In Nick Saban's Mind, What Does It Take to Become a Starter for Alabama?

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In Nick Saban's Mind, What Does It Take to Become a Starter for Alabama?
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

By Terry Pellman

 

"We've got a real barnburner."

"The Irish should just play Notre Dame football."

"That's a nail in the coffin."

"There's no question about it."

In the world of sports we live in, clichés have become as synonymous with the game as the questions of sexual identity have become with Lindsey Lohan: There's no question about it.

At this time of the year, when teams are looking to fill positions vacated by graduation or early entry into the NFL draft, we hear another of these clichés—so often, in fact, it has become somewhat mind-numbing when seeking a definition for one word.

Leadership.

It's a question on the tip of every football fan's tongue: the main ingredient in a good majority of any beat writer's questions to the coach or player they might be interviewing at the time.

In fact, it's something that has seeped its way down to the point players tend to use the phrase to answer questions offered no matter what the question.

Recently, when asked about what was needed on the defensive side of the ball for this year's Alabama team, instead of talking about better coverage skills (more endurance) or better tackling techniques, Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain responded to the question by answering:

"I know I need to be more of a leader with Rashad (Johnson) gone. Just lead by example and be a vocal leader. My play speaks for itself, I think, but I have to do a better job of keeping everyone intense and keeping everyone up."

At the risk of using yet another cliché, Alabama fans want to see the "best 11 players on the field" next season when the Tide arrives in Atlanta to face Virginia Tech in their season opener.

Who fits that bill?

For one to find the answer to that question, one has to ask what it is that constitutes a starter in coach Nick Saban's mind. What is it he's looking for out of the players that makes them the ideal man to fill that role?

Athleticism is something that I think we can all set aside.

While recruiting rankings are suspect when it comes to forecasting wins and losses in the future, they do provide an accurate view on where players stack up against others on the Alabama squad; a common trait found with all of them is they are very good athletes.

According to Coach Saban, there are three areas that come into play when the staff makes their determinations on who fills these starting positions.

"The most important thing we look for in a scrimmage is how a guy competes," Coach Saban said. "A guy who plays hard, doesn't get frustrated, is relentless, coming back and playing is important to him, they have the right plan and really get after it."

The players who aren't in starting roles right now are beginning to fall into two categories this spring. In fact, these two groupings were described in the opening statements in Saban's press conference following a practice session this week.

He mentioned how these are players separated not by leadership, but by maturity. Some of them are "relentless competitors that are fighting their way through the struggles" that are inherent with spring camp. Others, who are not going to fall in consideration for those vacant positions, are "doing just what they have to just to get through spring practice."

Team loyalties aside, which group would you want to see receive the most playing time?

It's a simple answer, only complicated by those who try to look at these competitions far too intently.

"The No. 2 things are the consistency and performance, that level that everyone has been able to achieve when they're out there on their own."

I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, consistency and performance do fit the bill of clichés. However, also in that arena, it's a definitive description of what a head coach is going to want out of his key personnel.

One of the anticipated battles of the Alabama spring camp hasn't been a battle, or even a minor skirmish at this point.

There was a lot of talk about whether redshirted freshman Star Jackson was going to push Greg McElroy for the starting quarterback position for the 2009 season. Yet McElroy has entrenched himself as the man to beat.

How did he do it?

The decisions he's made while running the offense this spring have been mature, consistent decisions. It's important that he understands his role and how it fits in the Alabama offense, but most important is how he understands exactly the goals of the Bama offense: how all of these have a direct bearing on how the unit performs as a whole.

That understanding of the offense has allowed him to tutor other players in areas where they are improving in their performance.

Dare I say it?

His consistency and performance have allowed him to emerge as the leader of the offense—the starting quarterback.

Saban's third criteria, which is most likely a given in any football fan's mind (perhaps the most obvious as well), is also the most crucial.

"And then obviously to evaluate players. There are some guys who practice well, and they get into a game and they can't take it to the field. There are other guys it's always a struggle in practice, but they always play a little better in a game."

"That's why they pay him the big bucks."

The latter of those two I've only witnessed once: Shaun Alexander.

In his days at the Capstone, he wasn't a player that was close to being known for his conditioning work. But when it came to Saturday, his performances spoke for themselves. He was a true "diamond in the rough."

The former isn't something a coach wants to see, but surely something they want to recognize before Saturdays in the fall.

"We have to make sure anyone who can help us is on the field."

Common sense?

Cliché?

Understatement?

While the basics of what it takes to be a starter for Alabama this fall are elementary, I won't begin to even think about even the topic for a dissertation that might describe those nuances Saban holds close to his vest.

All I can say is:

He has a great feel for the game.

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News, notes, and video following Alabama's last practice, second scrimmage of the spring.

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