By John Zenor/The Associated Press
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Alabama’s August to-do list: Pick starting quarterback. Replace Heisman Trophy winner and a few other first-round draft picks. Find left tackle, playmaking receivers and a defensive lineman or two.
It’s almost enough to distract the Crimson Tide from all that national title talk.
Some of the important pieces have changed and a few key questions remain unanswered, but blue-chip replacements keep the preseason conversation in Tuscaloosa consistent.
“We want to come out and win a national championship, to be undefeated,” All-America safety Mark Barron said. “Every time we step out on the field, one of our motivating factors is to be special.”
It didn’t happen with championship-caliber regularity last season when the Tide viewed its 10 wins as a letdown.
The offseason was traumatic with a devastating tornado striking the city in April followed by the May death of left tackle Aaron Douglas in May. Tide players and fans enter this season with heavy hearts – and high hopes.
Tailback Trent Richardson steps in for 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram. There’s less certainty about the fill-ins for the other first-rounders – defensive end Marcell Dareus, wide receiver Julio Jones and left tackle James Carpenter.
But coach Nick Saban has stockpiled highly rated recruiting classes and won 36 games and one national title the last three seasons. Even he doesn’t downplay his team’s talent level much while asserting that a preseason Top-5 projection “means nothing.”
“Whatever we do this year, we’re going to have to do it on the field,” Saban said.,
Richardson brushes off the preseason hype as old hat.
“It’s like that every year,” said Richardson, who goes from punishing, flashy backup to the offensive centerpiece. “It’s not a shock to me, but at the same time everybody that picked us to win it, we can’t let them down. We can’t let them down at all.”
The biggest reason for all the optimism is a defense that yielded the nation’s third-fewest points last season and features five preseason first-team All-SEC picks. Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, safeties Barron and Robert Lester and noseguard Josh Chapman are projected as first-teamers, while players like cornerback Dre’ Kirkpatrick have flashed star potential, too.
“We have one of the most athletic defenses that’s been through Alabama,” Hightower proclaimed.
A new quarterback, a Heisman hopeful runner and a loaded defense is the same formula Alabama used to win the national title two years ago. The combination is also the reason Saban stresses that he wants quarterbacks AJ McCarron and/or Phillip Sims to play “winning football,” making smart decisions and not sticking that defense into bad spots with turnovers.
The sophomore McCarron saw limited action in a backup role last season, while Sims is a redshirt freshman who hasn’t played yet. Both could get into the Kent State game on Sept. 3.
“The good news is we have options at the position and a lot of places in the country are searching for a guy to get back there,” offensive coordinator Jim McElwain said.
All-SEC guard Barrett Jones could be protecting their blind side at left tackle, where he has logged practice time since the spring. Freshman Cyrus Kouandjio, one of the nation’s top recruits, also could develop into that role.
At receiver, both Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks have experience but always in a supporting role to Jones. Other candidates include redshirt freshman DeAndrew White and junior college transfer Duron Carter – who couldn’t practice to start fall camp while awaiting on approval of his transcript.
Hanks will miss the first two games, including a rare visit to Penn State, under the NCAA participation rule because he played in a game as a freshman and wasn’t allowed to claim a redshirt year.
A tough road
The Tide’s road won’t be easy. Alabama also visits Florida, Mississippi State and defending national champion and arch rival Auburn.
Some of the preseason hoopla stems from the Tide’s going away party last season, when the team blasted Michigan State 49-7 in the Capital One Bowl in a performance that added to the what-could-have-been sentiment from 2010.
The previous game, a collapse against rival Auburn after leading 24-0, led to “Never Again” signs in the weight room and even players’ houses. But the Tide is hoping that finale is a more accurate barometer for this team’s potential.
“Finishing is a big thing for this team,” Saban said. “I don’t think we finished well last year whether it was plays, games, season or however you want to look at it. I think that’s all about mindset.”