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December 29, 2010

Column: The Crimson Tide will miss No. 85

TUSCALOOSA _ It was near the end of the University of Alabama's 2008 statement game against Auburn and the big approaching blur came right up to my face. There was a time out with the scoreboard reading 36-0, and, well, he just couldn't contain himself any longer.

"CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS!" Preston Dial yelled at the top of his lungs after briefly running out of the Crimson Tide's designated bench area even though there was still time on the clock.

That's how I'm going to remember the senior from Mobile, who will play his last game for Alabama on Saturday in the Capital One Bowl. That and the ear-to-ear grin proudly displayed as he jumped around Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Although the Crimson Tide has a small class of departing seniors, including Greg McElroy, Luther Davis and Chavis Williams, they're also some of the last non-Saban recruits still on the roster. Among the few remaining will be Nick Gentry, Alfred McCullough and William Vlachos, but next year's outgoing group will also feature a number of players from the 2008 signing class, which some consider Alabama's greatest.

Dial, out of UMS-Wright, came in as a tight end in 2006 even though the Tide already had four sophomores who figured to dominate the playing time. But on the same day that future teammate David Ross was named the state's 5A lineman of the year Dial won the 4A honor and gave a strong hint about the kind of player he was.

"It was an honor to be nominated and win the award, but to be honest I think the state championship and team accomplishments are much bigger than that award," Dial told BamaOnline. "I would rather focus on what the team did than myself individually."

Now everyone knows that he really meant it.

Since his arrival, Dial's endured a coaching change, three offensive coordinators, a new scheme and becoming a full-time H-back while also playing special teams. It wasn't until this season that he also developed into a receiving force, catching 21 passes, nine more than his previous career total, for 209 yards.

"Preston has been a very special guy on this team," tight ends and special teams coach Bobby Williams said. "It's been really nice watching him grow up. I came in here and had him for three years, watched him go from a guy that really didn't play a lot to being a key factor in our offense. It's been special. He's had a fantastic year, one of the toughest players on our offense because we ask him to do so much. People don't really notice all the things that he has to do, but he's done a great job. I know he's looking forward to this game on Saturday."

Guys like Dial are the real key to having a successful football program, those who get nowhere near the credit they deserve but make up its heart and foundation.

Ask an Alabama player or coach about Dial and they almost always smile.

Ask for a story about him and they usually laugh and say not on the record.

Ask about his contributions and they rave.

"He does all the dirty work," junior running back Mark Ingram said, and meant it as a huge compliment. So when Dial scored his first career touchdown on a 14-yard reception against Penn State the Heisman Trophy winner was in a long line of teammates anxious to offer congratulations.

"I was so happy for him," Ingram said. "He came over and said, 'I'm part of the touchdown club now.'"

More frequently he takes on guys twice his size and linebackers aided by a ton of momentum. When near the goal-line, Dial's frequently the lead blocker, creating the hole so a running back can squirm into the end zone.

"Off the field Preston is a character and has a great personality, but on the field he rally beings a toughness and physical aspect, he's just been real instrumental in our leadership," Coach Nick Saban said. "He's left a great legacy here."

So have many other players who became fan favorites and will remain so for the rest of their lives. Recently they include names like Cory Reamer, Mike Johnson, Darren Mustin (remember him?), Rashad Johnson, Roman Harper, Charlie Peprah and Danny Martz, who have helped make Crimson Tide football what it is today.

"He's really the kind of guy you want to have on your team," McElroy said about Dial.

Take it a step further: If you were going to be a foxhole and had to pick one player on the Crimson Tide to be in there with you, who would it be?

A good choice is the guy who was screaming that November night two years ago, and almost certainly won't be quiet during his collegiate finale against Michigan State.


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