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March 19, 2011

Alabama spring will likely focus on QB battle

Alabama was 10-3 and finished 10th in the final AP poll last season, but the season was viewed as a disappointment.

The Crimson Tide had gone a combined 26-2 in 2008-09, capturing the national championship with a 14-0 mark in 2009. So, last season's record, which included a fourth-place finish in the SEC West, cast a pall over the Capstone.

Hitting the field this spring will offer relief and the first chance for Nick Saban's team to begin focusing on 2011. His squad looks as if it could be one of the best in the nation. The Crimson Tide are an early pick by many to be a preseason top-five team with a legitimate chance to play for the national championship.

ALABAMA AT-A-GLANCE
Trent Richardson steps into the starting tailback role with the departure of Mark Ingram.
THE BASICS
Coach: Nick Saban
Last season: 10-3 overall, 5-3 in SEC West. Beat Michigan State 49-7 in Capital One Bowl.
Spring dates: March 21-April 16.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): RT D.J. Fluker, WR Darius Hanks, G Barrett Jones, WR Marquis Maze, C William Vlachos, G Chance Warmack, TE Michael Williams.
Defense (8): SS Mark Barron, NT Josh Chapman, LB Dont'a Hightower, LB Nico Johnson, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, FS Robert Lester, CB DeMarcus Milliner, LB Courtney Upshaw.
Special teams (2): P Cody Mandell, K Jeremy Shelley/Cade Foster.
Alabama lost stars in wide receiver Julio Jones, tailback Mark Ingram and defensive end Marcell Dareus, all of whom turned pro early. The Tide also will be without quarterback Greg McElroy, an efficient two-year starter who lacked flash but got the job done. He tossed just nine picks in 638 attempts. But there is lots of veteran talent back across the board.

In addition to filling some key holes, Saban also must work in some new coaches. Saban hired offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland from Miami to replace Joe Pendry, who retired. Mike Groh was hired from Louisville to coach receivers and be recruiting coordinator after Curt Cignetti left to be coach at Division II Indiana (Pa.). Chris Rumph was hired from Clemson to coach the defensive line after Bo Davis left for the same job at Texas.

Here's a look at the Tide as they ready to open spring practice.

Positions of strength

Alabama will have one of the top offensive lines in the SEC. The only starter lost was LT James Carpenter. Barrett Jones will be one of the top guards in the conference and could contend for All-America honors. Mammoth T D.J. Fluker looks like a future star. WRs Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks will be a solid 1-2 punch for the new quarterback. No doubt, losing 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram hurts. But RB Trent Richardson is capable of playing a lead role. Led by LB Dont'a Hightower and SS Mark Barron, the defense is loaded with experience in the back seven. Hightower should be a legit Butkus Award candidate. Barron considered going pro after leading the team in tackles in 2010.

Help is needed

The staff likes its quarterbacks, but growing pains can be expected. The battle between redshirt freshman Phillip Sims and sophomore A.J. McCarron figures to rage through fall camp. With WR Julio Jones gone, someone needs to emerge as a go-to wide receiver. It figures to be Maze or Hanks, but keep an eye on redshirt freshmen DeAndrew White and Keiwone Malone. Who will back up Richardson at running back? It could be Eddie Lacy, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry last season. Coaches like to rotate a lot of defensive linemen, so depth needs to be developed. The staff likes JC transfer Jesse Williams, a 325-pound Australian nose tackle who will take part in spring drills. And some pass rushers are needed. E Ed Stinson, a converted linebacker, has potential. Veteran E Nick Gentry is another possibility. Keep an eye on JC transfer Quinton Dial, who is on campus, at end.

3 guys to watch

OT Aaron Douglas: Douglas, a JC transfer, enrolled in January and has a great shot to earn the starting job at left tackle. Douglas is no stranger to the SEC, as he started at right tackle for Tennessee in 2009 before transferring to a junior college. He's considered to be a primo pass blocker.

RB Eddie Lacy: Coaches like his combination of size (6-0/212) and speed (4.5). He also showed promise as a redshirt freshman in 2010, running 56 times for 406 yards. If Lacy proves to be reliable at securing the ball and blocking, he could fill the key No. 2 role behind Trent Richardson.

QB Phillip Sims: He earned plaudits from coach Nick Saban while redshirting last season. Sims, a former four-star recruit, has a powerful and accurate arm. He lacks the experience of A.J. McCarron, but Sims' potential and skills may be enough for him to win the job.

The pressure is on

CB Dre Kirkpatrick: Kirkpatrick, a junior, has great size (6-3/190) and has speed and agility. He emerged last season to claim a starting job after playing in 12 games as a freshman in 2009. But the former No. 11 overall player in the nation in the Class of 2009 needs to take that next step in his development in what should be a strong secondary.

The buzz

All eyes will be on the quarterback battle between McCarron and Sims, but don't expect Saban to declare a winner this spring. Whoever eventually claims the job will need the support of a strong ground game to relieve pressure. The good news: The new quarterback will be surrounded by talent. It's a similar story on defense, where the biggest area to watch is the line. Is there depth? Are there pass rushers? Count on the coaches finding answers on a mega-talented roster. This will be a motivated team in the spring that wants to make amends for last season's three-loss disappointment that saw archrival Auburn win in Tuscaloosa on the way to the national title.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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