TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 24: AJ McCarron #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide passes against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 24, 2011 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
AJ McCarron, QB: The Crimson Tide certainly has a wealth of talent on offense, but take McCarron out of the equation and Alabama would be sunk. Last year’s backup, Phillip Sims, transferred to Virginia, and there isn’t any experience behind McCarron. Alabama might have to put its offense in the hands of a freshman if McCarron went down.
Lesser-known wideouts like Kevin Norwood, who had a career-best four catches for 78 yards in the national championship game, and Kenny Bell are joined by much-touted newcomers. McCarron is standing by his targets. "The rest of the country might not know what they can do, but I know,'' said McCarron, who capped his first season as starter with MVP honors in the BCS championship game. "That's all that matters to me. It doesn't matter how many top 10 plays we get on ESPN. I know they're making plays for me. "One of the proudest things for me is it's not only one of the most skillful groups of receivers we've had since I've been here, but they're really good off the field. They're all levelheaded guys.''
We have all heard the cliché that defense wins championships. Nowhere is this saying more exemplified than at the University of Alabama. The Crimson Tide ranked in the top three in scoring defense and top five in yards allowed during each of the last three seasons. During that time, they won two of the three BCS National Championships. In fact, the only season that Alabama did not rank in the top seven in both scoring and total defense under Nick Saban was 2007, Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa. It was also the only season that the Tide did not win 10 games under their two-time national coach of the year. Since the start of the 2008 season, Alabama is 48-6 with all six loses coming against opponents ranked in the top 20. Three of the six eventually played in the BCS National Championship Game.
Eli Gold has worked with every Alabama football coach since Bill Curry, and he says current Crimson Tide boss Nick Saban is different than all the others. "I’m quick to point out that different doesn’t make anything wrong. Different is different," Gold said. "Nick Saban is different, but my goodness gracious is the man hugely successful. I’m paid to talk for a living and I try to describe what that ‘it’ factor is, and I just can’t come up with a true description. Whatever ‘it’ is, he’s got a bushel full of it and then some."
Xzavier Dickson isn't Courtney Upshaw, and isn't trying to be, either. The University of Alabama sophomore is competing at the former Alabama star's position of Jack linebacker, and is well aware that Upshaw's production last season was among the key factors for the Crimson Tide's national championship defense. But emulating others isn't Dickson's style. "I just try to play to my potential and try to get better and better," Dickson said. "... Courtney was a great player. I just try to do what I do best."
"A very great guy played the position last year," defensive end Damion Square said. "Xzavier knows the shoes that need to be filled at that position. The position is very important on our defense to make a lot of plays. Xzavier is stepping up and filling in that role to the best of his ability. "We have confidence in Xzavier. He'll get it done."
Damion Square used to fight the head-to-head practice battle when Jones played left tackle. The senior defensive end started with one word to describe what makes Jones special. "Technique," Square said. "That's the reason why he's been this great for this long. He's a guy that is very focused on the technique. When you're tired, his technique is superb. That's the reason why Barrett Jones is who he is." Jones practically points to his head when asked to describe the skill that sets him apart as a player. "My best asset is probably just understanding of the play," he said. "I always know exactly what I have to do and how to do it, technique and just understanding what it is I'm trying to accomplish on that block."
"I like my job right now," Williams said. "As a tight end, I would love to catch more passes. I don’t think anyone would say they wouldn’t want to catch more passes. And I am comfortable with that." Quarterback AJ McCarron indicated that Williams will play a bigger part of the offense. McCarron also said he has full confidence in the tight end. "With us having some new plays we’re going to have to have him doing some certain things," the quarterback said. "You’re always going to have to expand as a player. You’re never going to be able to do just one thing and that’s it. "Mike’s done a great job of making plays for us throughout his career. He’ll continue to do a good job. I’m not worrying about him."
In his session with reporters today, Square said the emergence of the Crimson Tide's younger players has caused a "talent overload" and eliminated any such worries about the abilities of Alabama's reserves. "We got eight guys at one spot that can just go," Square said. "However you want to do it, they can get it done. I know as coaches it's pretty difficult to choose what guy is going to get the majority of reps and that's why. It's great for us as a team to have that kind of depth."
Saban's drive for trophies has been infectious at Alabama. Gymnastics, women's golf and softball all won NCAA titles during the last eight months. Men's golf came within a stroke of beating Texas for the championship and the basketball team made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. Each one of those teams will accept their championship rings at the heartbeat of all Alabama athletics: Bryant-Denny Stadium. It will be a momentary break in the action, usually reserved for halftime. More than 90,000 crimson-clad fans will stand and applaud each team's success. Then, they'll sit back down and wait for the game to begin again. After all, football is what matters here. The billboards scattered throughout Tuscaloosa and the rest of the state count titles won on the gridiron, and with Saban at the helm, they expect that number to continue to grow -- even if a few trophies are broken along the way.
Inside linebackers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley were on the field, side by side, during a similar drill. We had gotten the impression earlier that Trey DePriest would be the middle linebacker and Johnson and Mosley would continue to platoon at the Will (weak inside linebacker) spot, but now it’s clear that the three linebackers will rotate among the two spots.
Losing Roundtree for much of camp deals a significant blow to the receivers. Though Roundtree's catches dropped significantly from 2010 (72) to 2011 (19), his three seasons of game experience made him the standard the younger receivers were following this fall. His leadership was significant enough that he was the first player on the current team given a Legends jersey, No. 21, to honor Desmond Howard.
The schedule lines up to give Michigan a chance to play for the crystal football in January. That also means it's a pretty tough slate. The Wolverines dictate the direction of their season on Sept. 1 when they face defending national champion Alabama in Arlington, Texas. A victory there could start an avalanche of non-conference wins, including Air Force, Massachusetts and Notre Dame. A win in South Bend would easily move the Wolverines into the top five teams in the polls and QB Denard Robinson atop everyone's Heisman ballot. From there, the team should be favored in every game down the stretch heading into a season-ending showdown with Ohio State on Nov. 24. Michigan could even conceivably lose a Big Ten game in the middle of the season to Michigan State or Nebraska and still make the league title game. From there, a rematch with Alabama or a meeting with Southern Cal in the national championship game would be in the cards.