Alabama football: Nick Saban feels better about Crimson Tide's core

March 26, 2011 

15 of 22 starters return

By MICHAEL CASAGRANDE

Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The difference between an inexperienced, immature team and a veteran unit is slim.

Try one year, in Alabama football’s case.

Light on seniors a year ago, the reliance on young talent spawned issues that never troubled the 2009 national title squad. Now, just a few months removed from the Capital One Bowl, Nick Saban feels much better about the core of his team as it wraps up Week 1 of spring practice.

“I think probably some of the reason we suffered last year was we only had eight seniors. I think that it causes a little bit of void in leadership,” Saban said. “But this year, I don’t know the exact number, might be 19, but I think a lot of those guys have made a significant contribution to the program over in the past in terms of how much they’ve played and how much they contributed.”

The roster released Monday lists 22 seniors participating in spring practice who figure to have a say when the games start counting this fall. Behind them stands a solid nucleus who has seen their share of good and relative bad times in Tuscaloosa.

In all, 15 of the 22 offensive and defensive starters are back along with both kicking specialists.

Those who return also include two of the three permanent captains set for enshrinement in the Denny Chimes concrete on A-Day. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Mark Barron were the first returning players named captains since Rashad Johnson in 2007. Fifth-year senior quarterback Greg McElroy will also leave hand and foot prints on the Quad before the April 16 scrimmage in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

A few players have also noted a difference this spring. Nose guard Josh Chapman said the defensive line has its motor back along with a new energy to compete in the practices.

Then there are the newly-minted old guys in the program who are taking the young guns under a wing.

Trent Richardson no longer the young one in the backfield is repaying favors to the next generation. The junior-to-be is mentoring early enrollee and top running back prospect Demetrius Hart like Mark Ingram did with him two years ago.

“He’s the youngest dude in the group right now, so I have to make sure he’s on top of all his game,” Richardson said. “I don’t want him falling behind because of something I didn’t teach or something he didn’t know because I was being selfish. I don’t want to be that type of person. Roy Upchurch, Terry Grant, Mark never did me like that. So I can’t be selfish.”

Though leadership like that is often viewed as an intangible, Saban said its absence was unmistakable when looking back at key moments in the Tide’s three losses last year.

It was most evident with the rebuilt defense when South Carolina, LSU and Auburn exploited breakdowns in Alabama losses.

“One of the things we found in our off-season study was we made more mental errors on defense, even though statistically, we didn’t fall off a whole lot,” Saban said. “We gave up 13-point-something and the year before we gave up 11-point-something. A lot of the statistics were very similar. But the mental errors were way up. A lot of the plays that we gave up at times were because of people not being in the right place and making mental errors.

“That came largely due to lack of experience and having nine new starters.”

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