NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — So, Alabama is the 2009 national champion.
But what’s next?
Since it’s never too soon to look ahead, a close look at the core returning to Tuscaloosa reveals major holes and the need for a lot of replacement parts, especially on the defense that was so much a part of the 2009 success.
That, along with several other challenges that come with defending a title, led Nick Saban to make his first attempt to quell expectations for 2010 on Friday morning. Just returning the backbone of the offense is not enough to assume the Tide will be a preseason No. 1 come August.
“I think that people who make those statements, sort of, look at the periphery of, well you have Julio Jones, you have Mark Ingram, you have Trent Richardson, the quarterback is coming back,” Saban said. “So therefore everything is coming up roses.”
Saban looked right to the defense and special teams to prove his point. Record-breaking kicker Leigh Tiffin is gone, so is senior kicker P.J. Fitzgerald and another record-smasher in return man Javier Arenas.
It really gets sticky when looking at the defensive losses.
In all, seven of the 11 defensive starters are seniors. Junior linebacker Rolando McClain has not announced his intentions for next season, but as a surefire first-round pick who’s predicted to be as high as a top-10 selection, Saban is likely to suggest the draft.
That would leave just one starting linebacker returning — sophomore to-be Nico Johnson — to back a line that loses all three first-teamers.
But that’s where recruiting and depth come in.
And then there’s Dont’a Hightower. The preseason All-American candidate was on pace for a big 2009 before going down with a devastating knee injury four weeks into the season. Having him back would help soften the potential loss of McClain.
The Tide has brought in big-name recruits in recent seasons that will help fill the other voids. Lineman Marcell Dareus, the BCS defensive MVP, Josh Chapman and Luther Davis all saw considerable playing time in backup duties in 2009 as did linebacker Courtney Upshaw, who started at Kentucky.
The defensive backfield loses two of its regular starters and nickel back Marquis Johnson, who led the SEC in pass break-ups. Strong safety Mark Barron returns along with cornerback Kareem Jackson, assuming he doesn’t take a shot at the draft in a move he expressed interest in exploring.
Again, recruiting should make a difference.
Dre Kirkpatrick, one of the nation’s top recruits in 2009, will be a sophomore in the fall and is primed to take over Arenas’ job at cornerback. The 2010 recruiting class already has commitments from a pair of five-star prospects — safety Keenan Allen and cornerback Demarcus Milliner — along with three other four-star seniors, according to scout.com.
On offense, the losses are fewer but still impactful.
Lineman anchors Mike Johnson and Drew Davis exhausted their eligibility in 2009, leaving holes at both guard positions. More of this season’s depth is in line to replace the pair.
Freshman D.J. Fluker, another top recruit from the 2009 class, retained his redshirt this season and should be ready to start by the fall.
The other graduating starter, tight end Colin Peek, saw his understudy Michael Williams step in and play well when the Georgia Tech transfer went down with a knee injury midseason.
Retaining staff members could also be an issue with the success of this season’s team. Coordinators Kirby Smart and Jim McElwain have already surfaced as candidates for head coaching jobs and that could very well continue.
Rest assured, none of the issues with next season’s team has gone unnoticed by Saban.
“I’m always thinking ahead, anticipating problems,” he said Friday. “Every team brings a new set of problems. Every success brings a new set of issues.”