By Kirk McNair
Nick Saban thinks things will be different this year. That's not a threat or a promise regarding the success of his Alabama Crimson Tide football team. Saban, beginning his third year as Bama coach, said the difference this year is that Alabama will have a target on its back. "Last year no one had Alabama circled on the schedule," Saban said. "This year, everyone will."
Whether the 12 scheduled opponents of 2008 considered Bama a key game can't be known. What is a matter of record is that all 12 of those foes came up short as the Crimson Tide cruised to a 12-0 regular-season record. Bama also played well in losing to eventual national champion Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, but was lackluster in a loss to lightly-regarded Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
In 2009, Alabama will have much the same defense that was dominating last season. Key special teams players also return. The offense is undergoing quite a bit of retooling.
Saban has a history of high turnover among assistant coaches. Changes in this year's staff are both at linebacker, James Willis coming from Auburn to coach outside linebackers and Sal Sunseri coming from the Carolina Panthers to coach inside linebackers.
Alabama will have a new quarterback in 2009 as John Parker Wilson has taken his three years of starting experience (and virtually every Crimson Tide passing record) to the NFL. This year the quarterback will be three-year backup Greg McElroy, who has experience in patience. He was also a three-year backup to Chase Daniel of Missouri fame at Southlake Carroll in Texas. When McElroy finally got his chance in high school, he set a Texas prep record for touchdown passes, was Mr. Football, and was MVP in the state championship game.
Some football experts believe the most important position on the offensive line is center. Others say the most important spot is left tackle. Whichever, Bama has to have new starters at both. Andre Smith, the All-America left tackle and Lombardi Award winner, departed after three years and was the sixth player taken in this year's NFL draft. Antoine Caldwell, an All-America center and two-time captain, is also being replaced. At left tackle, Alabama recruited to its needs, getting Junior College All-America James Carpenter (6-5, 305) and high school All-America D.J. Fluker (6-5, 340). Carpenter took part in spring drills and frequently was cited by Saban. Junior William Vlachos (6-0, 305) won a spirited battle at center. Left guard Mike Johnson is a returning all-star.
The biggest question mark going to the fall is which of a group of tailbacks will replace Glen Coffee, who came within yards of the Alabama single season rushing record last year. Coffee went early to the NFL. Two top candidates, Roy Upchurch and Mark Ingram, were held out of most spring contact with injuries. Terry Grant was the top tailback in the spring. Incoming freshman Trent Richardson could be a factor.
Two-thirds of Alabama's offensive plays last year were runs, but with the very accurate McElroy (he's hit 80 percent of his college passes in very limited play) and a number of accomplished receivers, Bama could be more air-oriented in 2009.
Alabama ranked at or near the top in most SEC defensive categories last year. Nine of 11 starters and 10 second-team defenders return this year. The biggest void to fill is at safety. Rashad Johnson, a former walk-on running back who became an All-America safety and two-time captain, has gone to the NFL. Former cornerback Robby Green appears to be Johnson's successor. The Tide also lost defensive end Bobby Greenwood. Bama will be bigger and faster at the position with either Marcel Dareus (6-3, 280) or Luther Davis (6-3, 300).
Bama doesn't lack for defensive stars, headed by All-America players at middle linebacker and nose tackle--- Rolando McClain, a 6-4, 250-pound junior, and Terrence Cody, a 6-5, 365-pound senior. Dont'a Hightower, a near-clone of McClain, was 2008 freshman All-America lining up at the other inside linebacker spot in Bama's 3-4 defense.
Arenas is better known for his work on special teams. In his career he has returned 93 punts for 1,259 yards (13.5 yards per return) and six touchdowns. He has also averaged 22.7 yards on 71 kickoff returns.
Alabama also returns two senior kickers. Placekicker Van Tiffin has made 53-of-76 field goals with a long of 54 and 94-of-96 extra points. P.J. Fitzgerald has been Bama's punter for three years and has improved each year. Last year he averaged 41.1 on 59 kicks and had 15 downed inside the 20.
Alabama's 12-2 season in 2008 resulted in a No. 6 ranking in the final polls after a run of a month and a half late in the year at No. 1. Last year the Tide had to play on the road at LSU (defending national champion), Georgia (preseason No. 1) and Tennessee. This year Georgia is off the Tide's schedule and LSU and Tennessee are Tuscaloosa games. Bama got a nice bounce from opening the season at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and upsetting preseason top 10 Clemson. This season Bama opens in the Georgia Dome against Virginia Tech, expected to be a preseason top 10 team, which means the Hokies will be the first team in 2009 to have Alabama circled on its schedule.