Nominee For 2009 Surprise Tider

Even though it's a nearly impossible question to answer, it comes regularly. "Who do you think will be the surprise player for Alabama this year?" Even knowing that it's more than difficult to guess a "surprise," it's an irresistible challenge. Two prior moments--one last season and one in the spring--influence my choice.

It is reasonable to expect the surprise of 2009 Alabama football to be a player on offense. After all, most of the defensive stars return and there are question marks on offense.

Greg McElroy will be the quarterback, and he may be the surprise player of the year, but that's not our guess. Nor is whomever wins the tailback job--Roy Upchurch, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, etc. The wide receiver alongside Julio Jones is not going to make headlines, and neither is the tight end.

The offensive line is intriguing, and probably the most important team need, but not the stuff of "surprise of the year."

All the special teams players are back, too, but because the kicking game is far from perfect, it would be only mildly surprising if a new man emerged.

Alabama was very good on defense last year, but was not a good pass-rushing team. The Tide has lost the man who, statistically, was Bama's best pass rusher last year, defensive end Bobby Greenwood. Lorenzo Washington is generally expected to move into Greenwood's starting spot. Washington, an upcoming senior, will not be a surprise since he was a starting nose tackle in 2007 and played regularly in 2008.

Brandon Fanney is believed to have departed the team, though the status of all players will not be officially known until Wednesday, when Alabama Coach Nick Saban addresses the media prior to the start of Crimson Tide football practice on Thursday. Fanney, the starter at jack linebacker last year, is expected to be replaced by Dont'a Hightower, a starting weakside linebacker last year as a freshman. Hightower won't be a surprise and his replacement at weakside linebacker will have a difficult time making a huge impact because middle linebacker Rolando McClain will get his share of tackles in the middle.

Robby Green seemed to have a strong hold on the safety position vacated by Rahsad Johnson. It would be a surprise if Green or any other player completely filled the shoes of the incomparable Johnson, and that's not our prediction.

Our nominee for surprise player of the year for Alabama (and now it's no longer a surprise) is defensive lineman Marcell Dareus.

Dareus, a 6-4, 296-pound defensive lineman (up from 280 last year), is a powerful player at end, strong enough to slide inside and give a good pass rush up the middle. As a true freshman last year, he played in eight games and had eight tackles and three quarterback hurries.

Following a late season practice, a sportswriter asked Lorenzo Washington about Dareus. The question was along the lines of, "If Dareus is as big and strong as he is as a freshman, what's he going to be like as a senior?" Washington thought for only a moment before saying, "I don't think he'll be a senior," meaning look for Dareus to be one of those three years and then the NFL type players.

The other event that shaped my opinion regarding Dareus came during last year's A-Day Game. It seemed to me that Dareus was influencing nearly every play. As I marked my ballot for the "Dwight Stephenson Lineman of the Game," I wondered if I would be the only sportswriter voting for Marcell Dareus. I wasn't. He was a runaway winner of the award after making four tackles and a sack.

Marcel Dareus looks to be a very pleasant surprise for the Alabama defense.

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