Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SEC [Print without images]

Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Alabama spring wrap

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

2009 overall record: 14-0, BCS national champions

2009 conference record: 8-0, SEC champions

Returning starters

Offense: 8; Defense: 3; Kicker/punter: 0

Top returners

QB Greg McElroy, RB Mark Ingram, RB Trent Richardson, WR Julio Jones, OG Barrett Jones, DE Marcell Dareus, LB Dont’a Hightower, S Mark Barron

Key losses

TE Colin Peek, OG Mike Johnson, NG Terrence Cody, DE Brandon Deaderick, LB Rolando McClain, CB Javier Arenas, CB Kareem Jackson, PK Leigh Tiffin

2009 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Mark Ingram* (1,658 yards)

Passing: Greg McElroy* (2,508 yards)

Receiving: Julio Jones* (596 yards)

Tackles: Rolando McClain (105)

Sacks: Marcell Dareus* (6.5)

Interceptions: Mark Barron* (7)

Spring answers

1. Running to glory: Imagine having the two best running backs in the SEC on the same team. There’s no imagining to it for the Crimson Tide, who will seek to ride Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to a second straight BCS national championship next season. Ingram won the Heisman Trophy last season, but there are some in and around the Alabama program who think Richardson is even better. They both are fabulous after-contact runners and can also break the long one. The only problem will be splitting up the carries. What a problem to have, huh?

2. Hightower’s return: Despite a complete reconstruction of his left knee last year following his injury against Arkansas in the fourth week, linebacker Dont’a Hightower was back on the practice field this spring and even went through some contact the final week. Getting him back was critical, because he plays so many roles for the Crimson Tide. He’ll step in for Rolando McClain at middle linebacker in the base defense, plays in the nickel and rushes the passer from his jack linebacker spot on passing downs. If Hightower is indeed close to 100 percent next season, he’ll be one of the better defenders in the league.

3. Loaded at quarterback: Everybody knows what Greg McElroy did in his first full season as the starter. He made the plays he had to, protected the football – and most importantly – didn’t lose a game. He returns as the starter, but also has a ton of talent behind him. Nick Saban said it’s the best the quarterback situation has looked at Alabama since he took over in 2007. Redshirt freshman A.J. McCarron threw the ball as well as anybody this spring and is ready if something should happen to McElroy. And true freshman Phillip Sims, who enrolled early and went through spring practice, might have the best upside of all three.

Fall questions

1. Inexperience in the secondary: With the exception of junior safety Mark Barron, who led the SEC in interceptions, the Crimson Tide lost everybody in the secondary who made a play for them last season. That means a lot of new (and inexperienced) faces will be on the field next season from the outset, which is never the way you want to go into a season. At least, the Crimson Tide will be talented in their defensive backfield. Sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick has star potential, and true freshmen DeMarcus Milliner and John Fulton also showcased their talent this spring. But Saban will be the first to tell you that inexperience in the secondary can be a killer. It also didn’t help that junior college signee DeQuan Menzie ruptured his Achilles tendon and won't be available next season.

2. Kicking and punting: The unsung hero for Alabama last season was place-kicker Leigh Tiffin, who was so clutch and made 30-of-35 field goal attempts. Punter P.J. Fitzgerald was also solid. Both of those guys are now gone, though, and chances are a couple of freshmen will be filling their shoes. Place-kicker Cade Foster went through spring practice, while punter Jay Williams will be on campus this summer. Replacing Javier Arenas' return skills won't be easy, either.

3. Staying the course: Don’t ask Saban about the chances of Alabama defending its national championship. He’ll quickly tell you the Crimson Tide aren’t defending anything. And he’s right. The key in coming back after a championship season and doing it again is keeping your focus straight ahead and not getting caught up in what you’ve just accomplished. That’s easier said than done. Is the leadership on this team good enough to do that? Can Alabama keep that same game-to-game concentration that made the Tide so good last season? Are these guys still hungry? We’re going to find out.