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March 13, 2008
Alabama is heading into its second spring practice under coach Nick Saban. The Tide look strong on the offensive line and in the secondary, and rebuilding the receiving corps should be Job One for Saban and his staff. Some off-field issues lend urgency to finding some depth at linebacker. Here's a look at the Tide as they open spring drills.
Nick Saban returns a total of 19 starters from his first team at Alabama.
Defense—7: E Brandon Deaderick, CB Kareem Jackson, FS Rashad Johnson, LB Ezekial Knight *, LB Rolando McClain, CB Lionel Mitchell, NG Lorenzo Washington.
Offense—10: C/G Antoine Caldwell, C Evan Cardwell, G Marlon Davis, RB Terry Grant, T/G Mike Johnson, TE Travis McCall, WR Mike McCoy, T Andre Smith, TE Nick Walker, QB John Parker Wilson.
Special teams—2: P P.J. Fitzgerald, K Leigh Tiffin.
(NOTE: *—Knight's status is uncertain after having two heart-related hospitalizations in the past two years. Alabama's coaching staff hasn't commented on his future.)
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
Caldwell and Smith – the winner of the 2007 Jacobs Trophy as the SEC's top blocker – should give Alabama an offensive line that should be one of the best in the conference. The Tide return six players who made starts along the line last season, including five who made at least seven starts. Alabama also returns three starters in the secondary.
HELP IS NEEDED
All those returning starters should help Alabama take a giant step forward in its second season under Nick Saban, but the Tide won't contend for the Western Division title unless they get more consistency at quarterback. Wilson threw six interceptions in a four-game losing streak that ended the 2007 regular season. Alabama also must replace wide receivers DJ Hall, Keith Brown and Matt Caddell, who combined to catch 129 passes for 1,816 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. The suspension of Prince Hall and Knight's uncertain health status create some uncertainty at linebacker.
KEEP AN EYE ON
DE Brandon Deaderick: Alabama needs someone to emerge as an elite pass rusher now that Wallace Gilberry has completed his career. The best candidate is Deadrick, who showed plenty of potential last season after stepping in for an injured Bobby Greenwood.
K/P Corey Smith: This early enrollee could push Fitzgerald and Tiffin. Fitzgerald could prove particularly vulnerable after averaging only 38.7 yards per punt last season. Smith averaged 39 yards per punt his senior year at Inwood (W.Va.) Musselman High and placed 16 of his 31 attempts inside the opponent's 20. He also made a state-record 59-yard field goal on a free kick.
TB Roy Upchurch: Alabama needs a complementary back to take some of the burden off the 188-pound Grant, who wore down at the end of his excellent redshirt freshman season. Glen Coffee could be limited this spring as he recovers from shoulder surgery, so Upchurch will get a chance to prove he's the guy who can develop into Alabama's No. 2 tailback.
HIS TIME IS NOW
WR Nikita Stover, a former four-star prospect, has caught a total of 22 passes in his first two seasons at Alabama. The good news for Stover is that the departures of Hall, Brown and Caddell leave plenty of openings on the depth chart at wide receiver. The bad news is that Alabama's top-ranked recruiting class is loaded with talented wide receivers, such as five-star prospect Julio Jones. This spring represents Stover's big chance to prove he belongs on the field and shouldn't get lost in the shuffle when all those freshmen arrive on campus.
The arrival of new offensive coordinator Jim McElwain from Fresno State might not result in many schematic changes on offense, but it's worth noting that McElwain also will serve as the Tide's quarterbacks coach. McElwain helped Fresno State's Tom Brandstater improve from 89th in passing efficiency in 2006 to 23rd last season. This spring should offer the first clues as to whether McElwain can help Wilson make a similar rise up the rankings as a senior.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.