“Anything we did last year has done nothing but put a target on our back for this year,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said Monday after the Crimson Tide’s return to the practice field. Bama had its second practice in shorts, 10 days after opening practice on March 13. In between Bama players joined their University of Alabama classmates with spring break.
“I doubt if anyone had Alabama down as a team to beat last year,” Saban said. “No one would have thought about having to beat Alabama to win the SEC West or the SEC championship. Everyone will have Alabama as a team to beat next season.”
Saban recognizes the culture of Alabama fans, that Crimson Tide followers are overly optimistic in their expectations. “We have the best fans in the world, but we have an issue here,” Saban said.
The expectations of fans have nothing to do with outcome, though. Saban’s main concern is with his players. “What we did last year has nothing to do with this year,” the coach said. “If this team think we’ve arrived, we’ve got a problem.”
Saban’s job right now is to have a team that does arrive.
Bama had the second of its 15 spring practices Monday. The team will work through the April 18 A-Day Game at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
There’s reason to believe that Monday’s practice was a tough one. For one thing, the head coach had a little hoarseness when he met with sportswriters. But more than how he said it was what he said.
He said that qualities such as focus, mental energy and intensity were “not what we need it to be.” Moments later, the coach listed “mental intensity, effort, the toughness to persevere, the ability to eliminate errors, and discipline” as areas in which “we need to make significant improvement. I am not pleased with where we are.”
Saban said the difference between players just trying “to get through it, to endure, and to not make mistakes that will displease the coach” is not the way to go. He said, “How about instead of trying to not do it wrong, to try to do it right?”
Using the analogy of building a house, Saban said if you want to build a house to be safe in a hurricane, you build it with concrete “for a hurricane that may never come. But we know we’ve got 12 hurricanes coming next fall.”
Saban said the problem is not physical. “We have to establish a chemistry and an identity,” he said.
“We have a long way to go,” Saban said. “But if we didn’t need to work on all this in the spring, in the summer off-season program, and in fall camp, we’d just show up for the first game. Obviously, we need it.”
He said a team chemistry and leadership has to develop and “it takes time. Sometimes a little adversity helps.”
Saban said some young players are overly sensitive to criticism. “They need to show toughness and intelligence,” he said. “When we correct them, they get upset. We’re not evaluating them. We’re trying to teach them.”
In answer to questions, Saban observed:
He has been “really pleased” with two new offensive linemen, junior-college transfer James Carpenter and early high-school graduate Chance Warmack. He also mentioned Tyler Love as doing well, and said that William Vlachos has done “really good” at center.
He also said Alfred McCullough, who was winner of the Dwight Stephenson Award as the top lineman in last year’s A-Day Game as a defensive end, might be at offensive tackle this fall. “He’s athletic and has long arms,” Saban said, adding he wishes now that McCullough had been redshirted as a freshman. “He had a good off-season.”
The coach said it’s difficult to evaluate some things when the team is not in full gear and contact drills, “but at least athletically” there have been some strides.
Replacing Rashad Johnson at safety may be work for a committee, Saban said. Well, a small committee. He named Ali Sharrief, Mark Barron and Robby Green as defensive backs working at safety. As an example, he noted that “Barron looks like he could play in the box” and that another might be more suited to playing deep. “Rashad could do it all,” he said. “We might have one or two or more to do all the things Rashad did.”
Saban said Alabama is working “six or seven” linebackers inside and out, looking at them in different positions. This is one of the things spring practice is for. He noted that Dont’a Hightower, who started last season as a true freshman at Will linebacker, an inside position, is also working at Jack linebacker. “We don’t have anyone as good as Dont’a at Will, but it may be we don’t have anyone who can rush the passer as well at Jack,” Saban said. “W won’t know until we work.” During preparation for the Sugar Bowl, Saban said that Hightower got some work as a pass rusher.
The coach noted that Cory Reamer, last year’s starting strongside linebacker (Sam, which is an outside position) could work all spring at an inside spot “and go back to Sam immediately if needed.”
Saban said he would like to come out of spring practice knowing where his linebackers can play and where, if anywhere, a newcomer could fit in. The experimentation “helps all of them,” the coach said. “In order to get the best players on the field, they have to go through a growing process.”
One linebacker to be counted on is upcoming junior Rolando McClain, a two-year starter and all-star performer. “Rolando is a good player,” Saban said. “He makes the (defensive) calls for us. He gives good effort. He had a good off-season and it’s important that he affects the other guys.
“We have to answer the questions: Who are the leaders? Who are the role players? Who impacts the others?”
(Saban did note that 2008 starting Jack linebacker Brandon Fanney, who he had announced prior to the first practice as being suspended for an indefinite period, was not back at practice Monday and said “I’ll tell you when he is.” Prince Hall, a back-up middle linebacker last year, has been suspended indefinitely, including the entire spring.)
Regarding running backs, Saban noted that only Mark Ingram, a back-up as a freshman last year, and Roy Upchurch, who is in a black shirt (signifying no contact) “have done something.” He said developing depth at the running back position “is really important.” Terry Grant, who had nice numbers in 2007 before being injured, might be used in a way different that the manner Tide tailbacks (notably the departed Glen Coffee) were used last year.
Saban said the plan is for Alabama to work in full gear Wednesday, though not necessarily with a great deal of contact, then to be back in “shells” (helmets, shoulder pads, hip pads) Friday and full gear Saturday. The Tide will have two scrimmages during the spring in addition to the A-Day Game, on Wednesday, April 1, and Friday, April 10. No practices other than A-Day are open to the public. This week the Tide is hosting a coaching clinic on Friday and Saturday.
Saban praised the work of high school football coaches who will be attending the clinic and said he and his staff look forward to hosting those coaches and making it a valuable experience for them. “It’s a chance to give back to those who do so much,” he said.