As the Tide turns

This article kicks off a series analyzing the various SEC football programs coming out of spring practice. Going alphabetically, today's profile will focus on defending national champ Alabama.

The good news: A Crimson Tide program that did not have a single player selected in the 2008 NFL Draft had two players - middle linebacker Rolando McClain and cornerback Kareem Jackson - selected in Round 1 of the 2010 Draft.

The bad news: McClain and Jackson were juniors who still had eligibility remaining.

The worse news: The exodus of McClain and Jackson pushes to nine the number of starters missing from the Crimson Tide's 2009 defense.

Only two starters - linebacker Nico Johnson and safety Mark Barron - return from the '09 stop unit that propelled Bama to a 14-0 record by ranking second nationally in total defense, rushing defense, scoring defense and pass-efficiency defense.

The Tide also returns Dont'a Hightower, who started the first four games at weakside linebacker last fall before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Johnson started the remaining 10 games in Hightower's place.

Hightower moved to middle linebacker during spring practice, enabling Johnson to retain the weakside position. From all accounts, the 6-4, 260-pound Hightower showed no ill effects of the horrific knee injury that cost him most of his sophomore season.

With Hightower and Johnson on hand, Bama's linebacker corps should again be exceptional. The secondary could be suspect, however, since it must replace three cornerbacks who were NFL draftees - Jackson (Round 1), Javier Arenas (Round 2) and Marquis Johnson (Round 7). The lone returning starter in the defensive backfield is a real talent, though. Safety Mark Barron intercepted seven passes last season en route to third-team All-America honors.

Bama must replace its entire front four, including second-round NFL Draft pick Terrence "Mount" Cody, the 6-6, 350-pound nose guard who helped beat Tennessee last fall by blocking two field goal tries.

With nine new starters on defense, head coach Nick Saban may rely more on the offense this fall than he generally prefers. That might be a good strategy, since eight starters return from an attack unit that thrashed Florida 32-13 in the SEC Championship Game, then trounced Texas 37-21 in the BCS title game.

The centerpiece of the offense, of course, is tailback Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner who rushed for a school-record 1,658 yards and scored 20 touchdowns last fall. His backup, sophomore Trent Richardson, might be the SEC's second-best running back.

Bama's passing attack clicked down the stretch, thanks to the late-season progress made by junior quarterback Greg McElroy. After some shaky performances early, he finished with 2,508 passing yards, 17 passing touchdowns and just 4 interceptions.

Julio Jones, McElroy's prime target last fall with 43 catches and 596 yards, will be complemented by fellow wideout Brandon Gibson, who reeled in 8 passes for 142 yards in the A-Day Game, including the game-winning TD toss as time expired.

As usual, Saban signed one of the top recruiting classes in America last February. Ranked No. 4 by Scout.com, Bama's class includes enough elite prospects to help make the Crimson Tide the odds-on favorite for another SEC title in 2010.


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