Toughest. Many players were noncommittal when asked for a suggestion. "Everybody’s tough on this team," Warmack said. But which teammate would he least want to tangle with? "I don’t have enough fingers to count," he said. Guard Anthony Steen mentioned Warmack and tackle D.J. Fluker. Barrett Jones also nominated Fluker. "You don’t want to run into him in a dark alley," Jones said. Why? "Look at him. He’s 6-6, 330 pounds, and he’s wearing size 22 shoes," Jones said. "That’s probably the first reason. Also, he’s just got a little intimidation factor. "Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I’m scared of D.J. I’ve known him for a long time. I’m just saying if you don’t know him, he can have an intimidating look. Look at the guy. He’s a monster!" Linebacker Trey DePriest called running back/H-back Jalston Fowler "intimidating." Williams had to think hard before suggesting safety Vinnie Sunseri. "It doesn’t matter what you do to him, how big the person is, how much faster a person is supposed to be. Vinnie’s always going to come out on top," Williams said. "And you don’t ever see a safety at probably 200 pounds come down in the box and play like he does."
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, who put an emphasis on finding quality depth for his team throughout training camp, said the defensive front is the exception. "I think the one place on our team where we have some depth is defensive line," Saban said Thursday. "Quinton Dial, Square, Ed Stinson, Jesse (Williams), (Jeoffrey) Pagan, a young guy last year that played pretty well, Dink (LaMichael Fanning) and (D.J.) Pettway. "Those guys (Pagan, Fanning and Pettway) were freshmen last year that have developed and will probably have some kind of role on the team."
A number of Saban assistants spoke of the coach's loyalty to those he has worked with in the past, though none illustrated the point quite as well as retired defensive line coach Pete Jenkins. According to Jenkins, a defensive line coach under Saban at LSU, the percentage bonus Saban told his first LSU staff it would get for a bowl trip was somewhat higher than what the school eventually paid. When the 2000 LSU team took a bid to the Peach Bowl against Georgia Tech, Jenkins learned all he needed to know about the man he'd chosen to work for. "Coach Saban took it out of his bonus and made up the difference between what the school had planned and what he told us when we came on board," Jenkins said. "My appreciation for that was even greater than the excitement over additional money. It's been my experience, unfortunately, some I've worked for have not been as true to their word as coach Saban is."
We can talk about Denard Robinson and how Alabama has to stop him all day, but when any team from another conference takes on the SEC, I head straight to the trenches. This was the case last year against Oregon; it applies the same way to Michigan. The Wolverines only return one starter on the defensive line. Alabama’s strength is their offensive line, with four returning starters and one new starter in Cyrus Kouandjio, who projects better than the four returners. Alabama will run the football and set the tempo from the get-go. Running backs Eddie Lacy, Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and TJ Yeldon will all get carries, and we’ll see a running back by committee most likely, with Lacy the most featured back if he’s 100 percent. The Tide will run to set up the passing game with AJ McCarron. His decision making will be key in this first game.
Worst-case scenario: Michigan QB Denard Robinson flashes his speed on the fast turf in Arlington, and the Wolverines (33.3 ppg last year) show everyone it's hard to replace four defenders who went early in the NFL draft. The 1-1 Tide stumble into Fayetteville, where Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis bolster their Heisman campaigns. Alabama regroups to go 6-2 heading to Death Valley. But the Tigers exact revenge for the BCS title game, stuffing Eddie Lacy the way they couldn't Trent Richardson. The Tide finishes 9-3, third in the SEC West.
"I think straight-line speed is really important; the ability to release and block a guy that's trying to hold you up," Saban said. "Once you beat him with your release, you can get on top of him with your speed. You've got to be a pretty good tackler." Speed might be more important than tackling, though. "If you're fast enough and you get down there fast enough then they're going to fair catch it," Saban said. "You don't have to be such a good tackler."
Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama: From the day Kouandjio walked onto campus at Alabama, his teammates have raved about his pure physical ability. One of the most heralded prospects in the country two years ago, the 6-foot-6, 311-pound sophomore has been impressive enough that the Crimson Tide moved Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones to center to make room for Kouandjo at left tackle. That’s a lot of pressure for a first-time starter, but the feeling in and around the Alabama program is that he has a lot of game.
Hoke, though, has not focused on a past he had nothing to do with. Since he arrived at Michigan, he has squarely kept the focus on the present, be it with his senior class last season to help restore the Wolverines program or his group this year. He said he has not inquired about those experiences, either. "Really not much and I don't ask," Hoke said. "We don't live in the past, you know. We live in the future. The only thing I really care about is what we're doing daily." His players, the same ones brought in by Rodriguez, will often echo the same sentiments. They want to focus on what has happened at Michigan now and where they want it to go in the future. But they also recognize one thing -- their past helped bring them to their present, where they are hoping for that future to be brighter than it was when they arrived in Ann Arbor. "Everybody just understands," Kovacs said. "We've gone through struggles and haven't won that Big Ten championship yet.
Michigan's receiving game, which relied on senior Junior Hemingway last season, took a couple hits in the offseason. Darryl Stonum was dismissed for breaking one too many team rules and Roy Roundtree needed knee surgery this month. Hoke said there's a "good" chance Roundtree will be healthy enough to play in the opener. The Lewan-led offensive line is hoping some candidates emerge to replace All-American center David Molk and offensive tackle Mark Huyge. Mike Martin, Ryan Van Bergen and Will Heininger left big voids on the defensive line, leaving the Wolverines are counting on Will Campbell, Craig Roh and Jibreel Black to fill them. Campbell has lost about 20 pounds to get down to 308, trying to live up to the hype he had arriving on campus three years ago.
When the tornado hit, football did not rescue Tuscaloosa. The community did, and this too, the Bellofattos say, has made its identity stronger. The "out of bad comes good" sentiment has been repeated often. It could come across as contrived, but people in Tuscaloosa seem to believe it. How else is there to cope with loss than turn to what you still have?