By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Alabama Crimson Tide 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 12-1, 7-1 SEC
Spring practice: March 9-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 4
Passing: AJ McCarron, 219 of 328, 2,634 yds., 16 TD, 5 INTs
Rushing: Eddie Lacy, 95 car., 674 yds., 7 TDs
Receiving: Kenny Bell, 17 rec., 255 yds., 2 TDs
Tackles: Nico Johnson, 47
Sacks: C.J. Mosley, 2
Interceptions: Dee Milliner, 3
Redshirts to watch: RB Dee Hart, WR Marvin Shinn, WR Bradley Sylve, RB Brent Calloway, TE Malcolm Faciane
Early Enrollees: LB Ryan Anderson, DB Deion Belue, WR Chris Black, WR Amari Cooper, DB Travell Dixon, LB Dillon Lee, DL Alphonse Taylor, RB T.J. Yeldon
JUCO Transfers to watch: DB Travell Dixon, DB Deion Belue
Sept. 1 Michigan (Arlington)
Sept. 8 Western Kentucky
Sept. 15 at Arkansas
Sept. 22 FAU
Sept. 29 Ole Miss
Oct. 13 at Missouri
Oct. 20 at Tennessee
Oct. 27 Mississippi State
Nov. 3 at LSU
Nov. 10 Texas A&M
Nov. 17 Western Carolina
Nov. 24 Auburn
Offensive Strength: AJ McCarron entered last season locked into a battle with Phillip Sims for the starting job, but clearly emerged early in the year as Alabama’s No. 1 quarterback and should be one of the SEC’s top passers in 2012. Although running back Trent Richardson could be one of the first 10 picks off the board in the NFL Draft, Alabama won’t miss much of a beat on the ground. Eddie Lacy rushed for 674 yards and seven scores last year, while Jalston Fowler chipped in 385 yards, and the running back corps will get a boost with the return of Dee Hart from a knee injury. Replacing center William Vlachos won’t be easy, but the line is in good shape with first-team All-SEC lineman Barrett Jones returning.
Offensive Weakness: Although there are some significant losses (Richardson, Vlachos and receiver Marquis Maze), Alabama shouldn’t slip too much in offensive production. The biggest question mark will be getting receivers Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White and a cast of talented freshmen acquainted with McCarron. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has plenty of talent up front, but has to find the right mix. New coordinator Doug Nussmeier likely won't make many changes to the scheme, but there's always concern about transition.
Defensive Strength: Only four starters are back from the best defense in college football last season, which means coordinator Kirby Smart has some work to do. However, there’s plenty of talent ready to step into key positions. The defensive line is in good shape with the return of ends Damion Square, Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley will anchor a young, but talented linebacking corps.
Defensive Weakness: Considering how successful the Crimson Tide was on defense last year, it’s going to be nearly impossible to repeat those statistics with seven starters gone. While the front seven should be solid, the secondary is going to miss safety Mark Barron and cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie.
Spring Storylines Facing the Crimson Tide
1. Repeating as national champs is never an easy task. However, the mission for Alabama is even more difficult when you consider the personnel losses. The Crimson Tide lose four first-team All-SEC players and three that earned second-team honors. The good news? Alabama has recruited as well as any team in college football, with each of its last five hauls ranking in the top five of Athlon Sports’ top 50 signing classes. In addition to player losses, Alabama had to replace offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who departed to become the head coach at Colorado State. There's no lack of talent in Tuscaloosa, but could the youth and inexperience be too much to overcome in 2012? The schedule isn’t overwhelmingly difficult, but two road trips – at Arkansas and at LSU – could make or break Alabama’s hopes of repeating.
2. With AJ McCarron ready to take the next step in his development at quarterback, Alabama’s receivers will be under the microscope this fall. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks depart, while tight end Brad Smelley is also gone after catching 34 passes for 356 yards last season. Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones are the top returning targets at receiver, but this year’s crop of incoming freshmen will provide competition in preseason workouts. Eddie Williams, Chris Black and Amari Cooper each ranked among the top 60 prospects of the 2012 Athlon Consensus 100. Highly-touted redshirt freshmen Marvin Shinn and Bradley Sylve will also figure into the mix. The 2012 group of Crimson Tide receivers might have more overall talent than the 2011 bunch, but there could be a few growing pains until they gain more experience.
3. Who will fill the shoes of running back Trent Richardson? The answer probably doesn’t rest with one player, but rather a committee approach. Eddie Lacy will miss spring practice due to an injury, but is expected to anchor Alabama’s rushing attack in 2012. Lacy may finish with the team lead in rushing yards, but Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler will contribute. Hart missed last season due to a knee injury, but will give the backfield a different element with his speed and elusiveness. True freshman T.J. Yeldon enrolled for spring practice and could also figure into the mix. Although Alabama will certainly miss Richardson, there’s plenty of talent and options to keep the rushing attack among the best in the SEC.
4. Odds are stacked against Alabama finishing as the nation’s best rush, pass, total and scoring defense. However, that doesn’t mean this defense will slip back to the pack in the SEC. While coordinator Kirby Smart has a lot of work to do this spring, the defense won’t be a weak link. The line is strong, thanks to the return of Jesse Williams, Quinton Dial and Damion Square. The biggest question up front will be finding an anchor in the middle, as Josh Chapman and Nick Gentry have both finished their eligibility. The linebacking corps loses three contributors, but there’s plenty to work with thanks to the return of Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley. Sophomores Trey DePriest, Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson are future stars and will figure prominently into the rotation.
5. While the front seven appears to be in good shape, the secondary will be under the spotlight early in 2012. Cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie and safety Mark Barron will be missed, especially with the Crimson Tide visiting Arkansas on Sept. 15. Dee Milliner has 17 career starts and is expected to anchor one of the open cornerback spots. The other side is up for grabs, but keep an eye on junior John Fulton and incoming junior college recruits Deion Belue and Travell Dixon. This unit will eventually figure things out, but an early season matchup against Arkansas will give the secondary an early baptism by fire.
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