Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Tide has talent, but questions still remain

Sitting in Bryant-Denny Stadium to get an early peek at the fourth iteration of Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide football team, it was easy to spot both what was missing and what was pleasantly new.

There was no Terrence Cody in the endzone, hopping to the beat of the pre-scrimmage music and likely leaving miniscule craters in the turf. Everyone’s favorite headhunter, early departure Rolando McClain, was in shorts and a white T-shirt on the sidelines instead of being laced up in pads and black Nike shoes. And perhaps most nostalgic of all, mighty mite Javier Arenas’ name echoed through the crowd of 91,312 not as Agent 28 was deep to return a punt, but as he accepted an award for the breath-taking plays he produced in his four years in a crimson jersey.

When the Crimson and White teams took the field at Saturday’s A-Day, there were so many new numbers on the White defense, composed of the first team players, that it took the entire first possession to find out exactly who the replacements were.

Even then, it was hard to be sure with any certainty. Why?

They held the first team offense, a group with eight returning starters, including the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, to a three-and-out.

Does that mean that this rebuilt unit, composed mostly of the guys who took mop-up snaps behind last year’s sterling group, is actually a better lineup? Probably not.

What it does mean is something entirely more significant, a portent toward the future of the program after the first taste of the top of the mountain.

The Tide has the horses to climb back on top of the summit, and the guns to stay there for a while.

It’s hard to explain to the average observer exactly how talented this Tide roster has become in just a few recruiting cycles. Positions that once relied on the contributions of walk-ons now ooze with capable talent. A front seven that lost six starters refilled with a group that includes four former top-250 recruits and the Defensive MVP of the BCS National Championship Game.

In the secondary, the starting cornerback spots have been filled by two former five-star prospects, with another sitting in the wings as a reserve. The loss of upcoming junior safety Robby Green, suspended for the entire 2010 season, would have been devastating in 2007. This year? Just plug in redshirt sophomore Robert Lester, Foley High School’s “other” 2008 recruit along with Julio Jones, and watch him pile up eight tackles to lead both squads on the day.

In fact, based on the action perhaps Alabama fans had it wrong all offseason. Maybe the player the Tide will most miss didn’t make SportsCenter highlight reels. Maybe he didn’t earn trophies or NFL combine invites. Maybe he was forgotten until Tide fans started cringing at the sight of more ducks flying around the stadium than at a pond, wondering where graduated senior punter P.J. Fitzgerald had gone to.

There was also the unwelcome sight of seeing field goal attempts falling short of the goal posts, and kickoffs that struggled to make it to the five-yard line. Whatever Leigh Tiffin’s troubles may have been his freshman season, the Tide legacy became an All-American by his last year, and as dependable as any college kicker in the game.

It is this area, sometimes forgotten in the era of television and high-flying passing offenses, which Saban and the Tide will need to measure its true improvement for fall camp. Special teams play will need to greatly improve with the arrival of new punter Jay Williams in the fall.

Of course, knowing Saban, the process is already being planned.

[Editor’s note: The original version of this article said that Robert Lester and Julio Jones had attended Daphne High School. They attended Foley High School. The article has been corrected.]

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