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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Two-A-Days: Alabama Crimson Tide

Over the past few weeks, I've traded emails with beat writers for each SEC team, along with Georgia's three other BCS-conference opponents to get some insider insight into what fans can expect from UGA's competition in 2009.

Each day, we'll preview two teams, culminating with a big-picture look at the SEC and a deeper look at the biggest issues facing your Georgia Bulldogs. To submit a question for the Georgia entry in Two-A-Days, send me an email with the subject line "Two-A-Days" and I'll do my best to find you an answer.

The fifth entry in the series is the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Head coach: Nick Saban (third year)
2008 Record: 12-2 (8-0 SEC)
Total Offense: 359.79 ypg (6th in the SEC, 63rd overall)
Total Defense: 263.5 ypg (1st in the SEC, 3rd overall)
On the docket: Alabama opens the season Sept. 5 against Virginia Tech in Atlanta in what will likely be one of the marquee games of September. After splitting a home-and-home series (with each winning on the opponent's field) the past two years, the Tide won't play Georgia in 2009.

In Year 2 under Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide finally returned to the dominant place in the SEC West that fans expect year in and year out. Bama thumped Georgia in Athens and finally toppled in-state rival Auburn to make it to the SEC title game as the top-ranked team in the country. They looked good through three quarters, but Florida eventually prevailed and the Tide went on to lose to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. So, how will the fare in 2009? To find out, I asked Mobile Press-Register beat writer Gentry Estes.

David Hale: Alabama was dominant for much of the season last year, but without Andre Smith in the Sugar Bowl, Utah was able to dominate the line of scrimmage. Smith is gone for good to the NFL now, as well as Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis. So who has stepped up to fill the losses on the line this spring?

Gentry Estes: That’s a good question, and one that Alabama coaches are still trying to sort through this spring. Younger players have been mixed and matched at different positions in an effort to try to find the most effective combination to go with returning starters Mike Johnson (left guard) and Drew Davis (right tackle).

A tentative guess right now: Junior college transfer James Carpenter at left tackle, William Vlachos at center and John Michael Boswell or David Ross at right guard. Second-year linemen Tyler Love and Barrett Jones could be in the mix somehow, as could incoming five-star recruit D.J. Fluker or true freshman Chance Warmack, who enrolled a semester early out of his Atlanta-area high school.

With Johnson sidelined by a minor ankle sprain, the offense struggled mightily to run the ball during the spring’s second scrimmage, meaning starting positions are far from solidified right now. There is little question that the offensive line looms as the entire team’s biggest question heading into the fall.

DH: I picked Alabama to win the West last year in part because the Tide was one of the few teams with a veteran QB. That won't be the case this time around, so who are the leading candidates to replace John Parker Wilson, and how have they looked this spring?

GE: Junior Greg McElroy has had the best spring. By all accounts, he maintains a healthy lead over redshirt freshman Star Jackson and tall walk-on Thomas Darrah of Newnan. McElroy was the backup for Wilson the past two years, and has the most experience in the system. He’s also a smart guy and a good leader who appears to have earned the trust of coaches and teammates. Barring something unexpected, he should be the starter in the fall.

With McElroy playing well through two scrimmages, the bigger question may wind up being at second-string QB. Touted signee AJ McCarron arrives in the fall and could challenge Darrah and Jackson for the backup role.

(NOTE: Gentry got me the responses to these questions slightly before Alabama's spring game, when McElroy looked extremely impressive and appears to have nailed down the job.)

DH: As if the offense needed another setback, last year's leading rusher, Glen Coffee, headed to the NFL a year early. Bama has a pretty deep stable of potential replacements, but none with much experience. Will Mark Ingram end up being the man or have some of the other tailbacks stepped up to take a run at the job?

GE: Even without Coffee, there are options at running back. Ingram and Roy Upchurch each played a lot last season, but have struggled with injuries this spring. Ingram’s hamstring is no big deal, but Upchurch needed surgery last fall to address nerve troubles in his neck. It’s anyone’s guess how healthy Upchurch will be by the fall. Reports so far have been promising.

It’s entirely possible that Alabama’s replacement for Coffee as the No. 1 tailback isn’t on campus yet. Pensacola, Fla., signee Trent Richardson is a stud. He was viewed by most as one of the nation’s top 10 prospects, and given his mix of speed and power, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t contribute early and often, ala receiver Julio Jones of a year ago.

Junior Terry Grant, the team’s leading rusher in 2007, was convinced to stick around for another year despite disappearing from the playing rotation in 2008. He could be a solid option if the Tide is in a pinch.

DH: OK, so a fourth question about the offense -- but since the defense looks pretty stable I figure it's worth it. At Georgia, A.J. Green has said he's expecting even bigger things during his sophomore season than he achieved in 2008. How about his fellow freshman standout in Tuscaloosa -- how much better might Julio Jones be during his encore performance?

GE: Everyone now knows what Jones can do. And that includes other defenses that are sure to key on him and force other receivers to make plays.

The big question for Alabama is which receivers can step up and take some of the pressure off Jones. Mike McCoy, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks all have the experience to help, but the real answer may be at tight end.

Last year, the team’s second-leading receiver was tight end Nick Walker. Though Walker has graduated, expect the Tide to use the tight end heavily in the offense again. Senior Colin Peek, who transferred during the recent coaching change at Georgia Tech and sat out last season, leads the way there.

DH: After seeing the team this spring, what jumped out at you in a positive way, and what would you say are the biggest questions Bama still needs to answer before the season begins?

GE: Offensive line is still very much a work in progress. Quarterback appears reasonably set with McElroy at the helm.

Defensively, Alabama returns nine starters, but the loss of All-American safety Rashad Johnson could prove costly. While also a physical presence, Johnson often didn’t get enough credit for his mental contributions in calling signals and aligning teammates correctly before the snap. The battle to replace Johnson has included a handful of potential replacements, including senior Ali Sharrief, sophomores Robby Green and Mark Barron and former walk-on Tyrone King.

The front seven, however, looks as good as it has been in quite a while. Nose tackle Terrence Cody and linebacker Rolando McClain – both All-American candidates – make the Tide as strong up the middle as anyone.

* Gentry Estes is an Albany Herald alum like me, but he's actually gone on to become a fine writer and reporter, so no one holds it against him. He's now the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Press-Register. You can find his Tide coverage online HERE or check out his Bama blog HERE. Gentry wraps up Alabama's spring HERE.

NEXT UP: Kentucky with Lexington Herald-Leader beat writer Chip Cosby.

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