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April 20, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ The list of things one shouldn't mention around University of Alabama's Nick Saban grew by one last week when it was made clear that he was all but banning a specific word from the football building.
"I'm not sure we're defending anything," he said. "Can we lose what we did?"
There may not be a better time to be a Crimson Tide fan, with the coach preferring Alabama to be known as the reigning national champions and raking in recruits at an almost unfair pace. Soon there will be statue of him in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium, with a ceremony to be squeezed in after the charity golf and Crimson Caravan lecture circuits.
But even those things bring him back to football, with everything Saban does intended to make the program better in some aspect.
"Phil Mickelson just had a great victory and probably hit the best golf shot I ever saw when he hit the ball between those two trees," Saban said. "It took him what 12 or 14 years (to win his first major)? Once he won one he won four or five. It raises the ceiling it raises the bar it lets people know what they can accomplish.
"Why does Tiger Woods change his swing after winning the Masters by 10 shots? He said he wasn't consistent enough. So he won 10 more majors by changing his golf swing.
"I'm not trying to change mine I'm just trying to get it fixed so I can get it airborne and anywhere out there in play."
Yes, he can laugh. As an ESPN announcer said during A-Day this is where the heartbeat of college football resides, and just about everyone who was around the program this spring is now left with the thought that last season's 14-0 record really may have been just the beginning.
That belief stems from comments like this one from Saban about a week ago: "Julio (Jones) has completely set a different standard for how receivers do things here in practice and every other way and how he goes about things."
Or: "I love our defense," defensive end Marcell Dareus said. "We're going to work our butts off."
And: "We're young and we're hungry," said the defending, err, reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram, who thinks his backup should get more carries because it will help the team.
Think back to when Saban took over in January 2007. Although Florida had just won the national championship by destroying Ohio State, Southern California's recruiting had been unparalleled, Michigan was still near the top of the Big Ten and people were wondering if things were ready to click at Notre Dame. Houston Nutt was at Arkansas, Tommy Tuberville at Auburn, Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss and Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State. Tennessee has hired two head coaches since then.
Heading into that spring the Crimson Tide had so many questions especially on defense, where the only returning starters were Keith Saunders, Wallace Gilberry, Prince Hall, Simeon Castille and Marcus Carter.
This team arguably has to replace nine starters on defense and just about everyone in the secondary and already the only looming concerns are the nickel and dime backs. That's also despite having just one senior, defensive end Luther Davis.
On offense, the question is the development of right tackle D.J. Fluker, who has Joe Pendry as a coach, and on special teams a punter has to be found by, oh, say, September.
There's now so much depth on this team that the guy who caught the winning touchdown during Saturday's scrimmage spent a good part of the spring playing another position.
"It really helped," said Brandon Gibson, who in the process made a serious bid for more playing time next season. "I learned a lot from Coach Saban as far as the defense. I didn't get to run everything but when you're on the other side of the ball and then you go back to wideout it definitely helps you because you know how to read the corners and the safeties and all that kind of stuff. What they are going to do before they do it."
That's why even with all the key losses like Rolando McClain, Terrence Cody, Javier Arenas, Mike Johnson and Kareem Jackson, who will all be high draft picks later this week, the Tide has to remain the team to beat next season.
"Last year we were good but I think this year we can be better," Ingram said.