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March 21, 2009

Tide defense solid, offense must be rebuilt

Alabama had a season to remember in 2008. It didn't end the way Tide fans wanted, but a 12-2 record and an SEC West title a season after finishing 7-6 is memorable.

Now coach Nick Saban has to focus on rebuilding his offense. He lost two key linemen, a solid quarterback and the team's leading rusher.

There are no worries about the defense, which returns nine starters from one of the best units in the nation.

Here's a look at the Tide as they prepare for spring drills.

ALABAMA AT-A-GLANCE
Terrence Cody returns to anchor the middle of the Alabama defense.
THE BASICS
Coach: Nick Saban
Last season: 12-2, 8-1 SEC. Lost to Utah in the Sugar Bowl.
Spring dates: March 13-April 18
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (4): T Drew Davis, G Mike Johnson, WR Julio Jones, WR Mike McCoy.
Defense (9): CB Javier Arenas, NT Terrence Cody, E Brandon Deaderick, LB Brandon Fanney, LB Dont'a Hightower, CB Kareem Jackson, LB Rolando McClain, LB Cory Reamer, SS Justin Woodall.
Special teams (2): K Leigh Tiffin, P P.J. Fitzgerald.
Positions of strength

With nine starters back from a unit that ranked No. 3 in the nation, the defense will be the cornerstone of the team. All four starting linebackers are back from the Tide's 3-4 scheme. Terrence Cody's return is big for the run defense. The special teams also should be stout with every key contributor back, including Javier Arenas - one of the best return men in the nation.

Help is needed

Work must be done on an offense that lost seven starters, including quarterback John Parker Wilson, center Antoine Caldwell, tackle Andre Smith and running back Glen Coffee. The offensive line is perhaps the biggest question. Mark Ingram is a good starting point at running back, but he need helps. Greg McElroy, the likely starting quarterback, threw just 11 passes in six games in '08.

Keep an eye on

S Mark Barron: Barron, a sophomore, is a nice combination of size and speed who has shown flashes of being special in practices. Barron's ability to play the run and pass equally makes him one to watch.

LB Dont'a Hightower: He was a freshman All-American last season, but Hightower must continue to get better and be a leader for what should be one of the strongest defenses in the SEC in 2009.

TE Colin Peek: There is a big need at tight end with Travis McCall and Nick Walker gone. The coaches are excited about Peek, a senior who had to sit out last season after transferring from Georgia Tech.

His time is now

Senior wide receiver Mike McCoy needs to step up opposite Julio Jones, who needs a sidekick. If McCoy can't do it, that puts Earl Alexander on the spot. But Alexander, a junior, will be limited in the spring with a shoulder injury. Finally, junior Darius Hanks is another candidate to be the complementary wide receiver opposite Jones. If these upperclassmen have poor springs, they risk being passed by numerous younger receivers in the fall.

The buzz

The offensive line and quarterback issues need to be resolved. In addition, even though there were just nine scholarship seniors a year ago, it was a great group in terms of leadership. Who will be the new leaders? It will be fun to see how many fans show up for the "A-Day" game. Alabama had 92,000 fans in 2007 and 78,000 last year. Saban is good at making fans feel they are a part of the process.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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