|Quarterback AJ McCarron :: Getty Images|
They stood on the sidelines at Alabama's spring game, four players who had formed the backbone of two national championship teams: Trent Richardson, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dont'a Hightower. Within days these four would be selected (in that order) in the first round of the NFL draft. Their appearance in street clothes at the A-Day game reinforced the fact that the 2012 Crimson Tide team will feature more new faces in important places than any other during Nick Saban's six-year tenure in Tuscaloosa.
"We're going to be a young team, but we're also going to be a very talented team," said center Barrett Jones, the reigning Outland Trophy winner. "We know that the stakes are high this year. We have an opportunity to do something that not many have done in college football history."
Indeed, Alabama could become just the second school in more than six decades to win three national titles in four years (the other: Nebraska, in 1994, '95 and '97). The strength of the Tide will be its offensive line, which features three potential first-round NFL draft picks: Jones, left tackle D.J. Fluker and left guard Chance Warmack. This talented front wall will be ripping open holes for junior tailback Eddie Lacy, who as a backup for the last two seasons has rushed for 1,080 yards and 13 TDs on 151 carries. "Eddie is a proven player to all of us," said quarterback AJ McCarron. "It's exciting to think about what he'll be able to do with more touches and being more involved in the offense."
Alabama's powerful defense has new blood in sophomore linebacker Trey DePriest (a former five-star recruit who'll replace Hightower at middle linebacker and call the defensive signals in Saban's complex scheme) and in sophomore safety Vinnie Sunseri (the defensive star of the spring game with a pick six and a fumble recovery). "Our young players need to keep developing," Saban said. "Guys like Trey and Vinnie had good springs, but what will they do now? We still have a long way to go before we get to where we're hoping to be, but overall we are better off now than we were when we were coming off the 2009 season" -- in which Alabama won the national title.
In that 2010 season the Tide went 10-3 and finished 10th in the nation. This year they have something more on their minds: history.
Can a defense that will rely on newcomers in key spots live up to the momentous standards set by its predecessors?
13.9 -- Points per game surrendered by the Tide over Nick Saban's five seasons, the lowest average in the FBS.
Kenny Bell, WR, Jr. -- Bell is Alabama's most explosive receiver and can get behind the defense. In 2011 he started four games and caught 17 passes. This season he'll be AJ McCarron's No. 1 option; in the spring game the duo hooked up five times for 86 yards and a TD.
Robert Lester, FS, Sr. -- The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Lester is a sure-handed tackler with range, and could go high in the NFL draft. At strong safety last year he had 39 tackles, three pass breakups and two interceptions -- even though QBs stayed away from him after his eight picks in 2010.
C.J. Mosley, LB, Jr. -- Another defender with NFL potential, Mosley has played in 23 games with 104 career tackles and three picks -- including one in last year's title game. After excelling in the nickel package he'll now be an every-down player.
Barrett Jones, C, Sr. -- The 6-foot-5, 302-pounder is the heart of the team -- and perhaps the nation's most versatile offensive lineman. He has started 36 games: 25 at right guard, 11 at left tackle. Now, at center, he will make the line calls.
Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, So. -- On a unit loaded with future NFL starters, this 6-foot-6, 311-pounder may have the most raw talent. Coming out of DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md., in 2011, Kouandjio was the consensus top offensive-line prospect in the nation. Last season he played in eight games as a backup before suffering a knee injury. Now healthy, he'll start at left tackle.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Fr. -- An early enrollee, Yeldon was MVP of the spring game, gaining 179 total yards while showing big speed and toughness between the tackles. As a senior at Daphne (Ala.) High, Yeldon ran for 2,193 yards and scored 31 TDs. He'll see action behind Eddie Lacy.
It was a beautiful, NFL-worthy throw -- a tight, textbook spiral that sailed high through the Alabama sunshine. Late in the third quarter of the Crimson Tide's A-Day game on April 14, AJ McCarron, on a flea-flicker, unleashed a rainbow to wide receiver Kenny Bell for a 47-yard touchdown. This moment -- and this display of accuracy and arm strength -- underscored how McCarron's growth at quarterback has been the biggest story of the offseason in Tuscaloosa.
"I'm just more comfortable with the whole offense," said McCarron, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior from Mobile. "Everything feels much slower than last season. I'm picking up blitzes faster, and I feel like I'm reading the defense quicker. I remember feeling a little lost last spring. This spring I feel like I really know what I'm doing."
Named the offensive MVP of Alabama's 21-0 win over LSU in the BCS national title game last January (he completed 23-of-34 passes for 234 yards), McCarron has since added plenty of zip on his tosses -- which was clear this spring, especially on intermediate and long-range throws. That new zing came after he underwent surgery in January to repair a dislocated labrum in his right shoulder.
"We didn't tell anyone, but I hurt it against Arkansas [on Sept. 24] on the seventh play of the game, and I lost some velocity on my throws," said McCarron. "Now my arm feels as strong as it's ever been. I'm more comfortable throwing the deep outs and deep crosses."
McCarron passed for 202.6 yards a game in 2011, and this year Alabama will rely even more heavily upon him. New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier plans to feature more three- and four-wide receiver sets than Alabama used last season, when the Tide's offense revolved around running back Trent Richardson, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Browns. McCarron has the pedigree of a leader -- as a high school junior he took St. Paul's Episcopal to a state championship -- and the spring game may have been just a hint of the strides he is taking at this high level. Though limited by vanilla play-calling -- "On one drive we ran the same play nine times," McCarron said -- he threw for 304 yards in the A-Day game.
"We've got a lot of confidence in AJ's making the right decisions on the field," said coach Nick Saban. "He's got all the talent in the world, but like any good quarterback, he's got to take what the defense gives him and not force balls. He really had a nice spring."
"AJ has taken control of this offense," said center Barrett Jones. "After what he's done this spring, everyone here expects a big year from him. Now that he's a year older and has that experience, he's become much more vocal. If we're having a bad day at practice, he's the one that picks us up. ... AJ is definitely going to shoulder a bigger load, and he's acting like he's up for it."
McCarron's favorite target will surely be Bell, as Nussmeier wants to stretch the field with more deep throws and Bell is 'Bama's top playmaking receiver. "I'm going to lean on Kenny," McCarron said. "We know he's capable of being a very, very good receiver, and it's my job to let him show that. I'm doing everything I can to get the best out of everybody on the offense. I've been playing this position since I was three years old, and I've always wanted more responsibility put on me."
In 2012, McCarron will get it.
SI: What was the most gratifying aspect of winning the national championship?
NS: The first thing was seeing the players, who had invested so much, experience gratification. They'll be proud of this for the rest of their lives. And then seeing the fans, who have so much pride in the team and the university, be so happy.
SI: Did the fact that Tuscaloosa had been hit by the tornado add meaning to the title?
NS: Absolutely. I was proud of how our guys got into the community and helped people not only right after the tornado but for a long time afterward. I think we created some hope and almost a distraction for people.
SI: Is it harder to motivate a team that has just won?
NS: It can be tough. It's human nature when you do something well to think you're entitled and to take it easy.
SI: How do you fight complacency?
NS: You get people to challenge themselves. A few days after we won the title we met with our returning players. I said, "You are not national champions."
SI: Why has the BCS trophy resided in the state of Alabama for the last three years?
NS: I don't know. People in this state have tremendous passion for football. And there's a lot of good high school coaches doing a great job of developing talent.
SI: What's your concern for this season?
NS: How the youth of the team will mature and develop. Will the sum of the parts make a greater whole?
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' SEC Preview.