The University of Alabama Crimson Tide's football team went into Spring practice with way more questions than answers regarding who would step up into the starting roles that were vacated by nine graduating seniors.
With most of the receiving corps, an underrated offensive lineman, the most productive defensive lineman on the team, a starting Jack linebacker, a team captain, an All SEC cornerback, and a two-year starter at safety all gone, the Tide had no clue who would fill their shoes.
Faced with a tough task, now second year head coach Nick Saban said that no starting spots were guaranteed and challenged his team to compete every day for a spot on the first team, and compete is just what they did.
Although many Bama fans think otherwise, John Parker Wilson, starting quarterback for two years, was way ahead of the rest of the quarterbacks, according to Coach Saban. However, the other three quarterbacks had an intense competition for the backup job.
Last year's backup, Greg McElroy, went into spring practice with a tight grip as backup quarterback, and many thought he would give John Parker Wilson a run for his money in the starting quarterback race, but Nick Fanuzzi and the walk on quarterback Thomas Darrah made tremendous strides and loosened McElroy's grip a little.
Darrah had the best stats of any of the four quarterbacks in the A day game, although he was playing against the third string. McElroy played well in spurts against the second team, John Parker Wilson had a good day throwing the ball, but had to deal with some dropped passes on good throws to his receivers. Fanuzzi was poised to take over the backup spot from McElroy, but struggled mightily in the game.
At receiver, Mike McCoy and Nikita Stover are the only two returning players with considerable game experience. While Stover was out all spring with a hamstring injury, McCoy thrived and established himself as a consistent producer on the field.
Earl Alexander is a huge target on the field for the Crimson Tide offense, but has problems with his hands at times; hands are not the problem at all for breakthrough receiver Darius Hanks, who Saban says has the best hands on the team.
McCoy, Alexander, and Hanks all performed well in the spring game, and with talented incoming freshmen like Julio Jones, the competition at wide receiver is really tough. The good thing about competition like this is that regardless of who gets the starting job, it creates depth at the position.
The offensive line returns four of five starters this season. Justin Britt, the starting left guard from last years squad has graduated, but instead of searching for a new left guard, last years starting right tackle, Mike Johnson, moved down to guard, between Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell.
That left the dreaded right tackle position anybody's race. The Tide has struggled at right tackle for years, and is looking for someone to step up and really solidify that spot.
Drew Davis and Taylor Pharr were neck-and-neck for the job, and Davis squeaked by Pharr and started with the first team in the A day game, but mammoth offensive lineman Tyler Love will be in Tuscaloosa this fall to put more pressure on Davis to hold down that job.
The competition at right tackle is probably the toughest, and most important fight for a starting job, because whoever wins the job has the responsibility of protecting John Parker Wilson, and we know what he can do when he has time to throw the football (see Tennessee).
There is a stable of running backs at Alabama right now. Terry Grant had almost 1,000 yards in his freshman year, Glen Coffee is a bruiser that carried some of the load last year when he wasn't suspended for the textbook scandal, and Roy Upchurch, a mix of speed and power, could be the most talented running back that we have at Alabama.
Terry Grant will likely be named the starter now that he is healthy again, but regardless the 3 headed monster of Grant, Coffee, and Upchurch is going to be hard to stop this fall.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Crimson Tide lost its most productive defensive lineman, Wallace Gilberry. Gilberry, a four-year starter for Alabama, led the team and was third in the SEC in sacks, and was also third in the NCAA in tackles for loss.
It will be a tough task to replace Gilberry, but the Tide will look to Bobby Greenwood and Brandon Deaderick to try to fill his shoes.
There was stiff competition this spring at the defensive tackle/nose guard spot. Josh Chapman had a great spring, as did returning starter Lorenzo Washington, and Alfred McCullogh wasn't too far behind them. Terrance Cody, the monster 400 pounder is coming in this fall, as well as Kerry Murphy, if he qualifies academically.
Both will provide depth and could see significant playing time to strengthen the defensive front. Try running up the middle on the goal line against a 400 pound man, and Murphy is no shrimp either at 325.
The linebacking corps is depleted, and is our weakest link on defense. Zeke Knight will likely be out from complications with his heart, and Prince Hall will be suspended from the team for the first few games, if not all season long. Jimmy Johns made the transition from running back to linebacker, but was shifted from inside to outside linebacker and struggled learning both positions. However, he makes up for some of his mental mistakes with raw athleticism and football instincts.
Cory Reamer also moved to linebacker, and made the transition well. He was a pleasant surprise for Tide coaches and fans, and even got the starting job at middle linebacker alongside Rolando McClain in the spring game. Baron Huber was tried at linebacker and fit in well there, but who knows whether he will be there or at fullback in the fall. Donta Hightower and Jerrell Harris will look to compete for playing time as freshmen as well.
But if we look on the bright side, and Knight is cleared to play, Hall takes care of his off-the-field issues and returns to the team, and Jimmy Johns learns the position well enough, we are looking at the most athletic linebacking corps in the SEC with Knight and Johns at outside, and Hall and McClain at inside.
The strength of Bama's defense this year will be our secondary. I know we lost a great cover corner in Simeon Castille, and a two-year starter in Marcus Carter, but we return Freshman All SEC corner Kareem Jackson, and All SEC safety, and leading tackler for the Tide last season Rashad Johnson.
The other corner position was up for grabs, and Alabama's playmaker on special teams, Javier Arenas, stepped up and solidified his spot as the starter. Think if Arenas gets a pick during a game, he will be running it back against 6 skill position players and five offensive lineman...sounds like an automatic score, or at least a flip of field position to me.
The last spot open in the secondary was at strong safety. With Cory Reamer moved to linebacker, Justin Woodall, a special teams standout, stepped in and will likely be the starter at strong safety in the fall. He provides a physical presence in the secondary standing at 6-foot-2' and 235 pounds.
Alabama has a lot of talent coming into the secondary this fall as well after signing Alonzo Lawrence, Robert Lester, Mark Barron, and others. Look for these freshmen to come in and push for playing time as well.
Competition is a good thing; it pushes players to work harder so they can see more playing time on the field, and creates depth at the same time...and depth is one thing that we haven't had in Tuscaloosa in a long time. The foundation is being laid for the future, and look for this team to make a run for the SEC Western Division title this year.