CFB: Saban finds plenty to like on Tide offense
By JOHN ZENOR
AP Sports Writer
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't one to lavish praise on his football team, especially not during spring practice when the goal is improvement.
He's having trouble finding much fault with an offense that returns virtually every playmaker from last season, including Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.
"I feel really good about the way we're going on offense," Saban said on Wednesday. "The quarterbacks are playing well. We've got good skill players all the way around, and they've done a really good job.
"I think we've improved the passing game."
Offensively, that would be an important objective for spring practice and next season.
Sure, the Crimson Tide won a national title last season largely with a relentless running game and one of the nation's best defenses. The forward pass was mostly an afterthought in the national championship game victory over Texas when Greg McElroy threw for just 58 yards.
A little more firepower might come in handy with a defense that returns only two starters. Tailbacks Ingram and Trent Richardson certainly wouldn't complain about a passing game that kept opposing defenses from stacking extra defenders near the line of scrimmage, or in the box.
"There were times last year when they were putting eight or nine in the box and we were still running it," Ingram said. "We wouldn't get the ball out to the perimeter, to our playmakers. That's just one thing that we have to do, and that's a point of emphasis that we're looking at this spring.
"When people are trying to load up the box to stop the run, we get the ball to them so they can stretch the field and make plays. They're dangerous and we've got to give them the ball."
Five of the top six receivers are back and three more report in the fall. Richardson and Ingram combined for 2,409 yards and 25 touchdowns rushing.
Saban said the two "probably were the salvation" of the offense last season.
Alabama's only current holes are at right tackle, left guard and tight end. Sophomore guard Chance Warmack and redshirt freshman tackle D.J. Fluker are among the leading candidates for the line spots while there are several experienced tight ends.
McElroy still has wide receivers Julio Jones and Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks in a passing game that was serviceable but not particularly consistent.
"We left a lot of plays out on the field last year," tight end Preston Dial said. "We're trying to capitalize on the plays and have more plays from scrimmage and limit the penalties. When you've got guys like Maze, Hanks and Julio outside, there's no reason we can't pass the ball."
McElroy's only significant missing target is tight end Colin Peek, who was fourth on the team with 26 catches for 313 yards. Saban said he has seen "a lot more explosive plays not only in the scrimmage but every day in practice."
Jones had a drop in numbers his sophomore season with injury problems but is now healthy.
"I think it's safe to say that he's a different player," McElroy said. "He stepped it up tremendously. He's even probably surpassed what he did as a freshman."
The Tide had seven new starters last season.
"We started off slow on offense, if you remember the first half of the Virginia Tech game," Saban said. "There were probably many people that thought we'd never get a first down. We had a lot of new guys playing, a lot of young guys. We were rebuilding the offensive line. We got better in the second half and got better each week."
The spring's first scrimmage, at least, emphasized passing. To Ingram, it was a positive sign for a simple reason: The receivers were catching the ball.
"They were making plays," he said. "When we were taking shots downfield, they were making plays. They weren't dropping balls. Greg was making the right reads, so that showed up. Instead of incomplete passes or interceptions, those were big explosive plays. I don't think it's anything that anybody should be too concerned with, because we're going to stay a balanced offense.
"We're going to run the ball but we have playmakers and they're going to make plays. We've just got to put them in the right position."