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March 25, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ When University of Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy recently turned on the recordings of his first couple of spring practices last year it was like he was watching someone else.
His reads weren't as sharp, his decisions not as crisp and there wasn't near the familiarity with teammates like he has now. In many ways McElroy justifiably looked like a quarterback who had just inherited the starting job.
"Completely different player," a much more relaxed McElroy said this week. "It's night and day as far as my comfort level and my confidence level in this offense. I keep having to remind myself that this is my first year to return as a starter since my eighth-grade team. It's been a long, long time and I'm very proud of the success we had last year, but a lot of people realize there's so much more. We've only scratched the surface."
Although Alabama's record may have been perfect in 2009, the Tide wasn't exactly known for its passing game. There was a mid-season swoon and while other receivers stepped up Julio Jones was unable to match his freshman numbers.
In 14 starts, McElroy completed 198 of 325 attempts for 2,508 yards with 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions - which meant just one percent of his passes were picked off. He averaged 179.1 yards per game and had a passer-efficiency rating of 140.55.
Granted, except for the interceptions none of those statistics ranked near the top of the Southeastern Conference, but with a strong defense and Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram pacing the offense Alabama essentially didn't need its quarterback to win a game in the clutch until Auburn.
That could change this season, especially since the Tide has a tough schedule with six opponents resting up during a bye the weekend before facing the defending national champions, along with Florida and Penn State at Bryant-Denny Stadium. With each salivating over the prospect of handing Alabama its first regular-season loss in three years, it could mean tighter and higher-scoring games.
Consequently, Alabama has to prepare now for that possibility, especially considering all the changes on the other side of the ball. While the Tide finished second nationally in rushing defense, pass-efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense in 2009, nearly everyone from that senior-laden unit has to be replaced, including the Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain and two other All-Americans.
"Obviously, the way we kind of look at it and the way Coach (Nick) Saban has recruited, it's not so much a rebuilding year but more as a reloading year," McElroy said. "There are capable guys all over this roster.
"I always have confidence in Coach Saban's ability to get people prepared whether it's offense or defense, I know we're going to be ready."
It's almost as if the offense and defense are playing role reversal from a year ago. Of course, things worked out pretty well with Alabama getting invited to the White House and all.
"That was so special," McElroy said. "I'm a ridiculous patriot."
But this is when a lot of Alabama's offensive potential will be determined, with coaches trying new things, implementing ideas they weren't comfortable with last year and everyone having another offseason together. Unlike seasons past, there's no new offensives coordinator, no crucial holes to be filled and no overriding doubt about the unit's effectiveness.
Among starters, Alabama needs to find two new offensive linemen and a tight end among numerous talented players.
"I remember coming into last year the whole offense was pretty much new, question marks at quarterback, running back, the line, who was going to help out Julio?" Ingram said. "We're vets now. The whole offense came back two-deep. We feel confident out there, we're clicking.
"We're just picking up where we left off."
So far, Saban likes what he sees from his quarterbacks, and not just McElroy. A.J. McCarron and Star Jackson will again try to nail down the backup job and true freshman Phillip Sims enrolled early to get a jump on learning the offense.
None of them figure to overtake undefeated McElroy, but it also sounds like he doesn't need any extra incentives this spring.
"The motivation is coming from within," he said. "That Florida feeling from a couple of years ago still resonates with a lot of us. Some of us weren't there, but I can still remember what it feels like to come up short. A lot of people on this team, a lot of the leadership refused to let that happen again.
"We understood what it takes to get to the top of the mountain. We understood the difficulties and how the air gets thinner the closer you get to the pinnacle. So we've been there before so I think people are confident but they're still hungry.
"Once you've been to the top, why would you settle for anything else?"