July 29, 2008

Fall camp preview: 5 key questions

The Alabama football team opens fall camp Friday. Here are five of the critical issues facing the team entering camp:

1.] Will this linebacking corps, despite glaring depth concerns, be better than last year's group?

It's as good a way to measure this unit as any, especially considering last year's group had many of the same question marks. Out are Darren Mustin, Keith Saunders and Zeke Knight, none of whom had any real linebacker experience entering 2007. In their place are Cory Reamer, Brandon Fanney and Chavis Williams, a trio that is equally short on battle scars. A trio of incoming freshmen will try to make a Rolando McClain-like splash, but that's easier said than done. If just one of them can pull it off, that will leave question marks at just two spots instead of three. Prince Hall remains on track to return to the team, but given his pending game suspension to start the season, it's hard to imagine him contributing more than he did as a part-time starter last year.

2.] Will John Parker Wilson show significant improvement as a senior under new offensive coordinator Jim McElwain?

A few more weeks of preseason practice will help answer this question, but the Clemson game will be the ultimate measuring stick. The two seem to be a good match for each other for a couple of reasons. One, Wilson has never been especially dangerous with the deep ball, and McElwain's history shows he prefers a shorter passing game. Two, Wilson is a good athlete who isn't afraid to run when yardage is available, while McElwain has looked for athleticism in his past quarterbacks.

3.] What kind of overall impact can the incoming freshmen make?

Last year's BOL fall camp preview posed this very question and named two incomers in particular. One turned out to be a major contributor (McClain), while the other didn't (Luther Davis). That helps illustrate how unpredictable freshman impact can be. For all the members of UA's No.1-ranked signing class who are expected to have a big chance at early playing time, it is inevitable that some of them won't get it. Last year, McClain and Kareem Jackson were the only major impacts. We'll put this year's magic number at four. If four newcomers can make a McClain/Jackson-type difference (and three of them on defense would be ideal), UA's shortcomings will be much easier to hide.

4.] Who will emerge at the wide receiver position?

When camp opens, a cast of veteran candidates and a trio of redshirt freshmen will try to show incomers Julio Jones and Burton Scott where their place in line is. None of those returning has shown potential to be a No.1 target, however, so playmakers of any age will find themselves in the forefront quickly. A major contribution from either Jones or Scott would make a huge difference, but finding more reliable options among those returning is equally important. It's safe to fit veteran Mike McCoy for playing time, but whether that's as a leading man or a supporting actor remains to be seen.

5.] Can Alabama improve its punting game?

Whether it be from two-year starter P.J. Fitzgerald or some other candidate, the Crimson Tide needs improvement in its erratic punting game. Spring drills provided little in the way of hope for that, as the anticipation of incoming freshman Corey Smith competing with Fitzgerald never materialized. Instead, Smith competed with kicker Leigh Tiffin. Backup Heath Thomas' A-Day performance left a lot to be desired as well, and coach Nick Saban has previously said Fitzgerald is a clear No.1 at this spot. Barring Smith switching to punter or the emergence of a new walk-on, it will be up to Fitzgerald to be more consistent.

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