In Alabama's best seasons under coach Nick Saban, a middle linebacker has led the team in tackles. In 2008 and 2009, Rolando McClain led the way (95 tackles in '08 and 105 in '09). Dont'a Hightower led the way last season (85 tackles). The other seasons, a safety led the Tide (Rashad Johnson with 94 in 2007 and Mark Barron with 75 in 2010). Linebackers were the driving force behind Alabama leading the nation last season in every major statistical category: scoring (8.2 ppg), fewest rushing yards (72.15), passing yards (111.46) and total yards (183.62). Outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw ranked third on the team with 52 tackles and led the Tide with 18 tackles for a loss, including a team-high 9Â½ sacks. Nico Johnson (47 tackles) and C.J. Mosley (37 tackles) combined for only one less tackle than Hightower as they shared the other inside linebacker spot next to the All-American. Jerrell Harris (29 tackles) was somewhat of an unsung contributor at the other outside linebacker spot.
By the end of spring drills, it appeared that Jones and Cyrus Kouandjio had taken to their roles at center and left tackle, respectively, quite well. Whatever might be key in their continued development -- be it improved technique for Jones at a new position, enhanced knowledge of the system for Kouandjio as a new starter, or anything else -- fall camp will be the time to hammer any loose nails. Also, will Alabama be able to identify a versatile reserve who can be counted on at multiple positions the way Alfred McCullough was a year ago? Finding someone who can play both center and guard is one thing, but finding one who can be effective at both guard and tackle can be a little tougher.
The preseason honors continue to roll in for Alabama's offensive line. Senior center Barrett Jones, senior guard Chance Warmack and junior tackle D.J. Fluker make up three-fifths of CBSSports.com's first-team All-America offensive line.
In the end, Alabama gets the same projected record that I had for the Tide in 2010 -- 11-1 -- in large part because the Tide and Tigers have done quite a bit to separate themselves from the rest of the league. Alabama could very well lose two early-season games, against Michigan and at Arkansas, but Saban has never lost a season opener at Alabama and the Tide defeated the Hogs even in that 2010 season.
Junior John Fulton will battle two junior college transfers - Deion Belue and Travell Dixon - for a starting position at the cornerback spot opposite Milliner, who started 11 games as a freshman in 2010. One of the three will see significant playing time when the Tide is in its nickel defense, which is more standard that its regular 3-4 defense. Fulton might have come out of the spring with the edge, but Alabama coach Nick Saban has had success lately with junior college transfers (nose guard Terrence Cody, tackle James Carpenter, Menzie and defensive lineman Jesse Williams). Dixon was the nation's top-rated junior college defensive back last season, but Belue seemed to impress Saban more in the spring.
4. Keep your eye on Odell Beckham Jr.: LSU was criticized (rightfully so) for having a less-than-creative offensive game plan in the BCS national title game against Alabama. LSU believes it will finally have an effective vertical passing game (something it really hasn't had since Matt Flynn with the 2007 national championship team) with junior Zach Mettenberger taking over at quarterback. The guy who benefits the most from Mettenberger's presence will be sophomore receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who caught 41 passes on a team that finished 10th in the SEC in passing. Folks, Beckham is really good. He averaged 11.5 yards per catch last season. If he was playing at Southern California, Beckham would be a preseason All-America. And he is psyched about having Mettenberger there to get him the ball. "You can just see it in his eyes. He's ready," Beckham said of Mettenberger. "He has a phenomenal arm and he's going to lead us to a lot of victories."
"He's really athletic. He's living up to all the hype," Steele said. "He's going to play a huge part. Obviously as a freshman it's going to be tough, but before the year's over with he's going to be a real big part of our success so we're glad to have him."
6. Courtney Upshaw, LB, Baltimore Ravens (Round 2 Pick 35)
Upshaw was originally drafted to spell Terrell Suggs and compete for the other OLB job but with Suggs achilles injury, he will now be asked to lead the Ravens linebackers to a ton of sacks. If he stays focused and improves on his weaknesses (pass rushing), he could get 6 to 8 sacks and maybe 60 to 80 tackles and really make a strong push at DROY. The success or failure of Upshaw will be a huge factor in the Ravens success as a defensive unit this year.
So, what is the contingency plan if Toussaint isn't available Sept. 1? The leading candidates appear to be sophomore Thomas Rawls and senior Vincent Smith, and likely in that order. But each brings something to the table, and it's not out of the question they share snaps if Toussaint misses time. Rawls is a sophomore from Flint who has been lauded profusely since arriving on campus last year. He received only 13 carries as a freshman, 10 of which came in the 58-0 blowout of Minnesota, but showcased his toughness in the spring game. He scored Michigan's only two touchdowns of the day, making him the game's biggest surprise.
Back in 1965, there was no Bowl Championship Series, no ESPN and no on-field presentation of a crystal football to college football’s national champions. In fact, after Alabama polished off Nebraska 39-28 in the Orange Bowl to end the ’65 season, Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide figured it had its second-straight national title in hand. But the team didn’t find out for sure until two days later. "We played the game on Saturday, got back to campus on Sunday, and when we went to the dining hall Monday, there was a notice on the bulletin board to the right as you walked in," said Byrd Williams, an Alabama offensive lineman from 1963-66. "It had Coach Bryant’s name on the letterhead. And it said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been named national champions. Start working today to make it three in a row.’"
Howard continued to display his prowess as a receiving target in Orlando as he helped lead his Southeast squad to a tournament championship. Howard was on the receiving end of a number of big passing plays from Georgia-committed quarterback Brice Ramsey and earned praise from 247Sports' Gerry Hamilton as one of the top players at the event, calling Howard "the best tight end in this setting, hands down.
Mathis tore his ACL before his junior season but played through the pain because it was improperly diagnosed as a knee strain. Mathis underwent surgery on January 17, and later committed on May 3 to Ole Miss over Mississippi State, South Florida and South Alabama after visiting the school. Ole Miss was aware of the injury at the time, and coach Hugh Freeze personally accepted the commitment from Mathis over the phone. Fast forward to this past weekend: Mathis did a light workout for the Ole Miss coaches and was examined by the team trainer (who said the Mathis recovery was on schedule, according to Fletcher). Then they started getting mixed signals from the Ole Miss staff, and knew something was wrong. They met personally with Freeze, and the news didn’t get any better. "They said it was strictly because of the leg," Fletcher said. "If he comes back 100 percent, then they said he would be back on the recruiting board. (ed.- how evil. sounds like something Nick Saban would do.)