The offensive guys are hogging much of the attention at Alabama these days. Seriously.
Stingy defense has been the biggest calling card of the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s recent reign over college football, while the offense has chugged along productively and with more modest fanfare even with a succession of star tailbacks.
Maybe that will change this season. The Tide appears to have the deepest collection of offensive playmakers of any Alabama team during this run of three national titles in four years going into Saturday’s opener versus Virginia Tech in Atlanta.
Quarterback AJ McCarron has receivers galore, led by Amari Cooper, plus a rising star in tailback T.J. Yeldon leading the way in the backfield. If the offense steals some of the attention from the defense, Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri is OK with that.
“Our offense is amazing,” Sunseri said. “We’ve got great receivers, great running backs and a great quarterback. The offensive line is doing unbelievable. If we’re behind them a little bit, that’s fine with me. We don’t like the hype, we just go out there and play. We’re players.”
Chances are, the defense that has been the nation’s stingiest for each of the past two national title seasons will still be formidable.
The offense has been pretty good, too.
The last four Tide teams have ranked no worse than 22nd nationally in scoring offense and two tailbacks, a receiver and a couple of offensive linemen have been first-round NFL draft picks during that span.
Plus, last year’s offense set Alabama records for total offense, total points and passing touchdowns under first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. A powerful offensive line paved the way for that group, but is replacing three starters.
The big men can take a backseat this time. Cooper and Yeldon both are preseason All-Southeastern Conference picks who gained 1,000 yards in receiving or rushing, respectively, last season.
Four of the nation’s top tailback recruits join Jalston Fowler, Kenyan Drake, Dee Hart and Yeldon in the backfield. Freshmen Derrick Henry, who set the national high school record for career rushing yards, and Altee Tenpenny, at least, could see early action.
“I feel like we have confidence in both those guys that they can go in and play well if they need to,” Tide coach Nick Saban said.
Whoever emerges as No. 2 typically gets a bunch of carries for the Tide, which had two 1,000-yard rushers last season. Eddie Lacy was a second-round pick by Green Bay.
“Obviously, T.J. Yeldon’s a premier back,” Virginia Tech linebacker Jack Tyler said. “He’s good at just about everything. He can catch the ball. He can run downhill. He’s quick. He’s fast. He’s explosive. He’s a good back. They’re the full package and that’s why they’re the No. 1 team in the country. But if we want to be the defense we want to be, the No. 1 defense in the country, we have to stop teams like this.”
The receiving corps has 95 percent of the production returning. Redshirt freshman Chris Black, who was set to play last season but for a preseason knee injury, figures to have a significant role, too.
McCarron, who is entering his third year as starter, said he has built trust with that group of playmakers.
“That’s the biggest thing with quarterback and skill guys. You’ve got to have trust,” he said. “We’ve got all the ingredients to have a special year. We’ve just got to put them together at the right time.”
Saban said having an experienced quarterback is the biggest key to having a versatile offense.
“We always want to be explosive offensively and hopefully we can do that in the running game and the passing game if we can get in the right play more often,” the coach said. “And I think that’s something the quarterback can help us do, and hopefully because of that we can take advantage of all the skill players we have whether they’re runners or catchers.”
There’s enough of a talent blend that tight end Brian Vogler was asked whether this offense would be a sleek Ferrari or a powerful Hummer.
“We’ll come in with the Ferrari attitude and on the goal line, we’ll bring a Hummer at you,” Vogler said.
‰ AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. in Blacksburg, Va., contributed to this report.