Talent isn’t the question for Nick Saban’s fourth Crimson Tide team.
Experience — specifically on defense and special teams — has this defending national champion and consensus preseason No. 1 in a unique place.
With roles reversed, the suddenly explosive offense has the perceived burden of carrying that young defense long enough to work the wobble out of their young legs. Names like Mark Ingram, Greg McElroy, Julio Jones and a few of their friends will need to do more than babysit and avoid blowing any advantage gained on defense.
For this fall, at least, this is Alabama football.
The Nick Saban buzzword of August is one that wasn’t uttered much, if at all a year ago.
“We need to get more players that play with the kind of maturity …”
“…every player on the team now has to have maturity …”
“What is your maturity? We talk about it all the time.”
Without the “M” word, the first month of the season will be a chore. Penn State and Florida come to Bryant-Denny Stadium, while road trips to Arkansas and South Carolina could either dash hopes of a repeat or affirm Saban’s method.
Those two alternatives hinge largely on the Tide defense that produced four NFL draft picks taken in the first three rounds and the special teams, which returns zero kickers, punters or returners.
That’s where the potential comes in.
The Alabama practice fields overflow with former four- and five-star recruits, but the big reputations don’t necessarily lead to big careers at the college level. As many as eight or nine starters have never assumed that job before, so that maturity factor looms large for the unit that’s been a Crimson Tide calling card over the years.
“Up front it seems like we have a lot of depth, but we’re not as talented right now from an experience perspective with the inside three,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “As you can tell, we lost a lot of guys, but we’re excited about the challenge in front of us. They’re working every day and are excited about it, and so am I.”
Even as the countdown to the Sept. 4 season-opener with San Jose State reached the one-week mark, more than a handful of starting jobs were up in the air.
But, as linebacker Dont’a Hightower said, the competition is only fueling the final push toward the regular season. Giving up close to 700 passing yards in the first of two preseason scrimmages also served notice, Hightower added.
“In the first scrimmage, we probably gave up more probably than has ever been given up in the history of Alabama scrimmages,” he said. “So we’re way better than that.”
Offensively, maturity and experience is less of an issue with a fifth-year senior at quarterback, a Heisman winner in the backfield and All-American candidates on the line and catching passes.
Saban knows how explosive the offense can be depends largely on the veteran McElroy.
“I think he’s more confident, more comfortable, and he’s played with a lot of confidence in this camp,” Saban said. “I think the players have a lot of confidence in him as well.”
But will McElroy, the young defense and the even younger specialists live up to the potential they carried into camp?
Only the next four months will tell.
Michael Casagrande covers the University of Alabama sports for The Star.