A year after hinging expectations on future NFL talent on offense, expectations of an Alabama run at a national title hinge more on the experience on defense. Future draft picks Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw headline the roles held by Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Greg McElroy in 2010.
The offense of a year ago couldn’t live up to the consensus No. 1 preseason rankings, though.
The defense of 2009 was the lynchpin of a 14-0 run to the BCS title. Those expectations return after restocking the shelves last fall.
“We can be great. I honestly think we could be better than the ’09 defense,” linebacker Nico Johnson said. “We still got a lot of work to do, but I seriously think that. When we’re out there at practice, it makes everything more easy for linebackers, linemen, because we’ve got so much experience. We don’t know what our best is going to be. We just gonna shoot for that this year.”
Still, the attention of spring and summer was focused on the glamour position on offense.
Replacing two-year starting quarterback Greg McElroy gained intrigue as the competition between AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims appears to be without a leader heading into the opener. Coach Nick Saban even stopped releasing statistics from preseason scrimmages to quell outside analysis of the two young passers.
With the Sept. 3 season opener against Kent State fast approaching, Saban said there was no reason to pick a winner.
“It’s not out of the question that both have roles on our team in some kind of way,” Saban said after the second of the two scrimmages Aug. 20. “I know that’s sort of not what everybody wants to hear, but both of those guys have done a good job in what we’ve asked them to do. Both of them have developed nicely. Both of them have consistently made plays.”
The offensive line protecting McCarron and Sims returns mostly intact. Just left tackle James Carpenter departed, but the one job opening is causing more of a shift. Two-year starting right guard Barrett Jones is the leader to replace the first-round draft pick while sophomore Anthony Steen appears to be the man in Jones’ old spot.
The guys they’ve been blocking in practice carry just as many questions as the new quarterbacks.
Alabama’s defensive line ― the strength of the 2009 title team ― doesn’t have the same star power as in the past. Nose guard Josh Chapman won’t have Marcell Dareus on his hip anymore, so the power of the front must come from another source like junior college transfers Quinton Dial or Jesse Williams.
Improving the pass rush falls heavily on the shoulder of Upshaw, a cross between a linebacker and defensive end who had five sacks in the final two games of 2010. Jones said blocking him in practice is no treat.
“It’s a challenge. The best rushers in any league are guys who can beat you with speed and power,” Jones said. “The thing about Courtney is he is the perfect hybrid of speed and power. He’s so fast off the edge and he can beat you with a speed rush. But the second you kind of soft set him so you set back and handle that speed rush, he’ll just run right over you. So he really is an extremely difficult guy to block and we’re looking for him to have a great year.”
On top of it all, the Alabama football team comprehends its role in a community and state still recovering from the deadly April tornado outbreak.
After helping with the physical labor of rebuilding Tuscaloosa, the players are ready to provide a distraction for those still dealing with the effects of April 27.
“I’m already a motivated person to begin with and then to finish the way I did last year, that’s more motivation,” Barron said. “And then with the tornado thing, I see a lot of people depending on us more even than what they did simply because they lost a lot and they’re looking for us to give them something to take pride in by winning. That’s something I want to help them with.”
Michael Casagrande covers University of Alabama sports for The Star. Follow him on Twitter @UARollTide_Star