After a 2008 season that saw Nick Saban lead his team to a regular undefeated season, the obvious question becomes, what are the keys to the Tide's continued success in 2009? Those answers will be examined in this article.
1). The Offensive Line
Ask any college football coach and he will tell you that a strong offensive line is the key to success on offense. Football games are won in the trenches. Last season, stellar play by Alabama's offensive line paved the way to a ground attack that produced 184.6 yards per game and 32 rushing touchdowns.
This year, Alabama looks to replace All-American left tackle Andre Smith, All-SEC center Antoine Caldwell and steady right guard Marlon Davis. Developing an offensive line that is cohesive is paramount to success in 2009.
Junior college transfer James Carpenter emerged from spring as the leader to replace Smith. In a recent interview, Alabama DC Kirby Smart commented that Carpenter had been solid in the spring and shown to be a solid SEC caliber lineman.
Challenging Carpenter for the position will be highly touted incoming freshman D.J. Fluker. At 6'7", 350 pounds, Fluker has the size and talent to be a dominate tackle in college football.
With the emergence of Carpenter, there will be less pressure on Fluker to come in and start right away, but the opportunity will still be there if he proves up to the challenge.
William Vlachos emerged from spring as the starter at center. The junior is one of the strongest players on the team and showed in the spring he had a solid grasp on the position. David Ross, a junior with game experience, appears poised to be the backup.
Junior Brian Motley emerged from spring as the leader at the right guard position. Motley has suffered from various injuries in the past, but appeared solid in his play during the spring.
Freshman Chance Warmack enrolled early and participated in spring practice, making him the most likely candidate to be the No. 2 right guard. Warmack is highly thought of by the coaches and has the talent to challenge for the position.
Many were surprised by the way Greg McElroy seized the starting spot in the spring and never looked back. But this wasn't new ground for the junior from South Lake Carroll High School in Texas, he also waited his turn there as he backed up Chase Daniel, the 2004 EA Sports High School Player of the Year. McElroy led his team to a 16-0 record throwing for 4,687 yards and 56 touchdowns.
While McElroy won't be asked to duplicate those numbers under Nick Saban's offense, it shows the junior knows how to throw the football. In the limited playing time McElroy has received thus far in his career at Alabama, he has been impressive. Fans still remember the beautiful 34 yard touchdown pass to Marquis Maze in the final quarter of the 2008 Iron Bowl.
McElroy is a smart player who delivers the ball with exceptional accuracy.The coaching staff is excited about his potential contributions at the position this fall. Look for a much improved passing game under his leadership.
Behind McElroy, the situation is not as certain. Redshirt freshman Star Jackson has struggled thus far in picking up the offense. Walk-on Thomas Darrah has demonstrated a strong arm, but has been inconsistent to this point.
Freshman A.J. McCarron, the highly touted recruit from Mobile, AL, has been impressive through spring and will push for the No. 2 position behind McElroy.
3). Wide Receiver- Julio Jones, the freshman phenom, proved to be just as good as advertised in 2008. He caught 58 balls for 924 yards and 4 touchdowns. Look for Jones to be moved around this season in order to create the mismatches that favor the offense. The production opposite Julio wasn't as impressive.
In fact, all other receivers combined for only 53 catches.
This season, Alabama coaches are counting on someone else to step up and take some pressure off of Jones. Through spring, the most likely candidate appears to be Marquis Maze. Last season, the redshirt freshman pulled in just 11 receptions for 137 yards and 2 touchdowns, but often showed the potential for the big play.
Maze has the speed and athleticism to stretch the field and be the perfect compliment to Julio Jones. Coach Saban has expressed excitement about Maze's potential and looks to the sophomore for the consistency he lacked last season.
Other potential candidates include senior Mike McCoy, who has been inconsistent; the physical Earl Alexander, who has battled injuries; Darius Hanks, who has shown flashes of potential; and several highly rated incoming freshmen.
4). Running Backs
Glen Coffee may be gone, but there is plenty of talent in the backfield to take his place. Mark Ingram had a very successful freshman season rushing for 728 yards. Ingram, a big, powerful runner, enters the 2009 season named to the Doak Walker watch list for the nation's best running back and running first string heading into fall camp.
Roy Upchurch enters the season hoping to put past injuries behind him. The senior from Tallahassee has shown game breaking potential in the past when healthy. Heralded incoming freshman Trent Richardson will be giving the opportunity for immediate playing time as Coach Saban has expressed a desire to have three backs ready by the Virginia Tech kickoff.
Richardson is a powerful runner with good speed and should make an immediate impact. Incoming freshman Eddie Lacy, a 4 star running back, will be given a look and have an opportunity to contribute as well.
Other potential candidates include Demetrius Goode and Terry Grant. Goode is returning after successful rehabilitation on his knee, while Grant has mainly contributed on special teams since rushing for 891 yards on 180 carries as a redshirt freshman.
With consistent play from the offensive line, the 2009 Alabama Crimson Tide offense will look to continue their dominance on the ground; after all, hard nosed football is a staple of any Nick Saban coached team; this year's version could be one of his best.