Determining 2012 Alabama Storyline

The Southeastern Conference Media Days event in Hoover this week has one interesting aspect that has been in place for about a decade. That is journalists interviewing journalists. That's partly because there are so many sportswriters and sportscasters and partly because the coaches and players to be interviewed say almost nothing that is truly interesting.

For many years, I was not too concerned about the appearance of the Alabama football coach because I could (and did) meet with him before the SEC event to get an advance story. That no longer is possible, so we'll have a crew there during Nick Saban's Thursday appearance to do stories on what he has to say, and also report on the Crimson Tide players – Barrett Jones, Michael Williams, and Damion Square.

I have already been alerted by our media partner, Fox Sports, that it wants a few minutes with me to discuss "the storyline" for Bama football in 2012.

Not only do I have to think about what that storyline is, I have to discuss it in a minute or two.

In one respect, I don't think anyone can know the Alabama football storyline prior to the season. I think it would be easier for a program in a different position. Can the new quarterback or coach or something else do the job?

But with Alabama, coming off a national championship and expected to be among the national powers again this season, the question seems to be more difficult.

The easy answer – and not incorrect – is that the storyline is Nick Saban. For better or worse (and almost always better), that is usually the focus when a school has one of the best in the history of the game. It was when Paul Bryant was at Alabama. It was when Saban was at LSU. It has been with Steve Spurrier previously at Florida and presently at South Carolina.

Saban is universally considered the best coach in college football today and one of the best ever. No national football story is complete without a quote from Saban on the matter.

At some schools the coach will be the storyline because he is new or because he is on the hot seat or because it has been noticed that he is a one-hit wonder with one great season and the rest mediocre.

I suspect if one asked Saban what the storyline is for 2012, after a short blast about not considering hypothetical questions, he would say that the 2012 team is a new team that hasn't done anything, that it is not the 2011 team that won the national championship even though a number of players on that title team are back for this year.

He would say that this team has to show improvement during the season, get leadership from the players, and avoid complacency.

Last year we probably would have been talking about the quarterback race. It's hard to imagine now, but going into the 2011 season no one was sure if it would be A.J. McCarron or Phillip Sims as Tide quarterback. Of course, McCarron won the job, Sims transferred to Virginia this year, and McCarron returns having won the Most Valuable Offensive Player in the BCS National Championship Game. No story there.

Last year the Tide replaced the Heisman Trophy winning tailback with a Doak Walker Award winning tailback as Trent Richardson took over for Mark Ingram. We don't know for sure if Eddie Lacy is going to be healed from his surgery for a turf toe injury, but there will be a competent tailback. There also will be good wide receivers replacing lost starters. And Nick Saban coaches in the secondary, so the losses there are not to be concerned about.

It may be the thing to look for is Alabama's pass rush.

Last year the Tide had Courtney Upshaw coming from the outside, Nick Gentry coming up the middle, and Dont'a Hightower coming from just about anywhere against opposing quarterbacks.

Upshaw, the jack linebacker, led the Tide with 8.5 sacks for 56 yards and 11 quarterback pressures. Middle linebacker Hightower had 4 sacks for 26 yards and 8 pressures. Gentry, who came in on passing downs at nose tackle, had 4.5 sacks for 37 yards and 4 pressures.

The three combined for 17 sacks for 119 yards. Bama as a team had 29 sacks for 192 yards. The trio had 23 of Bama's 40 quarterback pressures.

Pressure on the quarterback, of course, is one reason the Alabama secondary has played so well. Last year the Crimson Tide's extraordinary defense led the nation in both pass defense and pass defense efficiency (along with scoring defense, rushing defense, and total defense).

From where does the rush come in 2012?

Jesse Williams (6-4, 319) has moved from right defensive end to his more natural nose tackle position. He was not a statistically great pass rusher from end, but has the potential to force the pocket from the middle.

Candidates at right end, notably Ed Stinson (6-4, 279) and Quinton Dial (6-6, 294), have great athleticism. With the jack linebacker -- Adrian Hubbard (6-6, 237) or Xzavier Dickson (6-3, 240) -- on the outside shoulder of the right end, opposing left tackles are going to have bad choices while trying to protect their quarterbacks.

Trey DePriest (6-2, 242) had relatively few opportunities behind Hightower at middle linebacker last year, but did have a sack and a quarterback pressure and showed excellent skills.

There will be others who can show up big in pass rush, but the play from those is expected to be key.

Or maybe the storyline should be whether Alabama will possibly have a football program after 2012 since the Crimson Tide seems to have lost a recruiting battle for a linebacker under curious circumstances.

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