December 14, 2007

2008 Defensive Preview

Year One under the Nick Saban regime for Alabama's offensive football team resulted in both ups and downs. Red-zone production was definitely up from 2006 - indeed, there was nowhere to go but up in that department. Rushing production was up, while passing production was down, at least in terms of consistency.

Woes in the passing game were the first sign of trouble on that side of the ball. In three of Alabama's first five games (Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida State), the Crimson Tide struggled mightily in this area. In mid-season, it was the offensive line's turn to go sour. Two starters were suspended for what turned out to be four games, and various injuries and other factors made the situation even less tenable.

Finally, the running backs endured a steady decline of their own, with injuries and suspensions playing a role there as well. When the final gun sounded at the Iron Bowl, Alabama's season averages for points (27) and yardage (373) were respectable, but the record (6-6) was anything but.

Beginning with the Independence Bowl on Dec. 30, Crimson Tide fans will now begin looking for what to expect in 2008. Eight starters will return from 2007, although the wide receiver position will sustain heavy graduation losses.

Below, BOL examines the offensive talent expected to return for spring practice at the Capstone. (Note: the 'On Deck' category merely lists top candidates and is not meant to be a complete look at the roster).

Defensive End
Returning starter: John Parker Wilson
On deck: Greg McElroy; Nick Fanuzzi
The skinny: John Parker Wilson's overall numbers weren't too much different as a junior (2,590 yards, 15 TDs) than they were as a sophomore (2,707, 17). But a few more turnovers, especially costly ones, cast a far less flattering light on the Hoover product's 2007 season. At times - most notably in wins over Arkansas, Tennessee and Ole Miss - Wilson looked like a seasoned veteran capable of not only managing games but making game-winning plays. At other times - see losses to FSU, Mississippi State and Auburn - his game looked like it had taken a step backward, not forward, from 2006. With 25 starts under his belt, which is 25 more than his competition, the first battle in the spring will be between McElroy and Fanuzzi. Once a winner is declared there, it will be interesting to see if a battle with Wilson materializes. Saban has made it clear he is happy with Wilson's work ethic, which goes a long way with this staff. With both backups needing experience, however, Wilson could be on a shorter leash in 2008 when it comes to critical mistakes.

Defensive Tackle
Returning starter: Terry Grant
On deck: Glen Coffee, Roy Upchurch, Jimmy Johns, Demetrius Goode
The skinny: It was somewhat fitting that the first rush of the season for Grant turned out to be his longest rush of the year, as well. Things looked most promising after a 173-yard shredding of a decent Vanderbilt defense in Week 2. But as the season wore on, Grant's explosiveness gradually vanished. He finished with a UA freshman record 891 yards. If a bigger back rises to the top of the depth chart, don't be surprised if Grant takes on more of a third-down role designed to keep him on top of his game for 13 weeks. Coffee's overall game keeps him in line for action, although his yards per carry (4.3) was the lowest among UA's top three backs. With talented freshmen on the way, the time for Upchurch to make a depth-chart move is now. Goode's return from torn knee ligaments will be closely watched in the spring. The annual round of "Jimmy Johns to linebacker" rumors are back in full swing, but we'll keep him listed with the backs for the time being.

Inside Linebacker
Returning starter: Travis McCall
On deck: Nick Walker; Charles Hoke; Preston Dial; Chris Underwood.
The skinny: While McCall is the true incumbent, Walker is essentially a co-starter and actually led the unit in receptions in 2007 with 19. When Alabama's running game was stronger early in the season, McCall and Walker were in the game at the same time somewhat more often. Although he is thrown to less often, McCall's hands have been sure in game action. It's getting open that is more of a problem for McCall, who excels as a blocker. Walker is the more athletic of the two. With all the turnover at receiver, the Walker/McCall duo could be more involved in the passing game in 2008. Both, along with Hoke, will be seniors, which means that Dial and Underwood are the future of the position.

Outside Linebacker
Returning starter: Mike McCoy
Lost starters: DJ Hall, Matt Caddell, Keith Brown
On deck: Will Oakley; Nikita Stover; Earl Alexander.
The skinny: As a player who forced defenses to design to stop him, Hall will be sorely missed. No returning UA receiver will command that sort of respect from the rest of the SEC next year. With a good showing in the Independence Bowl, Hall will cross the 1,000-yard mark for the second year in a row. Caddell turned in the best season of his career with his reliability, especially on third down. Although Brown wasn't technically a starter, his career production certainly adds to the void. Turning to the future, McCoy (28 catches, third on team) leads Oakley and Stover as UA's most experienced returners. Alexander also returns to provide great size, though he is largely unproven. Freshmen Marquis Maze, Brandon Gibson and Darius Hanks will also have every chance to compete in the spring. Also, don't be surprised if Jonathan Lowe returns to receiver, where he competed last spring.

Cornerback
Returning starter: Evan Cardwell
On deck: Antoine Caldwell; David Ross; William Vlachos
The skinny: Caldwell started the season at center as an All-SEC performer. However, Cardwell was inserted into the lineup at center two games before Caldwell was placed on suspension, and Caldwell's return for the Iron Bowl didn't knock Cardwell out of the lineup. That suggests a likelihood that Caldwell could find himself at either guard or tackle come spring practice, although because of his extensive experience at center, we'll list him as the top backup here. Ross saw more practice reps at center late in the season, and with Caldwell graduating, he and/or Vlachos are the likely heir apparents behind Cardwell.

Free Safety
Returning starters: Marlon Davis; Antoine Caldwell.
On deck: B.J. Stabler; Patrick Crump.
The skinny: Caldwell's athleticism at guard allows Alabama to open the playbook a bit more. His ability to reach and sustain blocks on linebackers is the best on the team. Davis' place as a starter is pretty much a certainty; he and Britt were locked into the lineup as starting guards for the season's first five games. OL coach Joe Pendry's insistence on versatility along with all the shuffling of practice reps in the fall creates difficult projections here. Caldwell is a good bet to handle one guard spot unless the need for him is greater elsewhere on the line. Stabler's chronic knee pain makes him unviable as a starting option, but in a pinch-hitting role, such as his performance against Tennessee, he can flourish. Like Ross, Crump got more practice reps in the season's final weeks and should push for time at guard. As noted above, Ross and/or Vlachos could also work at guard.

Strong Safety
Returning starters: Andre Smith; Mike Johnson.
On deck: Taylor Pharr; Drew Davis.
The skinny: Left tackle Smith earned the Jacobs Trophy as the SEC's top offensive lineman, while Johnson provided somewhat steadier play on the right side than UA got in 2006. Smith has been UA's best linemen for two seasons and NFL dollars could make 2008 his last. Johnson finished the season playing guard, but is a good bet to return to tackle in the spring based on the depth on hand. Pharr, who can also play guard, and Davis are inexperienced and will get more reps than they have previously seen in the spring. If any of the interior linemen are moved to tackle in the spring, Caldwell and Crump are probably the best bets. Cody Davis is expected to be placed on the medical list.

Punter
Returning starter: Leigh Tiffin
On deck: Andrew Friedman.
The skinny: Tiffin won the job from Jamie Christensen in fall camp and overcame a shaky start to the season to finish at 71 percent on field goals, including 9 of 14 from 40 yards and beyond. His role on 3-pointers is safer than his kickoff role, however. His touchbacks were few, and in fact he rarely even put the ball inside the 5, but he did provide good hangtime for the coverage unit. Incoming freshman Corey Smith is expected to enroll early and compete in the spring, although he is more likely to compete as a kickoff specialist and punter than as a field-goal kicker.


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