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March 12, 2010

Tide working toward repeat performance

Ladies and gentlemen, here's the next potential dynasty in college football.

Alabama has gone 26-2 the past two seasons. What will Nick Saban's defending national champion need to do to keep its engine roaring? Develop the defense.

Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart -- perhaps the hottest assistant in the nation, a guy who was wooed by Georgia and Tennessee in the offseason -- must replace nine fulltime starters, including two who left early for the NFL: linebacker Rolando McClain and cornerback Kareem Jackson.

There is talent on defense, but the Tide may have to keep things simple from a scheme standpoint early on and rely on a veteran offense to carry the load.

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

ALABAMA AT-A-GLANCE
QB Greg McElroy is among eight returning starters for the Crimson Tide offense.
THE BASICS
Coach: Nick Saban
Last season: 14-0 overall, 8-0 in the SEC. Beat Florida 32-13 in the SEC title game. Beat Texas 37-21 in the BCS title game.
Spring dates: March 12-April 17
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (8): T James Carpenter, TE Preston Dial, RB Mark Ingram, G Barrett Jones, WR Julio Jones, WR Marquis Maze, QB Greg McElroy, C William Vlachos.
Defense (1): SS Mark Barron.
Special teams: None.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

Alabama's offense will be strong -- especially the rushing attack. The Tide welcome back three starters on the line, and Heisman-winning RB Mark Ingram, a junior, also returns. So does fellow RB Trent Richardson, a sophomore who may be every bit as good as Ingram. Then there's senior QB Greg McElroy and the top three receivers from 2009: juniors Julio Jones and Marquis Maze and senior Darius Hanks. Yes, this is a loaded offense.

HELP IS NEEDED

There are myriad holes on defense. The only fulltime starter who returns is junior SS Mark Barron, who must provide leadership in a secondary that has the most questions of any unit. Barron paced the team with seven picks. It will help to have junior LB Dont'a Hightower; he missed most of last season with a knee injury suffered in late September. Another area of concern: special teams. The kicker, punter, snapper, holder and star return man Javier Arenas are gone.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

DE Marcell Dareus: Dareus, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound junior, teems with talent. He led the Tide with 6.5 sacks last season is a reserve role. Dareus will move into a starting role and must become a star on every down.

CB Dre Kirkpatrick: Kirkpatrick, a sophomore, is expected to fill one of the two vacant cornerback spots. Kirkpatrick has great size (6-3/185) and was the nation's best high school cornerback in 2008. If he struggles this spring, he risks getting passed on the depth chart by a number of other youngsters.

TE Michael Williams: With Colin Peek gone, Williams -- a 6-6, 266-pound sophomore -- will get every chance to emerge as a top target. He is a powerful blocker and has soft hands.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

DE Luther Davis: He is a senior who has been more of a warm body than a playmaker during his career. The Tide lost all three starting defensive linemen, and this is Davis' final chance to become a big-time contributor; he is expected to get first crack at the starting spot opposite Dareus.

THE BUZZ

Yes, there are numerous holes to fill on defense, but expect Alabama to sit atop most preseason polls. One interesting storyline during the spring will be whether the Tide opens up the offense a bit. Given the potential problems on defense, Alabama might need some bigger offensive outputs to win some games this fall. In addition to developing the defense, Alabama coaches must make sure their players don't become complacent after winning the national title.

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


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