How much does that have to do with determining success in the upcoming season? That’s hard to say because the importance of returning starters or returning lettermen is just part of the picture.
Would you rather have a back-up to an All-America player on a national championship team like Alabama or a returning starter with a history of bar fights on a 3-9 squad? There’s no way to know for sure, but that choice indicates the difficulty of making decisions based just on statistics. The barroom brawler may be a better player.
Moreover, teams – that is to say head coaches – don’t award letters on the same criteria. And, typically, a player who completes his eligibility earns a letter, even if he’s never seen a down of game time. That “letterman lost” has a different value than the player who completes his junior season as a three-year starter and then heads off to the NFL.
As for the raw numbers regarding Alabama in 2013:
Coach Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide lists six returning offensive starters – left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, right guard Anthony Steen, quarterback A.J. McCarron, and wide receivers Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood, and Christion Jones.
The Tide counts seven returning starters on defense – defensive end Ed Stinson; linebackers Adrian Hubbard, Trey DePriest, C.J. Mosley, and Xzavier Dickson; cornerback Deion Belue; and safety HaHa Clinton-Dix.
The offensive list is based on a one-back, three-wide receiver alignment with a tight end but no H-back. The defensive count is from a 3-4 defense.
(Special teams players are another matter. Bama considers itself to be returning just one specialist, punter Cody Mandell, but the Tide also has Cade Foster, a 40-game career starter as kickoff man and long field goal kicker, and return men Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones and holder AJ McCarron. McCarron and the Joneses are listed as lettermen as position players. The Tide lists two lost specialists, short field goal/extra point kicker Jeremy Shelley and snapper Carson Tinker.)
As for lettermen, Alabama lists 23 returning on offense, 23 returning on defense, and 2 returning on special teams for a total of 48. The Tide shows losses of 11 on offense, 9 on defense, 2 specialists, a total of 22.
That’s pretty close to what most Southeastern Conference teams have. Texas A&M returns 49, lost 24, Arkansas returns 48, lost 27, Tennessee has 46, lost 16, Mississippi State 43-24, Auburn 44-15. A little out of line are Kentucky (57 back, 18 lost) and Ole Miss (58-25). So was LSU, returning only 37 with 25 lost. Bama’s first opponent, Virginia Tech, returns 50 lettermen, lost 16.
The Alabama returning starters for 2013 with the most experience are predictable. Anthony Steen is a three-year performer (40 games) with 25 starts. AJ McCarron has 27 starts in his 40 games, but five of those 13 games in which he was not starting he also did not play quarterback, holding on place kicks. C.J. Mosley has played in 38 games, started 20, a bit ahead of Ed Stinson (35-16).
One of the keys to football success is what is known as “hidden yardage,” things like the extra yardage gained or lost when a punt return man fails to field a punt that bounds downfield for extra yards.
Similarly, “hidden experience” may be important to a team.
Wide receiver DeAndrew White started the first five games last season before being lost to a knee injury. He’s not listed as a returning starter, but has seven starts in his 17-game career. Wide receiver Kenny Bell is not listed as a returning starter, but Bell has played in 36 games and has seven starts. Cornerback is often cited as an area where “Alabama has to find...” It is likely not coincidence that Saban has mentioned wanting to get John Fulton back after Fulton missed spring practice rehabilitating from turf toe surgery. Fulton has started only two games in his career, but has played in 37 (many on special teams along with back-up cornerback).
In addition to Bell and Fulton, the Tide has a number of men not listed as returning starters but who do have some starting experience. They include nose tackle Brandon Ivory (he has played in 17 games, 13 last year with one start), safety Vinnie Sunseri (27 games, 8 starts), safety Nick Perry (29-4), cornerback Geno Smith (13-2), and tight end Brian Vogler (23-3).
Other returning lettermen who are not returning starters are more obvious. For the most obvious example, T.J. Yeldon was a Freshman All-America as the back-up to Eddie Lacy at tailback in all 14 games in 2012.
Players with no starts but meaningful playing time include safety Landon Collins, who played in all 14 games last year, linebacker Denzel Devall (14 games in 2012), tailback Kenyan Drake (12), defensive lineman LaMichael Fanning (8), H-back Jalston Fowler (24 games in 2010 and 2011 and two before being injured last year), wide receiver Cyrus Jones (11), tight end Harrison Jones (18 games, 10 last season), center Bryan Kelly (10), guard Arie Kouandjio (11 games last year, 13 total), defensive lineman Darren Lake (8), linebacker Dillon Lee (8), offensive lineman Chad Lindsay (10 last year, 12 total), linebacker Tana Patrick (14 last year, 15 in previous two seasons), linebacker Reggie Ragland (11), offensive tackle Austin Shepherd (10 last year, 7 in 2011), quarterback Blake Sims (10 last season, 6 in 2011), defensive back Bradley Sylve (12 last year), defensive Jabriel Washington (8), defensive back Jarrick Williams (11, all prior to last season), and offensive lineman Kellen Williams (11 last year, 17 total).