News from the Tennessee Valley Sports

Saban, defense biggest mysteries
Tide opens preseason practice Thursday

By Josh Cooper · 340-2460

Position battles, suspensions. Oh, yeah, and a new football coach in Nick Saban. All will be on the watch list when preseason practice starts Friday for the Crimson Tide.

Newcomers are set to report Thursday. Players will go through physicals, strength and conditioning tests and be fitted for equipment that day.

On Friday, the returning varsity players will practice at 3 p.m., followed by a freshman workout at 7:30 p.m.

The biggest newcomer to all of this is Saban himself.

Hired Jan. 4, Saban has quickly changed the aura surrounding the program. The Tide fan base has elevated him to rock-star status.

Of course, he hasn’t won a game for Alabama, and the only glimpse people have of his team remains those three small hours April 21 known as the A-Day game.

But preseason practice will bring a clearer picture of the team and what it needs to accomplish as it heads toward its first game against Western Carolina in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 1.

Here are some of the major issues to monitor during August:

Position battles

It’s easy to put a big “duh” next to this one, but it should be interesting. The offense is mostly set as the Tide returns everyone with the exception of running back Kenneth Darby and fullback Le’Ron McClain.

There was talk that Saban and running back Jimmy Johns did not get along when Johns was suspended in the spring for missing class. But Saban quelled those rumors by giving Johns the Jerry Duncan “I like to Practice” Award after A-Day.

Johns should have his hands full, competing with sophomores Glen Coffee and Roy Upchurch.

The battles on defense should prove even more interesting.

Saban said during the spring that the defensive line was an area of concern, and it should be with two starters coming back in Wallace Gilberry and Keith Saunders.

A lot on the defensive line depends on the freshmen such as Hoover High tackle Josh Chapman and Athens High product Alfred McCullough.

Saban recruited hard on the defensive line, and while another Hoover lineman, Kerry Murphy, was not eligible, Chapman and McCullough could give the line a boost.

It also will be interesting to see where both Saunders and Ezekial Knight fit in as linebackers in the 3-4 scheme.

At linebacker, second-team All-SEC selection Prince Hall is the main guy. But who else? Matt Collins was moved to the defensive line during the spring then back to linebacker.

Decatur High graduate Rolando McClain could make a run at a starting position, but he’ll need to adapt to the quicker pace of college first.

At defensive back, Lionel Mitchell comes back, as do senior Simeon Castille and Rashad Johnson.

West Morgan High product Eric Gray could land a starting position if his hamstring is healthy.


Saban hasn’t made public how he punished defensive linemen Brandon Deaderick, Brandon Fanney and running back Upchurch following their
July 14 arrests in front of The Legacy, a bar on the Tuscaloosa strip.

For what it’s worth, he said he believes in discipline and not punishment.

Castille said the problem had been dealt with.

Center Antoine Caldwell said that there is a new system in place for peer discipline.

Either way, it will be interesting to see if the three line up for practice Friday.


This one merits another “duh,” but the man will be watched closely.

His life has been under a microscope since his hiring, as reporters have monitored his every move since he took the Alabama job.

Has he gotten rid of Paul “Bear” Bryant’s tower on the practice field?

Has he put a black curtain over the gate leading into the facility for privacy?

Has he brought former FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover back from the dead to lead his security detail?

Some have lauded his arrival.

Others have said the $4 million contract is too high a price for a coach.

Either way, we will finally get a look at what Saban has done and get a preview, not just for the months ahead, but for the next eight years.

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