As the University of Alabama football players emerged from the north tunnel at Bryant-Denny Stadium for the media portion of their Fan Day gauntlet (reporters, practice, fans) on Sunday, there was an understandable rush of reporters to the offensive players. That's where many of Alabama's big names play. It's where many compelling storylines of 2011 will emerge. Chances are, though, the other side of the ball will be the ultimate determinant of success for Alabama. Of course, all three phases have to be in sync. Offense is clearly important. So are special teams (although the only aspect on full display on Sunday, the punting, can stand some improvement.) But the rock upon which this team is built will be defense.
"I think it started around the bowl game with Dre. He did a really good job down in Orlando of focusing and concentrating and practicing hard. The light clicked on. I know when we came back from the bowl game, I looked down in the weight room in early January and he was in there working out. I thought, Wow. That's a little out of character for him to be in there by himself when there's not a group down there, and he's really working hard. He's kind of bought into that. He wants to be a good player. He's really got to continue to improve to be as good as he can be, but for two days, the light's turned on and he's practiced hard. He had a decent spring. He's a guy that's got to stay with it and always be that way and not be on that rollercoaster ride."
"Each guy has a gift. The gift is, they have strong arms and quick releases. Both those things add up to now, being able to use more of the field in the passing game. A.J. has been here a semester longer. But the development as far as that part goes, from a mental standpoint, I've been really happy with how both have grasped the things we ask them to do. I wouldn't say one has one thing more than another. They both fit really well in the system we're putting in to use their abilities. One thing you do offensively, you find the parts you have, and don't exploit the weakness. Let's make sure we expand on positives and strengths. That goes as well with Blake."
A year ago, Hightower was supposed to inherit that alpha dog role, but he wasn't comfortable because of a slow recovery from a serious 2009 knee injury. Sophomore Nico Johnson and freshman C.J. Mosley called signals as they shared time at middle linebacker, but they weren't a "quarterback." Senior safety Mark Barron could handle the leadership role on the defense, Smart said. "But Dont'a's a little more vocal than Mark," Smart said. "I certainly think Dont'a has the capability to do that, to be that leader. He wanted to do that last year. He just really never could get around to doing it because he wasn't 100 percent."
"I'm good," Arie Kouandijo said as he walked with both knees wrapped in ice making his way to a table to sign autographs in conjunction with Fan Day. He had been helped off the field earlier with an apparent leg injury, then placed on a golf cart and driven off the field beneath Bryant-Denny Stadium. His brother, Cyrus Kouandijo, stood by him the entire time until he was carted away.
"He's improved his passing," Saban said. "He's very athletic so he can create other problems. He's also a guy that can do quarterback type running plays because of his running ability. And he's got a much better handle on the knowledge and experience that he needs to have to be able to be a contributor on offense. So his role actually could be both of those things. "He could end up being the contributor at running back as well as being a third quarterback that contributes to the team in a different way maybe than other quarterbacks do."
"Finishing is a big thing for this team. I don't think we finished well last year whether it was plays, games, season or however you want to look at it. I think that's all about mindset. It doesn't really have anything to do with how fast you run or how high you jump. This is a tough time of the year when you are going through fall camp. It's the time of the year that players have to go earn it. You have to pay the price for success upfront. From a football player standpoint, everybody kind of expects that because you grow up with it whether it's high school, college or wherever. I think the way we do it now is so much more player-friendly to have the five days of acclamation; two days in shorts, two days with shoulder pads and then you finally get into pads. You have to have one practice a day and then you can start doing two-a-days. We never practice here unless the players can eat twice and drink twice between every practice only for their ability to recover. When you practice in these kinds of circumstances and conditions that we practice in, in the long term you are better off because you have more guys practicing and less guys having problems. That contributes to how you can develop players as a team."
Here's another team with all four starters back. The Tide's safety duo - FS Robert Lester and SS Mark Barron - is the best in the nation. Barron is heading into his third season as a starter and was the team's leading tackler with 75 last season; he also had three interceptions and six pass breakups. Lester filled a big hole at free safety last season - and did it so well that he garnered some All-America notice; he had four picks and eight breakups. CB Dre Kirkpatrick had an up-and-down freshman season, but turned into a steady performer last season; he has excellent size (6-3/192). Dee Milliner was thrown into the fray as a true freshman last season and performed admirably, with four interceptions and seven breakups. DeQuan Menzie is a solid No. 3 corner and will see a lot of time. Depth at safety is a bit iffy, though.
A right guard who earned third-team All-America honors as a sophomore last fall, Jones started working at left tackle at the end of spring practice. Since the experiment netted positive results, it picked back up this week. Jones worked exclusively Thursday at the position made famous for protecting the blind side of a right-handed quarterback. So does he have a preference? Stay at right guard or transition to left tackle where he played in high school? "I see my role as playing wherever coach Saban and coach Stoutland tell me to play," Jones said. "I'm not trying to be sarcastic. I don't know, and I don't care either way."
Eddie Lacy and Brian Vogler wore black non-contact jerseys at Sunday's practice. Lacy has worn a protective piece visible below his right sleeve. During warmups he did situps while the rest of the team did pushups. Lacy, a running back, and Vogler, a wide receiver, both worked through position drills.
Saban would never say this to anyone, but it's easy to get the sense that last year's team lost three games (to very good opposition, taking nothing away from South Carolina, LSU or Auburn) in part because they were more complacent than the 2009 team. Furthermore, I would suspect that Saban would prefer, coming off a three-loss season, to start out where the Crimson Tide ended up last season, somewhere around No. 10 or No. 11. He'd rather LSU or Arkansas or Auburn have the pressure and attention of being the "SEC favorite." (Part of the equation in 2009, after all, was having Florida to pursue.) He'd probably rather be at least a little bit of underdog sometime, somewhere, against someone.
"We like to take a challenge," senior nose guard Josh Chapman said. "We try to work hard to be the best defensive line we can be. We've got a bunch of good guys up front that work hard, like Jesse Williams and Nick Gentry, Square and Ed Stinson."
VCU will face the Crimson Tide and former Rams coach Anthony Grant on Nov. 27. Grant took the Alabama job after the 2008-09 season and was replaced by Shaka Smart, who guided VCU to the Final Four last season. Grant's VCU contract contained a clause mandating a home-and-home series with a school that hired him. Alabama comes to the Siegel Center in 2012-13.