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August 9, 2009
THE SCHEME: Alabama runs a conventional attack, but many different formations and elements have been added since Jim McElwain came aboard as coordinator before last season. While the pass is getting more emphasis, this always will be an attack based on being physical and running the ball.
STAR POWER: Sophomore WR Julio Jones hit campus last fall amid great hype, and he delivered. Now, he's one of the top wide receivers in the nation. Jones possesses a great combination of size and speed. Plus, he has sticky hands.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The Tide have turned to junior college transfer James Carpenter to fill the spot at left tackle on its rebuilt line. He impressed coaches after arriving in time to take part in spring drills.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Junior QB Greg McElroy was the starter ahead of Star Jackson after spring drills. Coaches like McElroy's moxie and analytical ability, but he has thrown just 20 career passes. McElroy never may develop beyond "game manager," but that doesn't mean he still can't lead this team to great heights. If McElroy shows he's capable of not losing games, makes good decisions and protects the ball, coaches likely will expand his role as the season progresses.
STRONGEST AREA: The team will miss RB Glen Coffee, who paced Alabama with 1,383 rushing yards and left early for the NFL. But the Tide still have a strong group of running backs. Mark Ingram is a unique blend of quickness, power and toughness, which is why he was one of the top freshman running backs in the nation last season, when he ran for 728 yards and a team-high 12 touchdowns. The coaches really like Roy Upchurch, but he has to stay healthy. Terry Grant and Jeramie Griffin provide quality depth. And touted true freshman Trent Richardson almost certainly will get some carries, too.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The line needs to develop quickly. The unit must replace three starters: T Andre Smith, C Antoine Caldwell and G Marlon Davis. This remains an offense that is built around being physical and running the ball. That makes the quick development of chemistry and cohesion key, especially with a season-opening game against Virginia Tech and its always rugged defense.
THE SCHEME: The Tide use a 3-4 alignment with a heavy NFL influence. It's all about creating mismatches up front with an ever-shifting front. It's also about getting as much speed on the field as possible and being aggressive.
STAR POWER: NT Terrence Cody, a 365-pounder, is a big-time run-stuffer who is a space-eating enormity. Few teams possess such an obstacle, giving the Crimson Tide a massive wrecking ball along the line of scrimmage. What makes Cody even better is that despite his girth, he's a fairly nimble athlete who's capable of making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Junior LB Rolando McClain is a big, physical guy who will be one of the best players in the nation at his position. He's solid in pass coverage, and against the run, he always seems to find the ball and deliver a punishing blow.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The Tide look set at cornerback, but don't discount true freshman Dre Kirkpatrick from cracking the rotation. Kirkpatrick (6 feet 3/185 pounds) is a physical freak who was one of the nation's top recruits last fall.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: A big key to the Tide's success will be improving the pass rush. Last year, E Bobby Greenwood led the team with just five sacks. He's gone, and it's vital that the Crimson Tide develop an edge rusher. Who will be that guy? It could be E Brandon Deaderick, who is entering his third year as a starter. Or it could be Lorenzo Washington, who was a key reserve last season after starting in 2007.
STRONGEST AREA: The Tide should have one of the top linebacking corps in the nation. Alabama welcomes back three of four starters, including McClain. This may be his final college season. In fact, many draft experts already forecast him as a first-round choice. Dont'a Hightower looks to build on a banner freshman season that saw him develop into a playmaker. Cory Reamer and Eryk Anders round out the starters, and depth is solid.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: With eight starters back from one of the nation's top defenses, there's aren't any glaring weaknesses. But replacing FS Rashad Johnson will be difficult. He led the team with five interceptions - two of which he returned for TDs - and ranked second in tackles. More than anything, Alabama will miss his leadership.
All the key components are back. K Leigh Tiffin hit 69 percent of his field goals (20-of-29), nailing two of three attempts from 50 yards or farther. Senior P P.J. Fitzgerald enjoyed a career year in 2008, averaging 41.1 yards per boot. And then there's the ultimate weapon: starting CB Javier Arenas, who rates among the nation's most deadly return men. Last season, he averaged 15.9 yards on 41 punt returns, with three touchdowns, and 23.6 yards on 26 kickoff returns. The coverage units need improvement.
McElwain is a shrewd play-caller. One of the reasons McElwain got the job was because of his familiarity with the passing game, an area that must improve for the offense to take the next step. Kirby Smart is a rising talent at defensive coordinator, but coach Nick Saban remains heavily involved in shaping this unit. Saban is one of the top defensive minds in the nation. The Tide run a complex scheme that can flex and morph into different looks, while also attacking offenses with an array of blitzes from many different angles. Saban lost one of his best recruiters to Tennessee in linebacker coach Lance Thompson. But Saban countered by hiring Sal Sunseri, who was defensive line coach of the Carolina Panthers last season. This is a top-notch staff with an excellent nucleus of veterans.
Alabama used a season-opening rout of Clemson in the Georgia Dome to get off to a blazing start last season. The Tide get another chance to score a big opening salvo in the Georgia Dome this season when it plays Virginia Tech. The other non-conference games are a joke: Florida International, North Texas and Chattanooga. The SEC schedule is kind. There's no Florida or Georgia and just one truly scary league road game, at Ole Miss on Oct. 10. And by the time the Tide travel to Oxford, it could be 5-0. After the Ole Miss game, Alabama returns home for three games that likely will define the season: South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU. Sweep those three, and the Tide figure to coast over its last three foes, including a season-ending trip to Auburn.
Two seasons - that's all it has taken for Saban to restore the luster to Alabama football. Last season, he led the Tide to the school's first SEC West title since 1999, which also is the last time Alabama won the SEC. Saban is right on course for greatness in Tuscaloosa. The thing that may keep the Tide from again winning the SEC West is a retooled offense. There are myriad holes to fill, including a new quarterback. Still, the defense looks spectacular, the schedule is navigable and this is a hungry team after finishing last season with consecutive losses.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.