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Dispatch from the Enemy: Alabama Crimson Tide Preview

(Editors' Note: Below is the first in a series of guest posts previewing the non-Arkansas members of the SEC West. Today's post is by Todd of Roll Bama Roll, SB Nation's outstanding blog about the Alabama Crimson Tide. We're excited about this series for several reasons: 1) You the reader will get top-quality previews written by the foremost experts on the Hogs' division rivals and 2) we Expat staffers don't have to do much work on it.

A thousand thanks to Todd for his hard and thorough work on this post. And now we'll turn the floor over to Todd to get the lowdown on a team that Tide fans are only expecting to win the national championship, the Super Bowl, the NCAA Tournament, the Masters and the national spelling bee ...

Most fans would be exceedingly happy with a 12-2 season and Top Ten finish, but as you may have heard, we Alabama fans are a fickle and demanding lot and the "2" in that figure includes both a shot at the national title slipping through our fourth quarter fingers and an embarassing performance made even worse by a lackluster effort and a week's worth of agent fueled turmoil.  We've been licking our chops to get back on the field and put those painful memories behind us ever since and, with kickoff a scant 16 days away, most of us are ready for a season that we (well, most of us) feel should be another springboard into both another chance at an SEC title and the MNC conversation.  First, let's look at who's going to get us there and how.

Offense

Key Losses: John Parker Wilson (QB), Andre Smith (LT), Antoine Caldwell (C), Marlon Davis (RG), Glen Coffee (RB), Nick Walker (TE), Travis McCall (TE)

As I'm sure you'll remember with some pain, Alabama's MO last season was to run, run, run it right down our opponent's throats and occasionally throw the ball to Julio Jones.  The names listed above were the biggest reasons for that approach. Andre Smith (the soure of the aforemetioned agent fueled turmoil) was an All-American Outland Trophy winner, while Antoine Caldwell (1st Team All-SEC selection) and Marlon Davis (a three year starter) were also key cogs in the fomidable Alabama ground attack.  Further, Travis McCall was the silent workhorse of the offense, lead blocking in the ground game and only occasionally grabbing a quick dump off on play action. 

With that line and a solid veteran in Glen Coffee in the backfield there wasn't a lot of need for the Tide to do much beyond pound the ball, which was quite advantageous considering we were sorely lacking in the "explosive" department on offense.  Though Julio turned out to be worth every ounce of his recruiting hype and then some, the rest of the receiving corps was fairly incosistent, so much so that our next leading receiver was TE Nick Walker and no one even came close to matching Julio's production, be it number of catches or yardage. 

And beyond that, it's doubtful our QB play would have necessarily been able to take advantage of a stocked cabinet at receiver anyway.  John Parker Wilson redeemed himself to a lot of Alabama fans for turning into a smart game manager and keeping the offense efficient, if not explosive, and for that he is to be commended.  Still, he's no Sam Bradford and our gearing of the offensive game plan to the power run was a product of that.

This season looks to be a little different.  Though he'll be operating behind a mostly untested line for his first significant game snaps, Greg McElroy has shown that he has bptj a solid grasp of the Tide offense and a decent sized arm to make plenty of throws.  Originally committed to Texas Tech, McElroy wound up in Tuscaloosa after our '06 Cotton Bowl over the Red Raiders swayed him to our side, and stuck around even after coaching change.  He's been favorably compared by Saban to Matt Mauck, another dubiously gifted passer who nevertheless brought a national title to LSU by using his smarts instead of his arm.  Further, he's assumed a leadership role on the team already and his teammates seem to be solidly behind him as their QB. 

With McElroy under center, the playbook should open up a little further as far as the passing game goes.  Aiding in this is the emergence of a few more playmakers at WR and, of course, the incomparable Julio Jones. 

Julio, as you may be shocked to learn, should actually be better this season after a true freshman campaign that saw him grab 58 passes for 924 yards and four TDs.  As was revealed by off season surgeries and spring camp confessions, Julio suffered a sports hernia injury against Georgia, and also added shoulder and wrist injuries as the season went on, yet continued on in his starting role for the rest of the year.  Considering all that, imagine what a 100% healthy Julio is capable of.  Scary, isn't it? 

Further, Saban and Julio have both made comments that his role in the offense will expand this year as he's more comfortable with the playbook.  Julio will now line up any and everywhere, and could even add some rushing yards to his already impressive stat line if recent practice photos are to be believed.  But someone is going to have to step up alongside him this season to keep defenses from keying in on Jones, and thankfully a few candidates have emerged.  Darius Hanks, who most thought would see some signifcant playing time last season before injuries derailed him, is a practice field hero that looks like he can finally show his stuff on Saturdays, while Marquis Maze, a diminutive speedster that is reportedly hell to cover, has finally emerged as a consistent deep threat after showing a lot of athletic promise in high school and in spot duty last season. 

Senior Mike McCoy is also primed to take advantage of his last year in Crimson and White.  McCoy shocked a lot of people by snaring Keith Brown's starting job away from him in '07, and the staff loves his work ethic and run blocking even if he hasn't shown a lot in the pass catching arena.  He's a big target that can make plays in traffic, though, and if the ball is really going to be spread around this year he should see his opportunities increase.  Also adding to the possibilities in the passing game is a fairly talented and deep TE well. 

Colin Peek, a Ga. Tech transfer, has one more year of eligibility and looks like an asset as both a blocker and pass catcher.  Brad Smelly, who made the move from QB to TE last season as a true freshman, made several big plays in the passing game last season and has bulked up over the summer to also help out in the ground game.  Baron Huber, who moved from DE to FB in '07, has now moved over to TE considering we simply don't use a traditional blocking back in our offense anymore and will also help fill Travis McCall's lead blocking shoes.

Finally, the ground game that we took such pride in last year is a little up in the air given the losses on the offensive line, but I'd happily wager that we should be fine in that department.  Mike Johnson returns at LG after a monster of a year last season that was a big reason the rushing attack was able to take off as it did.  Though he doesn't have Andre Smith beside him anymore, JUCO transfer James Carpenter locked down the LT spot quickly in the spring and should be able to hold his own there come fall.  Alabama and Oklahoma, who lost their All-Big 12 LT to graduation, came after him hard to fill the LT spot on their respective lines and so far he's delivered on his recruiting promise.

In the backfield, last year's second leading rusher Mark Ingram is back as a true sophomore, and from all reports in fall camp he'll be shouldering the biggest load this season at RB.  We love our RB rotation, though, so also look for senior Roy Upchurch to see some significant snaps, and also look for true freshmen Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy to get in on the action as well.

Defense

Key Losses: Rashad Johnson (FS), Bobby Greenwood (DE)

With eight starters back on defense, this year's model should not only be as good as last year's, the influx of freakish defensive talent from the last two recruiting hauls and the increased familiarity with the schemes from some of the younger guys actually means it should be better.  Although last year's unit was one of the most dominant units in the country, our lack of a decent pass rush came back to bite us in a horrible way against both Florida and Utah.  That's been a big point of emphasis this offseason, and with former starter Brandon Fanney (Jack LB) having transferred, it's opened the way for the Tide front seven to actually be a better unit. 

Fanney had already been shuffled back to DE and saw only limited time during the A-Day game with the 2nd team defense, while senior Eryk Anders (last year's 3rd down "Rabbit Rusher" specialist) and true sophomore Courtney Upshaw have been taking most of the snaps there this fall.  Though smaller in stature than what you would typically expect from a hybrid DE/OLB, Anders has shown a much greater grasp of the defense and has worked with the first team throughout the spring and fall. 

Backing him up is Courtney Upshaw, a fairly highly recruited prospect that made a name as a hard hitter on special teams last year.  Moving inside, Dont'a Hightower and Roland McClain are back to anchor the LBs.  Both are freakish athletes that can stand strong against the run and play man coverage against TEs and backs with relative ease.  Hightower actually worked with the OLBs as a Jack at the end of last season and some during fall camp in an attempt to improve the pass rush, but he seems to be fairly entrenched at the Will for now.  At Sam, senior starter Corey Reamer returns, as does promising true sophomore Jerrell Harris.  Harris has also worked with the inside guys some during the fall, a product of Saban's desire for his players to know each position and to have as many fresh bodies as possible to rotate in and out at mulitple positions without a significant drop off.

Up front on the defensive line, Terrence Cody is the name everyone knows but, like the LBs rotating positions, there have been a lot of young guys and a couple of veterans getting in some solid work at both tackle and end.  Josh Chapman backed up Cody last season and was the preferred NT on passing downs, while Brandon Deaderick and Lorenzo Washington worked at DE all last season and are back again this year.  We've also got a lot of young studs itching for playing time.  Marcel Dareus and Luther Davis saw some quality snaps last year in relief, while the arrival of Darrington Sentimore and Kerry Murphy also helps bolster the depth.

In the secondary, the biggest loss on arguably the whole team is FS Rashad Johnson.  Johnson was the defensive captain last year and, along with Rolando McClain, called the defense.  His ball hawking skills will be sorely missed, but more importantly his knowledge of the schemes and leadership are the bigger losses.  True sophomore Robby Green emerged as the likely candidate to fill his shoes after moving over from CB in the spring, though Mark Barron has made a big push for playing time after Saban admitted they gave him too much to learn last season as a true freshman and now that he knows his role he's turning into a real playmaker. 

Green is probably the better cover guy, but Barron is a hard hitter, so look for them to rotate as co-starters depending on the situation.  Justin Woodall is back at SS after a break out year in '08.  He sat out '07 while struggling to learn the new defense, but blossomed last year and will be the veteran leader of the safeties this season.  At CB, Javier Arenas, Kareem Jackson, and Marquis Johnson, the top three CBs from last year, are all back while true freshman Dre Kirkpatrick is already turning heads in fall camp and will more than likely be on the field on passing downs as an extra DB.  Even without Rashad, there's enough experience in the secondary to keep this unit from regressing.

(Again, many thanks to Todd for his hard work on this post. You can check out him and his fellow Bama bloggers out every day at Roll Bama Roll.)