It's finally time for football, which means most of us can shift our focus away from anticipating the beginning of the Nick Saban era at Alabama and toward what type of team the Crimson Tide might actually field this season.
There are notable and accomplished veterans on the squad to be sure --- John Parker Wilson, D.J. Hall, Antoine Caldwell, Andre Smith, Wallace Gilberry and Simeon Castille just to name a few --- but this season, like any other, is certain be shaped by players we haven't seen play all that much yet.
At least seven players will make their first career starts for Alabama on Saturday, and probably three times that many will take the field in a college football game for the first time. Still others played some in years past, but have seen their roles grow exponentially for one reason or another this season.
If you don't know these five names by now, you'll almost certainly know them by the end of Saturday's game. (Truth be told, there are probably more than five Alabama players who will make an impact for the first time in their careers against Western Carolina, but I'm sort of married to this "five" theme after last week).
Anyway, here they are, in no particular order:
Terry Grant, running back --- This one shouldn't come as any surprise, given that Saban has mentioned him by name after every scrimmage since he's been at Alabama.
Finally healthy after a long-lingering shoulder injury, Grant has been the most talked-about player in fall camp this year. The redshirt freshman will carry the majority of the load in the running game at least to begin the season, though holdover Jimmy Johns will certainly get the ball in a variety of ways as well.
Johns is a bruising runner and a fine all-around athlete, but what sets Grant apart is blazing speed. With Keith Brown, Will Oakley, Marquis Maze and Rashad Johnson, he's among the handful of fastest players on the team this year.
Still, Grant is far from just a burner. He's also shown polish as a pass-receiver, something Alabama hasn't had on a regular basis at of the tailback position since Shaud Williams left town (though Ray Hudson wasn't bad when healthy, and Ken Darby had his moments).
Recent Alabama player Grant reminds me of: Sherman Williams
Mike McCoy, wide receiver --- A great mystery was solved with Keith Brown's suspension, because up to that point, many people thought McCoy had simply beaten out Brown for the position.
That would certainly have been newsworthy, given that Brown's among the most prolific receivers in school history and has been a starter since early in his freshman year. We now know that McCoy's probably not quite that good, but he's still a guy who can make a major contribution to this year's team (it should be noted, though, that McCoy did beat out veterans Oakley, Matt Caddell and Nikita Stover, among others, for a starting spot).
Until this fall, McCoy was known only as the guy who had a run-in with Tennessee's "Smoky" mascot last October in Knoxville, but he's made a name for himself on the field in fall camp. He's drawn raves from teammates for his work ethic, with the Tide's upperclassmen saying similar things about McCoy that they said about D.J. Hall a few years ago.
But unlike the slender Hall, McCoy's got a bulky body for a wide receiver. That will only help him outmuscle more physical defensive backs (not that Hall doesn't hold his own against just about anyone).
Recent Alabama player McCoy reminds me of: Dre Fulgham
Mike Johnson, offensive tackle --- Former Alabama offensive line coach Bob Connelly took major heat for a lot of things in his tenure in Tuscaloosa, but he always raved about Johnson. Now it appears the rest of us are beginning to see what Connelly did.
Johnson beat out not one, but two, returning starters for the right tackle job. Lingering injuries to Chris Capps and B.J. Stabler certainly contributed to that in the spring, but it appears Johnson won the job on his own merits this fall (Capps and Stabler have been healthy throughout camp).
Johnson moved around all over the line as a redshirt freshman last season, probably a bigger reason than any that he was never able to nail down a regular job. The Pensacola, Fla., native seems to have found a home on the far end of the line, though.
At 6-foot-6 and right at 300 pounds, Johnson is big enough to block down on defensive tackles, but not so oversized that he can't shuffle outside to cut off speedy pass-rushers. With Auburn's Quentin Groves and Mississippi State's Titus Brown among the SEC's left defensive ends, that's comforting for Wilson, among others, to know.
Recent Alabama player Johnson reminds me of: Evan Mathis
Lorenzo Washington, defensive tackle --- This space was originally reserved for Brian Motley, but after a second broken bone in two weeks for the redshirt freshman, it appears we're going to have to wait quite a while for Motley's debut in crimson.
Washington has been among the more celebrated recruits in recent Alabama history, but up to this point hasn't made any kind of mark on the field. He got started a year late in Tuscaloosa after spending his freshman year at a prep school, played only sparingly as a redshirt freshman in 2006, then missed spring practice with a torn pectoral muscle suffered in the weight room.
But Alabama needs Washington to flip the switch right now, given that he has only true freshmen backing him up at this point (Saban has said he may fortify the position with veteran players from other positions after this week). At 6-4 and 283 pounds, Washington has certainly got all the physical tools.
Like many of Alabama's defensive linemen, Washington is more of a true end who has bulked up to play tackle. But he's now the Crimson Tide's starting nose tackle by necessity, and will get every chance to prove his worth over the next several weeks.
Recent Alabama player Washington reminds me of: Reggie Grimes
Rolando McClain, inside linebacker --- McClain just might be the most anticipated linebacker to arrive on Alabama's campus since Saleem Rasheed in 1999, and that's saying a lot.
Even so, McClain wasn't a cinch to start immediately, though Prince Hall's suspension certainly greased the skids in that respect. In Alabama's defense, the mike linebacker calls the signals, and that's a heavy responsibility for a true freshman with only 20-odd college practices under his belt.
McClain will get a little bit of help as a signal-caller from veterans Darren Mustin, Marcus Carter and Zeke Knight among others, allowing him to concentrate on making plays. The Decatur native just might perform well enough to hold onto his job even after Hall returns.
At 6-4 and 255 pounds, McClain is built like a future defensive end, but he's a true linebacker all the way. McClain's got the necessary speed and agility for the position, and, by all accounts, he hits like a Mack truck.
Recent Alabama player McClain reminds me of: Dwayne Rudd
Editor's Note: Creg Stephenson has covered Crimson Tide athletics for several print and online publications since 1994, and currently writes for The Anniston Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org