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January 29, 2010
The Tide's top 10 holes to fill
No matter what the University of Alabama coaching staff does, there's just no way to replace some of the players who have moved on.
Another Terrence Cody? Forget it.
"It would be a lot less where we are in rushing defense, I can guarantee you that, because when he's not in there, it makes a big difference," defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said during a press conference prior to the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena.
Still, ready or not the time has come and Nick Saban's wife Terry said that she could already see the wheels turning even as the Crimson Tide accepted the Coaches Trophy at midfield of the Rose Bowl.
In reality, that's not true. They had already been churning for quite some time regarding the 2010 season.
"I'm always thinking ahead, anticipating problems," Saban said. "Every success brings a new set of problems. Every success brings a new set of issues, attitude of next year's team, development of the players for next year, issues that you have from a staff standpoint or player standpoint, personnel standpoint, recruiting standpoint. You know, there's really no time to sort of let your guard down because every success brings a new set of issues for everyone, and being able to manage that is what allows you to be successful with more consistency."
Although Alabama has to find at least eight new starters on defense and three on offense, there are a lot of other roles that need to be filled. For example, who will step up and be the third running back to replace Roy Upchurch (candidates include Eddie Lacy, Demetrious Goode, Jeramie Griffin and Terry Grant)? Which young player might get Mike McCoy's spot on the top tier of wide receivers? Is anyone who played special teams still around?
And so on. There's a lot to be decided before Alabama begins to defend its title Sept. 4 when San Jose State comes calling to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
"We're going to lose a lot of players on defense," Saban said. "We have some good young players and it'll be a great opportunity for them. But every team is different and every team has issues and problems that you have to resolve in terms of the development of the players that you have and your ability to recruit and replace the right people and develop the right chemistry.
"Now, we do have a lot of good players returning on offense. Hopefully we can build on that and improve."
Here are the top 10 holes the Crimson Tide must fill:
1. Cornerback: Not only did Alabama lose starters Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson, who combined to make 69 starts and 11 interceptions, but primary backups Marquis Johnson and Chris Rogers as well. Arenas, named an All-American his senior year, also slid over to cover the slot in nickel coverage. Dre Kirkpatrick will probably start the spring in Jackson's spot with B.J. Scott replacing Arenas. Coaches had Scott redshirt last season to fully learn his new roles after switching from wide receiver, and he could be the slot man as well. Saban heavily recruited defensive backs and this year and an incoming freshman could make an immediate impact. Keep an eye on: DeMarcus Milliner (who enrolled early).
2. Outside linebacker: Eryk Anders and Cory Reamer were two players many thought would never make major contributions who ended up winning starting jobs. By the end of the 2009 season Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris were set as their backups. Expect for the competition to be pretty intense during the spring as the Tide has a lot of talent at linebacker, in general. Among the challengers should be Milton Talbert and Chavis Williams along with a crop of new young players. Keep an eye on: Ed Stinson.
3. Right tackle: Drew Davis had started 28 straight games, but Alabama has built up the kind of depth that should lead to interesting competition during the spring. Alfred McCullough isn't as big as the other tackles (6-foot-2, 305 pounds), but has good reach and emerged as the primary backup by the end of the 2009 season. He could be the player to beat. Tyler Love (6-6, 303), who will only be a sophomore next season, is in place to be his primary competition along with massive D.J. Fluker (6-6, 340), who redshirted. Keep an eye on: Fluker.
4. Inside linebacker: Rolando McClain was the captain of the defense and won the Butkus Award as linebacker of the year. Expected to take the reins is Dont'a Hightower, who will move over from the weakside spot, but is coming off knee surgery and will be kept out of contact during the spring. Consequently, developing a quality backup is an absolute must, with Chris Jordan likely to get the most snaps. Nico Johnson replaced Hightower at weakside as a true freshman and started two games (with Alabama frequently in nickel coverage), with true freshman Tana Patrick his backup. This is another spot where someone could quickly contribute. Keep an eye on: Petey Smith (who grayshirted).
5. Defensive end: With the departure of both Brandon Deaderick and Lorenzo Washington, Marcell Dareus will be heavily leaned upon, and Luther Davis has 34 games of experience. However, the Tide likes to regularly rotate both ends so there are jobs to be won. The coaching staff was high on Damion Square before he was lost to a knee injury against Florida International, while the depth chart was filled out by Nick Gentry (who also lined up at defensive tackle), Talbert and Darrington Sentimore. A number of inexperienced/new players will get long looks during the spring and summer. Keep an eye on: Chris Bonds.
6. Special teams: With just about every key contributor moving on, including All-American kicker Leigh Tiffin, punter/holder P.J. Fitzgerald, return specialist Arenas and even long-snapper Brian Selman, replacements are an obvious offseason priority. Kicker Cade Foster and punter Jay Williams were offered scholarships and Carson Tinker appears set to be the long-snapper, but the return jobs are up for grabs. Grant was deep on kicks with Arenas before being sidelined the last five games with an abdominal strain. Alabama's depth chart for the national championship game had Julio Jones and Marquis Maze backing up Arenas at punt returner, with Jones and Trent Richardson reserves on kick returns. Keep an eye on: Foster (enrolled early).
7. Left guard: All-American Mike Johnson set a school record by playing in 54 games, with 41 starts, and was the glue that held the line together in 2009 when the Crimson Tide had three new starters. While last year's newcomers will be this season's veterans Alabama has a lot of options at left guard including John Michael Boswell, Brian Motley, Chance Warmack and backup center David Ross. All four could get a look. Keep an eye on: Warmack.
8. Safety: Last year, Mark Barron was Kirby Smart's primary project and he responded with seven interceptions to be named first-team All-SEC and third-team All-American. This offseason the focus will be at free safety position and probably Robby Green, with Rod Woodson expected to back up Barron. Robert Lester is poised to move up the depth chart, but the incoming players could quickly challenge for playing time following the departures of Justin Woodall, Ali Sharrief and Tyrone King, Jr. Keep an eye on: Green.
9. Defensive tackle: Cody almost always drew double-teams and was still nearly impossible to move, which made him ideal for the Tide's flexible 3-4 scheme. He was relieved by Josh Chapman, who was slowed by an abdominal strain last season but will likely compete and rotate with Kerry Murphy. Keep an eye on: Brandon Moore.
10. Tight end: Instead of using a fullback, Alabama prefers an H-Back which allows it to execute a two-tight end formation it can run and throw out of. Preston Dial won the H-Back job while Colin Peek became the top pass-receiving option at tight end. When Peek was sidelined by a knee injury, converted defensive end Michael Williams stepped up and now appears poised to start. Keep an eye on: Brad Smelley.