Spring Practice Begins Friday

Interest in college football is fueled in part because players are available for a finite period, normally no more than four years of competition. In a few cases a player gets an additional year of eligibility. More often, players are on a college team for fewer than four years.

Regardless of the when or why of attrition, a key element in rebuilding is the work done in spring football practice. Once upon a time spring training was a grueling process, long, tough practices lasting for weeks. Today there are only 15 spring practice days and only a handful of those can be full speed, full gear scrimmages, one of which is the public spring game.

Alabama begins the process of spring football practice Friday. There is more to preparation than just strapping on football equipment and putting coaches and footballs on the field with the players. For the past few weeks Crimson Tide players have been in an off-season program. It's not football, but it includes weight and conditioning and other drills designed to make the players better football players.

Alabama will go about the business of finding replacements for those players who have completed their four years of eligibility or who—like left tackle Andre Smith and tailback Glen Coffee, have elected to leave Bama early for a chance at professional football.

(It's a subject for another day, but Alabama expects to have more and more men who are available for only three years before heading off to pro football. Alabama recruiting is not geared to have players who are ready to play winning football after being on campus for four or five years. The type players Bama wants to recruit are those who will be so good they will have the chance to turn pro early.)

While solidifying a depth chart is of most interest to fans, Saban's process is concerned with having players improve individually, making the team stronger.

The calendar has affected Alabama's spring practice the last couple of years. Although this year it would have been possible to have all 15 practices without a break, Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban made the decision to not have a practice on the Saturday before Easter, which is April 12. Saban wants his team working on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. To make up for the lost April 11 practice, Bama will open a Friday earlier than originally planned. That means this Friday, March 13. The University's spring break begins after that day, so the second practice will be Monday, March 23.

A-Day, which will be nationally televised by ESPN, will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 18, at Bryant-Denny Stadium. There will be no charge for admission and Alabama expects another large crowd for the event.

Saban met with a few sportswriters last week. Most of the meeting was off-the-record, not for any clandestine reason, but just so those who cover the Tide on a regular basis could get some background information on various subjects that Saban would not put on the record.

He brought reporters up to date on the health of the Tide, which overall is quite good. Tailback Roy Upchurch, who had a procedure on his neck in the off-season, won't be involved in contact work, but otherwise the Tide expects to be near 100 per cent. A key to Bama's 12-2 season in 2008 was the team avoiding major injuries.

Saban is not concerned about the 10-day break between the first practice and the second. Those are learning days, not contact days. Players will get a taste of the process, and will likely leave for spring break knowing they need to take care of themselves from a conditioning standpoint for the 14 practices awaiting them on their return.

Saban made a few announcements regarding positions. B.J. Scott, who saw limited action as a wide receiver last fall as a true freshman, will start off in the secondary, as had been rumored for weeks. Scott will get his first look at safety, but may go to cornerback. Alabama has to replace safety Rashad Johnson, but others—Ali Sharrief, Tyrone King and Mark Barron were mentioned by the coach—are top candidates. Saban said safety is a more difficult position than cornerback.

He said that Chris Jackson, who made a move from wide receiver to the secondary late last season, would go back to wide receiver "because of the numbers."

As always, he emphasized that these moves and others were things the staff would look at. Personnel moves , which are made with the approval of players, are not set in stone.

He said an outside linebacker—and he mentioned upcoming soph Jerrell Harris—would get a look at an inside linebacker position.

There had been conjecture that Kerry Murphy, a lineman who joined the Tide this semester, would work on the offensive line, but Saban said he is a defensive lineman.

In addition to Johnson, Alabama lost end Bobby Greenwood from the starting lineup on defense. A number of players headed by Lorenzo Washington are candidates for that job. Getting a better pass rush is likely going to be a point of emphasis in 2009.

There has to be some build-up in the wide receiving corps, where Julio Jones returns with star quality for his sophomore year.

There are key areas on offense, which will get most of the attention from fans as Alabama builds towards the upcoming season.

The most important position on the team is quarterback, and Alabama lost three-year starter John Parker Wilson. In addition to setting Crimson Tide passing records in every category, Wilson was extremely durable, starting and playing every game. Junior Greg McElroy has been number two for two years and has the experience of meetings and practice and sideline signals work in games, but almost no game experience. Star Jackson, a redshirt freshman, and Thomas Darrah, a walk-on, have none.

To the surprise of no one, Saban isn't concerned about when a first team quarterback is chosen. Presumably, it will be at least by the time Bama begins preparation for the opening game against Virginia Tech on September 5 in the GeorgiaDome in Atlanta. Saban also said that practice won't be held up for the slowest-developing candidate.

The coach did not seem concerned about tight end, where two first team players (Nick Walker and Travis McCall) graduated. He pointed out that Colin Peek, a senior who formerly started at Georgia Tech before transferring, has college experience and that soph Brad Smelley got good experience as a true freshman in the last half of 2008. Saban also confirmed that Michael Williams, who has been listed both as a tight end and defensive end, would be on offense.

It has been said that the only ones who watch offensive linemen are parents and girlfriends of the men playing those positions, but Saban and his staff will be taking a hard look at offensive line candidates this spring. Saban said that players would be looked at in various spots. He noted there are a number of tackles, but that some might be moved inside. In addition to Smith, Bama must replace starters Antoine Caldwell at center (Saban pointed out that William Vlachos had taken over the backup role last fall) and Marlon Davis at right guard.

Key special teams players—placekicker Leigh Tiffin, punter P.J. Fitzgerald, snapper Brian Selman, holder Fitzgerald, and kick return star Javier Arenas—all return.

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