be," Saban said following the annual A-Day game. "Too many people too comfortable with their position. That, to me, does not lend itself to great competition or being a great competitor."

A senior class that figures to command anywhere from six to eight starters in the 2013 lineup, led by quarterback AJ McCarron, will go a long way toward keeping the order Saban wants in the locker room. McCarron, in fact, was more vocal than ever in his leadership during the spring, and was all-business in preparing to make a run at his third straight national title as a starter.

The Crimson Tide's schedule sets up well for the most part. Alabama will not have to tangle with the best of the East Division - Florida, Georgia and South Carolina - unless and until it reaches the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in Atlanta.

A September 14 road trip to Texas A&M, the only team to beat UA last year, and LSU, look like the toughest hurdles. But UA will have the advantage of a bye week before the A&M game, and gets LSU at home.

How spring practice answered, or failed to answer, five questions on the Crimson Tide

Who will fill in three vacant spots from last year's dominant offensive line?
From the beginning of spring to the end, Austin Shepherd, Ryan Kelly and Arie Kouandjio worked with the first group at right tackle, center and left guard, respectively, the spots D.J. Fluker, Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack vacated, respectively. With two first-round picks and a fourth-round pick exiting, a dropoff in performance is a certainty. The question is how steep that dropoff will be. Based on the numbers UA running backs posted in two closed scrimmages, the offensive front will be adequate at worst. UA coach Nick Saban indicated near the end of spring that the line had performed well on the whole. If the A-Day game was any indication, the second-string line may actually be more in flux than the first-string line. Kelly's performance at center last year, in mop-up duty, was good for Freshman All-SEC honors. Returning starters Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen will be pre-season All-SEC candidates.

How will Alabama fare in the secondary without Dee Milliner and Robert Lester?
Replacing Dee Milliner at cornerback might be the single most difficult position turnover Alabama faces this offseason. That was evidenced by the fact that three offensive players -- running back Dee Hart, and receivers Cyrus Jones and Christion Jones -- worked part or all of spring at corner. By spring's end, it was clear that Cyrus Jones developed into the most likely candidate to make a permanent move to the defense. Sophomore cornerback Geno Smith figures to take over for Milliner in UA's regular 3-4 defense. Where the battle comes in is Alabama's nickel defense, it's most oft-used alignment. Smith likely slides to the nickelback spot, while Jones, John Fulton and others will continue to vie this fall for Smith's corner spot. Senior Deion Belue is a fixture at the other corner. Replacing Lester, who was reliable if not spectacular, will be less of a challenge. Seniors Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry, junior Vinnie Sunseri and sophomore Landon Collins are in that competition.

T.J. Yeldon figures to step into Eddie Lacy's carries, but who will step into Yeldon's?
In the spring, Kenyan Drake and early-enrolling freshman Derrick Henry were the primary ball carriers behind Yeldon. Both posted strong efforts in two closed scrimmages. An injury ended Henry's spring a week early, and Drake was bottled up by UA's first-team defense in the A-Day game. By the end of spring, two backs coming off knee injuries were more involved in practices, even though neither were cleared for full contact: Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler. Hart spent two weeks at cornerback but returned to running back the week before the A-Day game. Fowler appeared progressively more comfortable throughout the spring in his first work in pads since a severe knee injury sustained in week two last season. Fowler may end up in a fullback or H-back role, which he was developing in before his injury last September. This fall, incoming freshmen Tyren Jones, Alvin Kamara and Altee Tenpenny will bring a new look to the backfield competition, but until then, Drake and Henry, who should be healthy by July (leg fracture), are the primaries.

On a defense that pass rushed by committee last year, is a there a 10-sack bell cow emerging for 2013?
Alabama doesn't return an elite-level pass rusher who got to the quarterback consistently last season. Linebacker Adrian Hubbard led the team with seven sacks in 14 games, though he had just four after 11 games before tallying one each against Auburn, Georgia and Notre Dame. A handful of pass rushers have plenty of potential, but none had the sort of 2012 production that would suggest a big sack total is imminent. Jack linebackers Xzavier Dickson and Denzel Devall are two of the more obvious "breakout" candidates. Dickson had a pair of sacks in the SEC title game against Georgia, but may be working at defensive end come fall. That would make more room to play Devall, the more athletic but less experienced of the two. UA's best pass rusher on the line figures to be defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, although LaMichael Fanning and Dalvin Tomlinson are pass-rush oriented ends who will see much of their action in passing situations.

Tight end is a concern after UA graduated Michael Williams. How to things look at that position?
Little-used Brian Vogler steps in to Williams' blocking shoes, which won't be easy. Williams caved in a lot of defensive ends for Alabama's perimeter rushing attack the last three years, and while he wasn't a downfield receiving threat, he was reliable as a receiver in play action near the goal line. Malcolm Faciane backs up Vogler a the Y-position up front, while Harrison Jones, Kurt Freitag and early-enrolling freshman O.J. Howard are competing to be the H-back. Howard showed impressive potential in the spring, and Fowler's ability to block and catch makes the H-back spot less of a concern. Whether Vogler can support the rushing attack with his blocking is the primary concern, and one that a spring practice doesn't easily answer.

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