With any kind of list like this there are always going to be some objections about who was included and who was left out, and there were a couple of guys that I really had a hard time leaving off the list, so I thought I'd throw them in here before we move on to the "Five Players That Need to Step Up" later in the week. First up:
Mike Johnson - LG
Why is he so important? On an offensive line that lost three starters at key positions, every ounce of experience helps and Johnson has plenty of it. Starting last year at LG after spending 2007 at RT, Johnson has 27 straight starts to his credit and has played in 40 games since coming to Tuscaloosa. Though he struggled at Tackle (of both the left and right varieties), his run blocking is superb and the move to LG not only helped him earn second team All-SEC honors, but also helped the Tide ground attack become one of the best in the nation.
Why was he left out? Though he certainly has the most experience of any lineman on the roster, Guard is a position where we are pretty well stocked. Brian Motley, he of the buried on the depth chart at C and never able to take off at NG due to injury fame, filled in for Johnson during the spring and surprisingly did so to such acclaim that the coaches moved him over to RG after Johnson returned and let him start there on A-Day. Whether or not he stays there once the season starts remains to be seen, but considering he, David Ross (our top backup lineman last season), Chance Warmack, Taylor Pharr, and John Michael Boswell have all worked at guard and are all solid linemen in their own right (plus the added X-Factor of where the heck we are going to put D.J. Fluker), there is just too much depth at G to truly sweat an injury at that position.
Dont'a Hightower - LB
Why is he so important? Notice how I just put "LB" next to his name instead of "OLB" or "Will" or "Jack" ? That's becaues he's all those things, and that's why he's so important. With Brandon Fanney having transferred and our production from the Jack being woefully inadequate the past two seasons, Hightower is a kid who will be leaned upon to contribute all over the front seven this season. What makes him so important is the fact that he can be leaned upon to play all those roles, and likely better than anyone else on the roster.
Why was he left out? Now that I'm thinking about it, I don't really know. We do return two seasoned starters in Rolando McClain (who we definitely can't do without) and Corey Reamer, and there are also a couple of guys that could make a huge impact this season (Jerrell Harris, Courteney Upshaw, Chris Jordan, not to mention incoming guys like Tana Patrick, William Ming and Nico Johnson), but without anyone that can play the Jack like Hightower or switch around to so many different positions, losing Hightower actually would be a pretty big blow to the front seven.
Javier Arenas - CB/KR
Why is he so important? Under Nick Saban's tutelage, Arenas blossomed into arguably the best CB in Tuscaloosa but also one of the best in the SEC after receiving his only other scholarship offer from Florida Atlantic and generally being considered a return man only by the previous staff. Now he's a veteran who's knowledge and leadership will be key in a secondary that lost it's leader in Rashad Johnson and will be facing some high powered offenses in the coming season. Beyond that though, his skills as a return man have routinely helped set up the Tide offense in favorable field position (though his judgement in some cases is certainly open for debate) and in cases like the Tulane and Mississippi State games, helped carry the team while the offense floundered.
Why was he left out? As a corner, Arenas is physical enough to play the kind of tight press coverage Nick Saban asks of his DBs while also having the kind of recovery speed necessary to keep from being burned while being so aggressive. As a return man he has the type of vision and elusiveness in the open field to turn a negative into a huge positive. Problem is, he's not the only one on the roster. As maligned as he may be at times (and I'm guilty of it myself), Marquis Johnson was the 3rd corner last year for a reason, and if you take away the handful of glaring errors (really, no more than Arenas or Jackson committed themselves) that he gets taken to task for over and over, he was a solid DB and could fill in for Arenas without a significant drop off in production, and that's not including the development of BJ Scott, Tyrone King, Robert Lester, and Chris Rogers, all of whom will get every opportunity to shine at CB in their own time. And as far as returning kicks go, we have athletes galore that can step up there. Both Marquis Maze and Julio Jones showed during the A-Day game that they have just as much flash and speed as Arenas in the open field, while the aforementioned Scott was a hell of a return man himself in high school. As much as I would hate to lose Javy for any stretch of time this season, it wouldn't spoil the defense.
Mark Ingram - RB
Why is he so important? With Glenn Coffee in the NFL and Roy Upchurch a walking injury risk, Mark Ingram is the only real known quantity we have in the run game. Coming off of an impressive true freshman season that saw Ingram rush 143 times for 728 yards (12 TDs), Ingram is the leading returning rusher and the likeliest candidate to carry the workload for the offense this year.
Why was he left out? The aforementioned Upchurch should be healthy and ready to finally live up to his recruiting hype this season; the neck injury that held him out of the latter half of last season has been repaired and, despite not taking part in contact during the spring, he should be able to show what he can do once fall camp starts. Further, Trent Richardson is set to pull an Ingram of his own; He has roughly the same build and skill set as Ingram, but he's got better open field speed and is considered more of a "home run threat" than Ingram.
Terrence Cody - NG
Why is he so important? Last but not least, the mammoth Mt. Cody helped turn the Alabama defense into one of the top units in the country, making it almost impossible for opposing offenses to run on us and generally being a nightmare for offensive linemen to keep up with. The only team that successfully ran inside on us last season was LSU, who did so with the advantage of an ailing Cody (still recovering from a knee injury against Ole Miss) and the best offensive line we faced. Everyone else? Not so much.
Why was he left out? Though teams weren't often able to run against us with Cody in the middle, passing wasn't too much of a problem as we learned the hard way against Florida and Utah. Cody has slimmed down to try and stay on the field during passing situations this season, but he's still a long shot to be an every down NG, while Josh Chapman (the preferred backup last season), Marcel Dareus, and Kerry Murphy have shown plenty of promise as NGs on their own. None of them has the size of Cody, but they are all still fully capable of clogging the middle while also helping to generate a better pass rush this year.