The last time Alabama started a season with a new QB was 2009, and we all know how that worked out for them. With new QBs come new uncertainties. Whether the starting job is won by McElroy's backup A.J. McCarron or five-star phenom Phillip Sims (#14 above), an untested quarterback means Nick Saban won't expect to win games through the air. Fans will be thrilled to see Alabama go back to the smash-mouth running game that worked so well in 2009. For reasons that have escaped me, something happened after the Texas game that convinced Saban he needed to fix something that was never broken. In the off season talk of an "explosive offense" was all the rage, and Saban spent the entire season trying to make that case through the air. This experiment helped pad McElroy's numbers but it proved devastating as far as a Championship run was concerned. It was an insult to Alabama fans everywhere who had to watch the two of the best running backs become spectators as the Tide struggled to win ten games. In 2009 the dynamic duo carried the ball 416 times; only 270 times in 2010. I know McElroy's numbers improved and Alabama posed a threat through the air, but the young offensive line was not up to the task of switching to a passing game. Which brings us to...
This guy is a beast waiting to be unleashed. As a freshman he made headline after he ran through six defenders and then out ran two others on a 53 yd scamper against Arkansas. He is also known for his freakish strength, being stronger than most linemen. He bench presses more than twice his own body weight (460 lbs) and squats nearly three times that (650 lbs). As backup to the Heisman winner, some began to wonder who was the better running back. Although Richardson didn't get enough carries to compete for the Heisman this year, he averaged 6.3 yds per carry, which is more than Ingram or the NCAA's leading rusher, Oregon's Heisman runner up LaMichael James. I strongly suspect 2011 will be his finest season with the Tide.
Going into the 2010 season the biggest concern for the coaches and fans was the infancy of the defensive backfield. Dre Kirkpatrick struggled early on but opposing teams soon realized the achilles heel of Bama's defense was left side cornerback, Demarcus Milliner. It became clear to everyone that this five star freshman was having trouble mastering Saban's complex zone defense. Milliner got burned on crucial plays in every one of Bama's losses. But now that he has a season of experience under his belt he should be much better come fall. And with stars Lester and Barron returning at safeties I think Alabama will be iron clad in the DB dept.
Up front the defense loses rotating starters Luther Davis and Marcel Dareus to the NFL, but I think we will actually improve on the DL in 2011. Saban recruited two JUCO linemen who can play either Nose Guard or Tackle. The first is Jesse Williams, an Australian tattoo-sporting monster who has Terrence Cody's exact measurements (6-5 340lbs) but without the excess blubber (photo above). The second is Quinton Dial (6-5 315) who transfers from East Mississippi. With this kind of size and experience coming in to Tuscaloosa, I expect the Tide rushing defense to be stellar as always.
In the middle Alabama is stacked. We would have been stacked even if we had lost Hightower (6-4 255 lbs) and Upshaw (6-2 263 lbs) to the NFL, but with both coming back to lead the linebacker corp, this is just gravy. Hightower feels he has something to prove after a lackluster season. Upshaw should be fully recovered from an injury ridden season, and ready to perform at his best. While healthy, he has been a terror for drop back passers and the pass rush is definately something we need to improve on.
The 2011 schedule has to be the easiest schedule Alabama will see for a decade. Instead of playing the South Carolina team that beat them last year, they play Vanderbilt. The toughest games will be against LSU, Miss St and Arkansas. They play LSU at home after their bye week and I think they will be pumped for this game. They play the defending champs on their home turf, but the fact is Auburn will be a depleted team in a rebuilding phase, and Bama will have vengeance on their minds for losing the way they did last year. They might have trouble with Florida only because it is in Gainesville, but they play Kent State, North Texas and Georgia Southern which makes theirs one of the easiest schedules among top ten teams.
One of the crucial elements to the 2009 championship team, was the success they had on special team. Losing kick/punt returner Javier Arenas was something they have yet to recover from. Julio Jones and Marquis Maze have been mediocre at best, but no one on special teams scored this past season. This is sure to change in 2011 with the recruitment of five-star RB Demetrius Hart and four-star WR Bradley Sylve, both of whom were spectacular in High School as returners. I expect to see Bama's field position situation change for the better in 2011.
We lose Carpenter at Left tackle but everyone else returns. Vlachos returns as the leader at center. He is probably the shortest center in Alabama's history (6-0 305 lbs) but what he lacks in height, he makes up in brute strength, as he is one of the strongest players on the team. All-American Barrett Jones (6-5 310 lbs) will be at right guard. Pictured above, Sophomore DJ Fluker (6-6 345 lbs) has come a long way as the giant who struggled to earn a starting position. In the bowl game against Michigan State he looked bigger and faster than ever before and it was fun watching him pancake the undersized Spartans. I suspect Fluker might move to left tackle due to his experience. Perhaps most exciting is that we'll get our first look at Arie Kouandjio (6-8 340 lbs) who will probably be tried and tested at Right Tackle. His brother Cyrus will probably commit to the Tide on NSD, and if so he could earn a starting spot at left Guard. Cyrus is a 6-7, 322 lb five-star phenom who recently said he was upset to find out his brother Arie had grown three inches over the past year, making him the tallest in the family. Another possibility is with JUCO transfer Aaron Douglas, a smaller but more experienced Left Tackle. It should be fun watching them battle for a position during the Spring game. All in all the Bama offensive line looks promising, and given the new focus of a running attack, I think Richardson and Lacey will enjoy blowing through giant holes created by these monsters.
And that brings us to last but not least...
Nick Saban + Kirby Smart.