(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Much has been made this offseason about putting the 2011 BCS National Championship in the rearview mirror and focusing on the season ahead. The 2012 version of the Tide has drawn numerous comparisons to the 2010 unit that lost three games and failed to appear in a BCS game just a year after winning the national championship. Sophomore safety Vinnie Sunseri continued that line of thinking, when he was asked whether the championship game in New Orleans prepared Alabama for its season opener vs. Michigan. "No sir. We’re living in the moment," he said. "We’ve already forgot about New Orleans. That’s not in any part of our preparation for this season. We’ve got to prepare. We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to work hard everyday."
Freshmen Eddie Williams and Cyrus Jones are new arrivals who already are turning heads at practice. "Those two young guys are doing great," junior cornerback Dee Milliner said. "Eddie's one of the bigger, physical receivers: 6-4, big guy. Somebody we could use, got a little height on him. So we've got the long ball, and we've got Cyrus, a great speed guy. He could be in the slot, be out there wide, or he could even be there at running back at times. He's a great athlete. Both of those guys work hard."
"We want to be fast, strong, relentless. Stop the run, play everything right. We're definitely working hard trying to do everything the right way, how Coach Saban wants it." Sunseri was asked what the competition has been like at safety so far in preseason camp. "The competition's unreal," he said. "We've got unbelievable players competing every day. Everybody's taking a lot of reps and everybody's just doing really well right now flying around to the ball and making plays."
McCarron's favorite target will surely be Bell, as Nussmeier wants to stretch the field with more deep throws and Bell is 'Bama's top playmaking receiver. "I'm going to lean on Kenny," McCarron says. "We know he's capable of being a very, very good receiver, and it's my job to let him show that. I'm doing everything I can to get the best out of everybody on the offense. I've been playing this position since I was three years old, and I've always wanted more responsibility put on me."
Dee Milliner can identify with the blank stares, the tentativeness, the feeling of being lost that Alabama’s younger cornerbacks are feeling as the first week of training camp unfolds. He was there in 2010. "My first camp I thought I’d never played football ever in my life when I got here," Alabama’s junior cornerback from Millbrook said Sunday at the Tide’s media day. "It’s going to be rough. It’s camp, getting ready for the season. You’ve just got to compete every day and get better every day and you’ll be fine."
The next guy up, if you want to get technical about it, is 2011′s No. 2 man Eddie Lacy. It’s a big dropoff from Richardson’s 130-yard average production to Lacy’s 56, but you have to like the numbers Lacy put up on such a paltry allowance of carries (674 rushing yards, 95 touches). Lacy recently returned to action following offseason foot surgery and will be a full participant in fall camp. But like CBS’ Daniel Lewis, we are almost more intrigued by the guys coming up behind Lacy: Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and T.J. Yeldon. These players are always fun to track at ‘Bama because, like Richardson behind Ingram, they are undeniably talented, have to wait their turn and will be endlessly clamored for on the radio and message boards the first time Lacy has an off night.
Running back Jalston Fowler apparently was spotted Wednesday morning working with the H-backs, but he was back with the running backs in the evening practice. At one point, however, he was lined up like a fullback with running back Eddie Lacy lined up behind him as a tailback. Will the I-formation be a part of new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier's offense?
The Crimson Tide left tackle's freshman season was cut short against Tennessee last year due to a torn ACL in his left knee. But after a rehabilitation period that was relatively short for such an injury, Kouandjio returned to the field for spring practice in March and is feeling even better one week into fall camp. "I really needed the extra time in the summer to get to 100 percent," Kouandjio said. "I was about 85 to 90 percent going to spring. I feel good now." Kouandjio rehabbed the injury with his older brother and fellow offensive lineman Arie, who also missed the season last year with knee trouble. The younger Kouandjio's playing time was on the rise last season when the injury occurred. Although he did not make a start as a freshman, Kouandjio said game action from his freshman year has readied him for an improved sophomore campaign. "It was pretty valuable because it gave me a taste of how SEC football is and how to play in front of 100,000 people and it gave me a little bit of experience, which is what I need to play at this level this year," he said.
He's known as "ThaMonstar" and for good reason. The 6-4, 320-pound Williams put up 600 pounds on the bench-press earlier this month and could have gone higher had the Alabama strength staff not stopped him right there. He's moving from end to nose guard in Alabama's 3-4 scheme and played some inside last season when the Tide went to a four-man front on passing downs. Alabama coach Nick Saban called Williams the most underrated player on Alabama's national championship defense last season, although those days are likely gone. That's because Williams is poised for a huge senior season, and everybody will know who he is by season's end. He may not put up eye-popping statistics playing the nose, but his relentless push up the middle will wreck more than a few opposing offensive game plans. Williams didn't start playing football until he was 15, so his best is yet to come.
He’s strong, Australian and plays nose tackle for Alabama. Is there anything else that would be good to know about Jesse Williams? "I’d say all the tattoos and my rugged good looks," Williams said, letting his listener know that his understated sense of humor is worth knowing about.
Norwood won’t even say that his status has changed all that much within the Tide receiving group. He conceded that he is serving as a leader for the younger guys, who are coming to him with questions. But he also gives them credit for listening, learning and serving as a resource for him. "I’m coming to them, too," he said. "Sometimes I forget, so we’re just all back and forth with each other."
After winning a second national championship in three seasons, the cachet of playing for the Crimson Tide has never been higher, especially with larger-than-life coach Nick Saban, who may be the most revered head man in the game right now. At the same event, Fort Worth All Saints offensive tackle Demetrius Knox still seemed in awe of talking to Saban and receiving his offer, even though the conversation had happened some months prior. "Man, it was great," Adams said of his opportunity to talk with the 'Bama head coach. "It was an honor because he is one of the top coaches in the NCAA. I really respect that about him."
Kouandjio, a former four-star prospect out of Hyattsville, Md., saw the field in just two games last season before he was forced to miss the rest of it because of knee surgery. He apparently sustained another setback during the spring, but has been practicing fully through most of the last week. "I'm glad to see him back on the field with me," said left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, Arie's younger brother. "He's working. He's a hard worker and he has a good attitude. I'm proud of my big brother for that."
"There’s more competition this year than I can ever remember before because there’s just a lot of equal players," the coach said. "This guy is just like this guy, the twos are as good as the ones. Sometimes a three is as good as a two. For this defense, depth is a key."
And we believe -- well, maybe all but the Unitarians -- that God himself favors our football teams. On Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, our coaches, some of them blasphemers and backsliders and not exactly praying men the other six days of the week, tell their players to hit a knee and ask his favor at the same exact instant the other team is also asking his favor, which I have always taken to mean that God, all things being equal, favors the team with the surest holder on long field goals. It is gospel -- the gospel according to Bear. After a rare Alabama loss in the Bryant era, Bear's sidekick on his weekly television show told him: "The Lord just wasn't with us, Coach." "The Lord," growled Bryant, "expects you to block and tackle."
With Fitzgerald Touissant in the lineup, Michigan returned more than 80 percent of its total offense from 2011 and was the only team in the nation preparing for 2012 with not one, but two 1,000-yard rushers en tow. With Toussaint suspended indefinitely in the wake of a drunk driving arrest in July, Michigan… well, Michigan still has Denard Robinson, the more electrifying half of its millennial tandem, but no one else who has done anything to keep opposing defenses from keying on the quarterback. When the first defense on the schedule is arguably the best defense in college football, that's a problem. So, offensive coordinator Al Borges, any innovative solutions after the first few days of practice for replacing Toussaint's All-Big Ten-caliber production, or otherwise generating a reliable running game that doesn't involve sending your meal ticket into the teeth of Alabama's ferocious front seven? "We're just going to the next guy. We're not really changing anything," Borges said. "So, Thomas Rawls is that next guy, Vince (Smith) is going to do what he's done, and on we go. I think the key to these situations from game-plan perspective is to try to make it as seamless as you can and just go."