Alabama Football 2008: Players to Watch on Defense and Special Teams

Nic GulasSenior Analyst IMay 22, 2008


After a disappointing end to a once 6-2 season, the Alabama Crimson Tide find themselves lacking some depth heading into the summer.  Granted that highly touted recruiting class is coming on campus, but it is still a mystery as to whom and to what extent some of these players will be able to contribute to this team right away.  For this reason, the Tide will be relying on some young guys with experience and an elected team captain to be the leaders for Alabama in 2008 and the keys to their team’s success on defense and special teams.   

Rolando McClain, Sophomore, LB

McClain will be the focus of the Alabama defense this season in the front seven.  He started nine games for the Tide last season at LB and quickly became the talk of the team.  He was fourth on the team in tackles last year with 75, including a career high 15 against Auburn. He also recorded an interception in each of the team’s final two games.  He rounded out his season with a SEC All-Freshmen team selection.

This coming year, McClain is the only assured returning starter at LB for the Tide with Prince Hall’s eligibility up in the air with discipline issues stemming from before the spring.  He is expected to receive help next season from the incoming freshmen, including Mark Barron and Jerrell Harris, but McClain will be the veteran of the linebackers this season.  McClain may have to move to the outside if depth becomes an issue, but no matter where he plays, he will be the director of the Alabama defense for the second straight year. 

Rashad Johnson, Senior, S

 At a position in 2007 which most 'Bama fans thought was going to be the dominant part of the defense, the defensive secondary struggled early on and at least once at some point in each game last year.  However, Rashad Johnson came out of no where to surprise many Alabama fans as a strong leader on the team.  Johnson came to Alabama as a running back, but ended up playing as a safety and earning the starting job in spring practice in 2007.  He didn’t disappoint the coaches, grabbing six interceptions last season and earned All-SEC first team honors.  Johnson also managed to be voted Co-Defensive player of the year at Alabama and was elected a team captain for last year’s squad. 

Heading into 2008, Johnson will be a force in the Alabama secondary, a unit which has many questions entering the summer and season.  He is on the Nagurski watch list for the best defensive player in the country.  Johnson will have to step up early and often against some of the better receivers in the country, but also has an advantage of playing in a division of quarterbacks with little or no starting experience for him to feast on.  Look for Johnson to take control of the Tide secondary early on and keep the team stable until the incoming freshmen learn the ropes and get their feet on the ground. 

Javier Arenas Sophomore KR/PR

 Just like Terry Grant, Javier Arenas made an impact in the minds of Alabama fans on his first touch of the 2007 season, taking the opening kick 30 yards to set up the Grant touchdown run.  Arenas averaged 15.4 yards a return on punts, good enough for second in UA history, second in the SEC last season, and twelfth nationally.  He averaged 24.3 yards a return on kickoffs, posting 657 return yards on 27 attempts, both second in school history.  Out of his combined total of 48 returns last season, five went for more than 50 yards and one touchdown. 

 Arenas enters this season poised to be one of the scariest return men in the country and by far the best in the SEC.  His abilities will loom large on Alabama’s field position and may help the Tide steal some points on kickoffs and punts this season.  Even though the Tide will be low on depth and experience on the defensive side of the ball to start the season, any points will help.  Look for Arenas to make a name for himself nationally before the end of the season as a returner and a big help on Alabama’s nickel and dime packages in the secondary.    

 Also see: Alabama Football 2008: Players to watch on Offense.