Defense, Kicking Must Be Rebuilt

For many years, people who know a lot about football have told me that the most important player on the field is the quarterback. I smugly reply, "Not when I played." That's because my schoolboy football career was all single wing. There wasn't a quarterback. And maybe that's why my heart beats a little faster when I see the Wildcat, which is about the closest thing we'll see to the single wing.

For Alabama in 2010, the most important position seems to be in good hands. Greg McElroy's only problem is that he has never been able to learn from defeat. And that's a good problem to have. He was a one-year starter in high school and delivered an undefeated Texas state championship, earning MVP honors. He has been a one-year starter at Alabama and the result is the best season in storied Crimson Tide history, 14-0 and a national championship.

The most interesting thing about the quarterback position this spring will be determining which player positions himself behind McElroy to be the leader going into Spring 2011. That doesn't mean that another player might not play a meaningful role in 2010. Garrett Gilbert was forced into the most important position in the year's most important game when Colt McCoy was lost to Texas against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban pointed out in remarks regarding the departure of Bama linebacker Rolando McClain to the NFL draft this year that a player is only one injury away from retirement. It will be important to determine a back-up quarterback.

But since McElroy returns, there are more pressing needs for Alabama when spring practice begins (perhaps just before spring break, which is March 13-21, perhaps upon return from spring break). A-Day is expected to be April 17.

The mention of McClain presents an obvious entry to discussion of the most critical position for Alabama to fill beginning this spring.

McClain was Alabama's defensive captain and best defensive player, winner of the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker. He's headed for the NFL, foregoing his senior season of football. Also absent from Alabama's BCS starting linebacker corps are seniors Cory Reamer (strongside) and Eryk Anders (jack). Nico Johnson, an upcoming sophomore, returns at weakside linebacker. Dont'a Hightower is expected to return next fall, and is generally considered to be McClain's replacement, but Hightower is recovering from a very serious knee injury and surgery.

Linebacker isn't the only spot on defense where Alabama lost three starters. On the three-man defensive line, all three listed starters were seniors. The Tide must replace Lorenzo Washington and Brandon Deaderick at ends and All-America nose tackle Terrence Cody. Marcell Dareus, defensive MVP in the BCS game, is a good start in rebuilding the front.

In the four-man secondary, three starters (All-America Javier Arenas and Justin Woodall, seniors, and Kareem Jackson, who is trying his hand at the NFL draft following his junior year) must be replaced.. Most of the time Alabama played in the nickel defense with five defensive backs. That means four starting secondary players are going to be absent since 2009 senior Marquis Johnson was the nickel. Safety Mark Barron is the lone returnee.

Offense wasn't hit nearly so bad, particularly when one considers that McElroy is joined by Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and two-year leading receiver Julio Jones among returnees. Bama's losses are All-America left guard Mike Johnson, right tackle Drew Davis, and tight end Colin Peek.

In addition to McElroy, Ingram and Jones, Bama offensive starters returning include H-Back Preston Dial, wide receiver Marquis Maze, Freshman All-America right guard Barrett Jones, left tackle James Carpenter, and center William Vlachos.

Special teams gets a complete make-over. Bama lost punter P.J. Fitzgerald, who was also the holder on placekicks; All-America placekicker Leigh Tiffin; snapper Brian Selman; and return ace Arenas.

While it's interesting mental exercise to speculate on which is the most important spot to fill, Alabama Coach Nick Saban doesn't have that luxury. Football is a team game. He's got to fill them all. And build depth.

The task begins with the off-season program, then spring practice and summer work, when almost all signees will be in Tuscaloosa. The team building will continue through fall camp next August.

And then, hopefully, everything will be ready for San Jose State in front of over 100,000 in Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 4.

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