August 09, 2011
The least you should know about the 2011 Crimson Tide. Part of SEC Week.
• It keeps its crunch. Every Alabama fan has two dreams at night*: One about the 2009 defense that destroyed everything in its path en route to the national championship, and one about how eerily the 2011 defense resembles it. The second dream starts with the fact that last year's revamped D wasn't as far off the mark as the Tide's fourth-place finish in the SEC West suggests: Down nine starters, three All-Americans and six draft picks from the best defense in the country in '09, 'the new-look unit still finished No. 1 in the SEC and among the top five nationally in both yards and points allowed.
Now the nightmare for the rest of the conference: With All-SEC safety Mark Barron's decision to skip the draft for his senior season, this fall's edition features a whopping ten returning starters — the entire 2010 lineup, minus only defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, who left early to become a top-five draft pick — every single one of them a former four or five-star prospect from the succession of chart-topping recruiting classes that have beaten a path to Tuscaloosa since 2008. (To say nothing of the latest chart-topping haul that signed on in February.) If it makes good on its promise to get to the quarterback more often, the 'Bama D looks like the most fearsome unit in the country on either side of the ball, bar none.
• Next man in. The line of succession among Alabama quarterbacks has consistently produced the same guy at the top of the depth chart for at least 25 years, and counting: Sturdy, unassuming and unspectacular, expected mainly to keep a stiff upper lip in the huddle, the floppy hair out of his eyes and the defense and running game out of trouble. And, true, the last guy who ascended to the role promptly led the team to a national championship as a first-year starter.
But even if third-year sophomore A.J. McCarron looks exactly like departed hero Greg McElroy when McElroy took the reins as a fourth-year junior in 2009, it's worth recalling that McElroy a) Had a soon-to-be Heisman winner to hand the ball to, and b) Went through a dreadful midseason stretch that would have sunk the team's title hopes if not for the heroics of the defense and one very large left paw against Tennessee.
Even more not the point, McCarron (or redshirt freshman Phillip Sims, his primary competition in the spring) will be without any proven receiver of anywhere near the caliber of Julio Jones, who just went higher in the draft than any other wideout in Alabama history. There are inevitably high hopes for juco transfer Duron Carter, son of ex-NFL great Cris Carter and a former academic casualty at Ohio State, but he's yet to officially join the team, and show me any offense replacing three first-round picks and its starting quarterback, and I'll show you an offense crossing its fingers.
• Attack of the Block. Of course, by a lot of people's reckoning, McCarron will have a serious Heisman candidate of his own, Trent Richardson, whose two-year apprenticeship behind Mark Ingram has yielded just enough opportunities to convince pretty much everyone a breakout season is in the cards as long as he's healthy. It's not like they're going out on a limb: With four returning starters up front — including three All-SEC types: guard Barrett Jones, center William Vlachos and tackle D.J. Fluker — the only question is how many carries Richrdson will have to yield to backup Eddie Lacy and incoming freshman Brent Calloway.
• Appetite for destruction. One of the focuses of the spring was to improve in the only area the defense hasn't dominated under Saban, the pass rush, and the 2011 edition's most obvious advantage compared to its predecessors is the presence of a promising threat off the edge: Courtney Upshaw. Once he was unleashed at the end of the season, Upshaw emerged from a relatively anonymous cog in the machine into an individual force with first-round potential in the last two games, dragging down Cam Newton three times and Kirk Cousins twice with three forced fumbles. (Earlier in the season he also notched four tackles for loss without a sack in the October obliteration of Florida.)
Still, Upshaw's emergence was part of a more aggressive bent by the entire defense: After a 24-21 loss at LSU in November, the Crimson Tide ranked dead last in the SEC with a grand total of 11 sacks in nine games; they proceeded to rack up 16 sacks in the last four games alone.
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* Two dreams we can discuss here, anyway. I'm sure there are sites somewhere devoted to the ones starring Bear Bryant if you're willing to go there.
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.