TUSCALOOSA | As with spring football practice at any college, the University of Alabama opens drills this afternoon with a few questions about which players will prove capable of filling which vacant roles.
But at just about every position other than quarterback, the Crimson Tide will have a senior or two to help spur the competition.
Unlike last year, when UA managed a 10-3 record with fewer than 10 scholarship seniors, the 2011 Alabama team will have around 20 seniors.
"We've got a little different dynamic. We've got another team that has a few more older guys, when you look at the senior class," UA coach Nick Saban said. "Hopefully that will help us have the kind of maturity we need to grow and develop like we'd like to."
NCAA rules allow 15 spring practices, including scrimmages. UA typically holds three scrimmages, including the annual A-Day game. A-Day, an intrasquad game usually pitting the first-team offense and second-team defense on one team, and the first defense and second offense on the other, is scheduled for April 16. It is open to the public and has drawn record crowds in recent years.
Quarterback, left tackle and defensive end are three of the more compelling position battles of the spring, particularly quarterback, where third-year sophomore A.J. McCarron will compete with redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. With departing senior Greg McElroy having commanded most of the snaps over the past two seasons, game action for McCarron has been limited.
"Obviously, we'll have a new quarterback one way or the other. We've certainly got a couple of young guys that have shown some talent," said Saban. "Somebody is going to have to earn the job through their ability to manage the team, lead the team, and make good choices and decisions that allow them to play winning football on the team. That has to be determined, and there is no timetable for determining it."
At left tackle, veteran Alfred McCullough, junior college transfer Aaron Douglas and others are expected to vie for the job vacated by James Carpenter. On the other side of the ball, the absence of defensive lineman Marcell Dareus will create an opportunity for a score of young ends who have seen little to no playing time to this point in their careers.
Charged with the progress of the left tackle candidates as well as the young defenders up front will be two new line coaches, Jeff Stoutland with the offensive line and Chris Rumph on the defensive side.
New wide receivers coach Mike Groh also gets to blow the whistle for the first time at UA, though he was a part of UA's 2009 support staff as a graduate assistant.
Spring drills will also mark the practice debuts of nine new players who enrolled mid-term, including Douglas, defensive lineman Quinton Dial, five-star running back recruit Dee Hart, wide receiver Ronald Carswell and others. Saban has said four players will miss spring drills, linebacker Glenn Harbin (pursuing baseball) and three others with physical issues including defensive lineman Kerry Murphy, and defensive backs Kendall Kelly and Wes Neighbors.
"The most important thing about spring practice is, A, that you get the system taught to as many people as possible, especially young guys that haven't been exposed to it in the past," Saban said. "Secondly, the corrections and any kind of quality control issues you felt you had that you researched in the offseason that you tried to make improvement on in some area. Thirdly, from a personnel standpoint, to get the best players on the field. That's not only in terms of depth chart, but (also) in terms of role, and how they may contribute, whether it's special teams or a special situation in the game."
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0196.