The Alabama football team opens its spring camp for 2009 just over a week ago with drills centering more on conditioning and fundamentals than solving some of the question marks regarding starting positions for the fall football season.
Depending on who you ask you'll get a different answer on which position is going to be the most scrutinized battle this spring.
Some will be looking to see who fills the shoes of John Parker Wilson at the quarterback position. Others, will be more concerned with Andre' Smith's vacated left tackle position.
That's not beginning to approach the discussions on the defense, center, right guard on the offense line and a few others.
Position Battles: Offense
If one were to go strictly by the depth chart at the end of the 2008 season they would be led to think that William Vlachos is the odd's on favorite for the starting center job in 2009. Vlachos saw action in half of the regular season games last year including three of the SEC games on the schedule.
However, it's important to note in all of those SEC games the outcome was well in hand when he was replacing departed senior Antoine Caldwell on the line.
Evan Cardwell has seen more "SEC action" than any of the prospects for the position. But, his time there last year was certainly limited—partly due to issues with a back injury. His experience at center certainly makes him one of the candidates to fill that role.
What remains the "unknown factor" is how Coach Joe Pendry utilizes his interior lineman. He likes for his guards and centers to be able to play any of the three positions which leads to a number of guys who are getting a look at center this spring.
Barrett Jones, who was considered the best center in the nation coming out of high school (despite playing tackle in high school,) practiced in every position on the line last fall but was limited in his development due to a re-occurring injury problem with his shoulder.
Who mans the center position could go hand in hand with the decision on which player is the best fit for the right guard position.
If we make the assumption that we won't see any of the prospects for the center position at the right guard position we'd be ignoring obvious talent.
Family members have speculated that Vlachos feels he's destined to play guard even with his experience last year at center. Cardwell, mentioned earlier as well, has seen time at the right guard position in practice as well.
Again, based on what we saw last season, it would seem the right guard position would fall to David Ross. If we were to look at all the offensive lineman (backups) for Alabama, Ross is the one with the most "game experience." He played in every game last season starting in three of the contests.
Barrett Jones finds his name in this mix as well along with three other players; true freshman Chance Warmack, converted defensive tackle Alfred McCullough and converted defensive lineman Brian Motley.
It's an easy assumption to think that the position battle is going to be between Ross and Motley based on their experience. There is a question mark surrounding Motley in terms of how well he can actually do when given the opportunity. His early career at Alabama seemed highlighted by the injuries he sustained.
The reports from the fourth quarter program included a lot of positive notes on Warmack's progress, conditioning and growing strength. While he's a dark-horse candidate for the role, he definitely has a bright future ahead of him although it's likely we won't see him in full time action until 2010.
Here were have a situation best described with the word semantics. We do have a true tight end position and we also have a tight end/H-back position that could be described either way.
Colin Peek doesn't have a strangle hold on the tight end position, per say, but it's definitely his position to lose going into the spring and fall. IF the NCAA would have ruled differently last season he would have seen action in that role.
Now, in his last year of eligibility, he'll be considered the Tide's starting tight end and it's not highly likely he'll see someone come along and take that position from him.
Brad Smelley, who came on very strong in the last of the '09 season, looks to be the odds on favorite for the starting H-back role.
The story becomes cloudy, at best, when we starting getting deeper in the rotation. Chris Underwood, Michael Williams and Preston Dial all figure to fit in the battles for the backup roles in the fall of 2009.
What becomes intriguing about the tight end/H-back position and the amount of playing time seen by both positions is partly reliant on how the wide-receiver battles end up. As example, Smelley lined up last year in the slot position at times because of his ability to be more than just a short yardage receiver.
If the 'Tide finds itself still searching for that "other receiver" opposite Julio Jones, the chances we'll see Smelley and Peek on the field at the same time grow tremendously.
Who's No. 2?
After spring camp, it still may be a question left to be answered. We would hope not, but considering the production we had last season out of our wide receiver corps (outside of Jones) there's a good chance this just might be the case.
Mike McCoy fits the role of that No. 2 WR in terms of experience and class rank. But, for him to escalate his game to the point of taking pressure off of Julio Jones is where the question remains.
He's seen action the past two years at Alabama, but has yet to step into the role of a "guy the team can count on."
Marquis Maze has what could probably be considered as having as likely of a chance to fill the position as McCoy. He didn't have as many receptions as McCoy did last year (but seriously, what's the difference between 16 receptions and 11 for Maze?) but he did show he had the ability to be that "down field threat" Alabama has been in search of.
The wide-receiver rotation is literally a guessing game at this point. Earl Alexander, Brandon Gibson, Darius Hanks, and Chris Jackson will all have plenty of opportunities to display what they are able to accomplish.
In the past there has been a question of enough bodies to fill a wide receiver rotation at times, now it's now a question of numbers but a question of talent.
Does Alabama have a legitimate threat in that second receiver slot?
We'll likely leave the spring the same way we enter.
"What is the RB rotation going to look like in August?"
Mark Ingram started last year hot but seemed to develop the "Darby syndrome" in the last part of the season. Roy Upchurch, on the other hand, didn't see a lot of action early on but developed into a play maker in the last half of 2008.
This spring Ingram is the one that'll be watched the most simply because we know what he's capable of accomplishing. Upchurch, who is still recovering from a neck injury, is cleared to participate in spring drills but so far hasn't been cleared for contact.
That leaves guys like Jeramie Griffin and Terry Grant. It's impossible to compare the two because they are so far apart in what they bring to the field.
Jermaine Preyear, Ivan Matchett and Demetrius Goode. Now is their opportunity. Little is known in terms of how they'll do in the running back position other than they were all highly thought of recruits.
Most assuredly, the guy that will receive the most "lip service" this spring won't even be on the practice fields—in uniform: Trent Richardson.
One thing we can all be assured of: The running back position has a multitude of players an no matter who steps forward the Tide will be in great shape come fall.
I suspect, more so than the last two years, we'll see more people asking what the back up quarter back can bring to the playing field in 2009.
It's not a question of whether I have faith in Greg McElroy, it's a situation of having faith in the Alabama fan base. Faith, in this case, described by "always looking at the back-up quarterback as an answer."
Using the term "favorite" to describe who is in the starting position at QB this spring probably isn't the right term. Favorite, in this case, meaning he's the one the staff prefers.
Saying McElroy is "favored" for that role seems more accurate. "Favored," in that he's seen more game action than Star Jackson; though that game action is limited at best. "Favored," based on his age and maturity combined with him being the conduit for offensive plays called from the booth this past season.
If Greg assumes this role like he assumed the QB position in high school when starter Chase Daniels graduated he'll quickly become a fan favorite. He's demonstrated, on a few occasions, the touch and accuracy he was known for in his high school playing career.
Star Jackson does bring a more athletic approach to the QB position. He's going to get the same opportunity to prove what he's capable of this spring.
It's a safe assumption to say we'll see Greg running with the first group at times and we'll read reports of Star doing the same. But, to say either has won the starting job is premature.
It's also a safe assumption we'll likely see more of a QB rotation in the fall of 2009 than we have the past two years under Coach Saban.
In the end, the starter is going to be decided on one factor. Which one is playing with the fewest number of mistakes in the role.