Shane: Spring Break—Saban style

By Shane from Centerpoint
Alabama head football coach Nick Saban might’ve just started his Spring training session, but he already has a keen insight into how certain players have adapted to his system because he closely monitors his famed “fourth-quarter” program – a conditioning technique Nick uses to weed-out the best from the rest. It goes without saying, if a player can withstand Saban’s ultimate physical conditioning test, his chances of seeing significant playing time are greatly enhanced. Couple that with the tremendous amount of talent that Saban has amassed very quickly and the competition for every position should be fierce. Spring practice will be “make or break” time for many, with a large number of highly touted players fighting for the twenty-two starting positions.

Saban finally has the luxury of quality depth, with two and three SEC caliber players battling for almost every spot on the field. When this year’s #1 class arrives in the Fall, the push for playing time will peak again. As a result the Tide coaches will be able to create an atmosphere where there is major competition to backup the starters.

However, this Spring practice is mostly about seasoned veterans, who’ve waited for their opportunity to establish themselves as team leaders, and this is the time when experience and knowledge will pay off for those who put 100% of their effort into learning Saban’s system.

As always, the quarterback race will gain the most attention from the media and probably the average fan as well. With the departure of three-year starter John Parker Wilson, longtime backup Greg McElroy has the advantage of knowing the playbook and being in the system, but the now bigger, stronger version of red-shirt freshman Starr Jackson is set to push McElroy for the job. One thing’s for sure, after a Spring and Summer spent facing some of the best defensive players in the nation, one of the two quarterbacks should be ready for any and all opponents. Though inexperienced, the QB position should be deep, with two walk-ons plus highly-touted, incoming freshman A. J. McCarron.

Another huge question that most likely will remain open until deep into Fall camp is the left-tackle position. Junior college transfer James Carpenter (6’5” 305#), a strong candidate, and Tyler Love (6’8” 295#), a top-rated “red-shirt”, will battle through the Spring. However, nothing will be settled until D.J. Fluker (6’7” 345#), the nation’s top offensive lineman in this year’s recruiting class, arrives on campus. Many believe he will start as a true freshman.

There are several positions where the Crimson Tide could be considered loaded. Running-back is one of the most talent-laden areas on the team. Mark Ingram is clearly the stud horse — for the time being anyway. Jeramie Griffin, Ivan Matchett, and Jermaine Preyear are all prototype-Saban backs that have size (210+) and speed. They all complement Nick’s direct-run philosophy. Rising senior Roy Upchurch may be able to overcome his neck injury problems and return, while former starter Terry Grant’s size may limit his role on the team. As with Fluker at left tackle, the starting running-back duties may fall to a true freshman – a stallion out of north Florida, Trent Richardson. This kid may very well be the next Bo Jackson. He’s 5’11”, 220#, and has clocked a 10.5 (100 meter) during a track meet in high school.

Truthfully, the linebackers are the best unit on the team. They’re mean, many, and may very well be among the best group of defenders (at that position) to ever be at Alabama. Six or seven individual players, led by Rolando McClain, will have a legitimate shot at the NFL by the time they reach draft status somewhere down the road. Saban selects large linebackers who fit NFL profiles.

The depth of the defensive line will be more than evident in the Spring game and early in the 2009 campaign as well. For the first time in many years, ten or twelve top-notch down lineman will be fighting for the first four spots in the trenches. This Spring should feature some interesting backup battles and the fresh rotation should make for a healthier group of defensive linemen down the road.

There is a championship-caliber aura starting to form around this Alabama football team. It has become more than evident that they are close. Last year’s 12-2 record stands as a solid reminder that Saban has this program only a few steps away. His third Spring only provides him with another opportunity to bring in and teach more talented players how to play the game his way.

Coach Saban is so nice that he’s even giving his players a Spring break – a chance to study their playbook and prepare themselves for the demanding grind that follows. By the time they get through the “fourth-quarter” program, “Spring break” is probably Spring training for his players, mainly because they get away from the conditioning program for a few days.

By the way, ESPN will televise this year’s A-Day intra-squad game in HD for millions around the nation to see. This will only enhance Nick Saban’s profile among the country’s elite recruits, especially when they see 92,000 crimson-clad fans in the stands cheering like their Crimson Tide was in the championship game. The national spotlight and the “newness” of the event itself is just another positive part of Nick Saban’s leadership that he calls the “Process”.