PLAYERS TO WATCH
Mark Ingram, RB: The Tide's first Heisman winner also returns as the school's all-time single-season rushing leader.
Julio Jones, WR: Battled injuries each of his first two seasons, yet led Alabama in catches and receiving yards each year.
Dont'a Hightower, MLB: Recovered from September's reconstructive knee surgery in time to anchor a rebuilt defense in spring practice.
Mark Barron, SS: Quietly led Tide in interceptions (seven) and finished second in tackles (76) as a sophomore and may be the most athletically gifted member of the team.
Marcell Dareus, DE: Played in every game last season and was named Defensive MVP of the BCS title game.
Rolando McClain, MLB: The team leader in tackles and the quarterback of the defense turned pro a year early after winning the Butkus Award.
Terrence Cody, NT: Opposing teams had to gameplan around massive Mount Cody, who also made critical appearances on offense and special teams.
Javier Arenas, CB/KR: A capable cornerback and perhaps the most feared return specialist in the country.
Mike Johnson, LG: A four-year starter, All-American and team captain.
Leigh Tiffin, PK: A former walk-on who departed the program as an All-American and finalist for the Lou Groza Award.
76.1: Alabama has allowed an average of 76.1 rushing yards the past two seasons, putting the Tide second nationally in both 2008 and 2009.
16: Alabama has won 16 consecutive regular-season SEC games. The Tide's last league loss was a 17-10 defeat at Auburn in November 2007.
Experience and options shouldn't be a problem for offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, as Alabama returns eight offensive starters and every position coach from last year's national championship team. The list includes Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Mark Ingram, top receiver Julio Jones, a very capable backup tailback in Trent Richardson and quarterback Greg McElroy, who still hasn't lost a start since middle school.
"We feel confident out there. We're clicking," Ingram said. "It's not like we have to structure a whole new personality and everything. I think everybody is clicking right now. We're just picking up where we left off."
Alabama could have the nation's top running back tandem. Look for Richardson to get a larger share of the carries this season despite Ingram's overwhelming 2009 success. The Crimson Tide could also air it out a little more behind McElroy and a proven group of returning receivers. The one to watch is Jones, who is finally healthy after injuries limited him during the past offseason and for much of 2009.
The unit's only questions are at tight end and on the offensive line, where Alabama must replace All-America left guard Mike Johnson and two-year starter Drew Davis at right tackle. Touted redshirt freshman D.J. Fluker is expected to step in and make a large impact.
The bulk of the senior-laden defense that carried Alabama to the title has departed, leaving plenty of holes to fill in 2010. Recruiting rankings suggest the new group of youngsters could actually be better than the previous group, though. The entire starting defensive line is gone, though the three projected replacements have extensive playing time and 97 career tackles among them. In particular, end Marcell Dareus is poised for a breakout season after earning defensive MVP honors in the BCS title game. (It remains to be seen how an ongoing NCAA investigation will impact Dareus' season.) Sophomore Kerry Murphy is one to watch at the nosetackle spot vacated by All-American Terrence Cody.
Inside linebacker Dont'a Hightower recovered nicely from a season-ending knee injury suffered in the fourth game of the 2009 season and will lead this defense. The secondary lost every rotation player except safety Mark Barron, although five-star talents Dre Kirkpatrick and B.J. Scott, among others, are prepared to step in at cornerback.
"We lost a lot of seniors and a lot of veterans," Hightower said, "but I think with the young guys we have in this year, if we can teach them the techniques and the way to do things right, I feel like we have a little bit more talent this year than we did last year."
The biggest weakness on Alabama's team may be the kicking game, since the Tide must replace their kicker, punter and record-breaking return specialist Javier Arenas. No matter the selections, untested newcomers will be at kicker and punter. True freshmen Cade Foster (kicker) and Jay Williams (punter) lead the pack in each competition.
Despite significant losses on defense and special teams, there are few reasons to believe Alabama won't be just as good in 2010. Three consecutive lights-out recruiting classes by Nick Saban and company have stocked the cupboards with the kind of depth and talent unseen in Tuscaloosa since the Bear Bryant days. The schedule, however, looms tougher in 2010. A repeat run toward SEC and BCS titles is certainly possible, though not a given.
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