TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Spring is a time for change. The ice breaks, leaves blossom and nature starts over again. For the University of Alabama football team, this time of year is treated much in the same way.
New players are tested and familiar faces try out new roles. There's return and there's turnover. It's a time for reinvention, head coach Nick Saban said on Saturday, the first day of spring camp for the defending national champion Crimson Tide.
"Like I've said before," the 61-year-old coach said, "every year you've got to reinvent your team. Who are going to be the leaders? Who are going to be the guys that set an example? Who steps forward as young players who show that they have the responsibility to do a job and be dependable in doing that job so we that have a chance to play winning football with them?"
Alabama won the national title just three months ago, but when Saban took the podium at the Mal Moore Athletic Facility following the first day of practice, it felt like eons ago. The coach wears no championship rings and counts the minutes, not the days or hours, until he can forget a win and move on to the next thing. He jovially asked the assembled media if they had a pleasant off-season, smiled when one reporter said it was short and shot back with, "You think it was short for you."
Saban and a renovated coaching staff went back to work months ago, the process never quite giving into themes like a finish line. And when he looked at the product of 2012 and the players he lost to the draft and graduation, he and the staff decided to do some tinkering. Jack linebacker Xzaiver Dickson practiced at defensive end in a possible attempt at increasing a rather lackluster pass rush and the wide receiver position was shaken up in order to give the secondary some added depth. Wideouts Cyrus Jones and Christion Jones spent time at cornerback, along with running back Dee Hart, who practiced in a black no-contact jersey during the media viewing portion of practice.
The position changes, Saban knew, would be a source of speculation. Rather than let it hang there in the room like a white elephant, he addressed the moves in his opening remarks.
"We have some players who are experimenting at new positions," he explained. "That's all they are, is experiments. Just to see how they can do. … These are not permanent moves, none of them. They're experiments."
Rising senior linebacker C.J. Mosley is experiencing something of a role change this spring, taking on the job of an every-down defender now that inside linebacker Nico Johnson is gone. The All-American selection practiced in a black no-contact jersey because of a shoulder injury and said he hopes to be able to participate fully soon. In the meantime, he's trying to take on a "more vocal" role on the defense.
"I'm not a talkative person," he said, "but when it comes during the season, it will have to be me to step up and say something."
This is the time of the year for picking up new skills and defining roles before fall hits and everything becomes set in stone.
"You just get a feel for everybody and where they should be," he told reporters of the positional experiments. "It's just a learning process in the spring so guys are moving around and we're figuring out what we're going to do with this team."
Quarterback AJ McCarron, much like Mosley, is in a position to assert more control over the offense. With three early enrollees at quarterback this spring, he'll play the role of mentor and team captain. And with three of his veteran receivers splitting time on defense, he'll have some new faces to throw the ball to over the next few weeks as well. It's no matter, he said. As he enters his fifth year in Tuscaloosa, he's beginning to look at the process through different eyes.
"I feel old," he said. "I’ve got to get back into things. I feel like I’ve been here 15 years. Just got to get back into the motions and get back throwing.
"Watching the younger guys run makes me feel that much older."
Mosley didn't mince words when he said who stood out during the first day of practice, most notably an early enrollee at tailback who wore the familiar No. 3 jersey.
"We were talking about [Derrick Henry] on the sideline, me and a couple of the players, how Henry looked like a bigger version of Trent Richardson," he said. "But you have to do what you have to do. So we've got to make him better and he's got to make us better. He came in and killed the first quarter program. So I'm excited to see what he's gonna do when we start our first scrimmage."
For more news and notes from the first day of spring practice, visit The Tusk (Insider).