2010 SEC Preview: Alabama

Mark Ingram

Alabama's 2010 football team would seem to be the glass half full...or perhaps half empty. In some respects, the Crimson Tide has an embarrassment of riches. It starts with the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, tailback Mark Ingram. Returning quarterback Greg McElroy was MVP of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and is undefeated in his career as a starter.

Marcell Dareus was most valuable defensive player in the BCS National Championship Game. And the Crimson Tide has Nick Saban, who has delivered national championships to two different SEC schools, as coach.

It is no wonder that Alabama, coming off its 22nd SEC championship and 13th national title with a 14-0 record last year, is among the favorites to be in contention again this season.

That doesn't mean the Tide is without question marks. Two defensive players who left Alabama following their junior seasons were first-round NFL draft picks. All-America middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who was the Butkus Award and Lambert Trophy winner and the SEC Defensive Player-of-the-Year, and cornerback Kareem Jackson are among a large contingent of 2009 defensive starters to be replaced. Particularly, Bama also will miss All-America nose tackle Terrence Cody and cornerback Javier Arenas (the SEC Special Teams Player-of-the-Year and an All-America as a kick returner).

Defense is the Saban specialty, and he'll have to fill the gaps at almost every position on that side of the ball. Junior Mark Barron returns at safety after leading the league in interceptions last year with seven picks. Dont'a Hightower had started 18 games alongside McClain at an inside linebacker spot before a serious knee injury in the fourth game of 2009. He is back showing no ill effects and will replace McClain at middle. Hightower will be more of a pass-rushing threat than McClain. Nico Johnson is the other inside returning inside linebacker, having replaced Hightower at the weakside spot last season.

Alabama used a number of back-ups frequently on defense, and Saban's recruiting machine has stockpiled the type players he wants for defense, so it was no surprise that the Tide coach was very pleased with defensive play in the spring.

End Luther Davis will be the lone senior starting on defense, it appears. He and Dareus will be alongside nose tackle Josh Chapman, the team's strongest player. A half dozen candidates will compete for the two outside linebacker spots with Courtney Upshaw at jack and Jerrell Harris at strongside, the leaders.

Robert Lester had a big spring at safety, alongside Barron. Dre Kirkpatrick and B.J. Scott are tops among a group of talented, young cornerbacks. John Fulton, one of 10 signees who entered Alabama early and took part in spring practice, appears to be a cornerback star of the future.

The offense, which had to be rebuilt last year, has to replace only a guard, a tackle, and a tight end this year. All-America Ingram is backed by an outstanding runner in Trent Richardson. Saban thinks wide receiver Julio Jones will have a breakout year, and that a handful of other wide receivers are potential game-breakers. There are all-star candidates at left tackle (James Carpenter), right guard (Barrett Jones) and center (William Vlachos). Freshman D.J. Fluker (6-6, 340) has come along faster than expected at right tackle.

The potential chink in the armor is special teams. Alabama has plenty of speed to man coverage and return teams, but there isn't an obvious replacement for Arenas as the return man. The Tide must replace its placekicker, punter, snapper, and holder. Saban used scholarships for both a placekicker and punter in the last signing class.

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