"Our improvement is going to depend on how our young players progress."
That's been a relatively constant refrain from Alabama football fans on message boards, in chat rooms, and in much of the media's offseason reporting and opining during the offseason.
Now, however, that sentence is no longer just chatter. It came straight from Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban at SEC Media Days Thursday. It wasn't in answer to a question either - it was a direct quote from some of Saban's opening remarks. And while the opening remarks of all 12 coaches at SEC Media Days are usually too general and too sanitized to raise any eyebrows, this qualified on a couple of fronts.
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For one, Nick Saban isn't the type of coach to set up expectations for unproven players. In fact, he is squarely among the vast majority of college coaches who are reticent to talk about the future contributions of players who have none of significance in their past.
But he also isn't shy when it comes to what his team's on-field problems are, and depth concerns top the list for the Crimson Tide in 2008. Saban didn't use the word 'freshmen' specifically when talking about the development of the younger talent, but with the nation's No.1 signing class entering fall camp as true freshmen, there's no doubt the incomers are a major part of the equation. And when pressed specifically about the incoming class, Saban said just what Kareem Jackson and Rolando McClain proved a year ago:
"If a freshman is best, we have no issues with playing him," he said.
Center Antoine Caldwell was effusive in his praise of the newcomers, and didn't back off when asked whether anything could be learned before the freshmen put on the practice pads.
"This group has got ... whatever the 'it' is, they've got it," Caldwell said. "... I just haven't seen a group that wants it as bad as they do. It's going to raise everybody's level of play."
Defensive back Rashad Johnson had similar praise for the newcomers, including fellow safety Mark Barron. Johnson said he has taken some one-on-one time with Barron since his summer enrollment.
"We watch tape all the time, and I try to help him out with every step I can," Johnson said. "He has the athleticism to actually come out and help our team this year. With him on the field, it's going to make us a better team. It's going to be all mental for him as far as how much he plays."
In fact, it will be largely mental for many of them, which is one reason the contributions of the newcomers remains unpredictable.
Unpredictable, but not unimportant.
SABAN ON FARMER - Saban said the departure of Tarence Farmer, a redshirt freshman wide receiver who left the team over the summer, was an amicable one. BOL reported Farmer's decision to leave the program on July 9. He was part of UA's 2007 signing class. Although that class was largely complete when Saban was hired, Farmer was among the recruits who committed after Saban took the UA job.
"We mutually agreed it might be better if he played some place else," Saban said. "We wish him the best."
FULMER SERVED - Four years ago, Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer skipped the heat he knew awaited him at the Wynfrey Hotel regarding Alabama's NCAA probation, and took a $10,000 fine to stay home for SEC Media Days. Four years later, the issue apparently hadn't cooled yet. Fulmer has been served with a subpoena to testify in a lawsuit brought against the NCAA by former UA booster Wendell Smith. Though Fulmer denied seeing the document, multiple published reports indicated Fulmer was served while at the media event in Hoover. The deposition is scheduled for Sept. 25 in Jackson County., Ala., two days before UT plays on the road at Auburn.
When quizzed by the media on the matter, Fulmer was a bit terse.
"BS like that has nothing to do with why we're here," Fulmer said.
CALDWELL ON THE OL - With 87 career starts among four returning starters on the offensive line, UA's unit will be as experienced as any. Caldwell didn't mince words about its role, either.
"There's no excuses to be made. That's how I feel. I've talked to the line about that," Caldwell said. "There really is no weakness on this line. If a block is to be made, you've got to make it. That's the concept we've put in this whole summer - we've got to get it done one way or another."
Caldwell said the lone new starter on the line - right tackle Drew Davis - has made impressive strides and is ready to handle the starting role.
ETC. - Saban said linebacker Prince Hall was facing a pending suspension, something he first said weeks ago. In repeating the remark, however, Saban all but confirmed that Hall remains in position to return to the team at some point this fall. Hall was a part-time starter last season after being named Freshman All-SEC in 2007. ... Saban had this to say about incoming freshman receiver Julio Jones: "It's important that Julio create his own expectations ... Not to put a lot of pressure on himself. He's a mature guy." ... The SEC handed out various preseason dates of note for all 12 schools. Alabama's were as follows: Freshmen report (July 31), varsity reports (Aug.1), first day of practice (Aug.1), media day (Aug.3), first day of classes (Aug.20).