August 5, 2011 8:25:00 PM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Barrett Jones is reminded of his lost teammate sometimes when he sees the empty locker that once belonged to Aaron Douglas. The University of Alabama football players need only drive a short distance from campus to see the wreckage from a deadly tornado that struck the town and surrounding communities in the spring.
With those incidents as the sobering backdrops, Alabama opened preseason practice Friday to start preparation for a season they''re hoping will be special -- for more than the standard reasons.
"I think it takes a little bit of the selfishness out of football," center William Vlachos said. "It''s easy to say, Man I''m hot or I''m tired or I''m sore or I don''t want to be here and I just want to go home. But you''ve got to realize what you''re playing for. You''re playing for a lot more than yourself. Really, you''re playing for a lot more than just your teammates. There''s a lot of people who care about this football team and this town. It''s something I''m certainly conscious of. I think others are as well.
"It''s something that we''ll keep in the back of our minds."
The Crimson Tide returned to the field with plenty of the normal August concerns: Choosing a starting quarterback, replacing four first-round NFL draft picks, finding a new left tackle. Enduring the sauna-like temperatures. And dealing with the expectations of a team that is favored to win the Southeastern Conference championship and on the short list of projected national title contenders.
The players and coaches also can''t forget the April tornado that killed 47 people in Tuscaloosa. Tide players can''t rebuild homes or families. Bring some more smiles to those impacted? That''s certainly doable.
"Those people are behind us," defensive lineman Josh Chapman said, "and it''s time for us to be behind them also."
.The Tide also endured the death a few weeks later of Douglas, a junior college transfer and potential starting left tackle. A Florida medical examiner''s report found that the 21-year-old Douglas died as a result of multiple drugs that were found in his system.
"It kind of makes you think, ''Wow, here''s a guy who''s my age and he''s gone,"'' said Jones, a fellow offensive lineman. "I still think about it from time to time when I see his locker."
Douglas only arrived on campus in January, but left an impression. Vlachos recalls Douglas as a "fun-loving guy that was very talented at football and was a good friend to everybody the minute he walked in the door.
"He was a trustworthy friend who was a very talented football player and was a joy to be around," he said.
Amid all that, the Tide does have some football issues to contend with, too.
Sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims are still vying to become the starting quarterback. Jones worked exclusively at left tackle Friday, though it''s not clear if that''s where he''ll land or some other tackle will emerge.
And one of the most anticipated recruits, wide receiver Duron Carter, was still awaiting clearance to practice. The junior college transfer and onetime Ohio State signee is the son of former NFL star Cris Carter and among the players who could help fill the void left by first-round pick Julio Jones.
"We don''t have all of his information from all of his grades," coach Nick Saban said. "Until we get that information, even though he''s here, he''s not eligible to practice or be in camp."
Saban is seeking pass rushers on the defensive line, the only part of a loaded defense that remains unsettled. He''s got a shortage of depth behind running backs Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. Plus, there are no proven receivers beyond Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks and the two quarterbacks appear to be in a dead heat to replace Greg McElroy.
All that gives Saban ample ammunition to dismiss that championship talk as crystal ball predictions.
"Expectations that are created externally, and I think you know what I''m talking about, really mean nothing," he said. "They mean about as much as if you go to the fortune teller and the fortune teller tells you what''s going to happen good or bad. That''s about what it means.
"If we want to go through the season kind of, ''This is what the fortune teller thinks,'' then that''s what all that stuff means. Otherwise it''s going to be based on what we do, how we play, how we practice... It will be about what we do, not what we can do. That''s basically what it comes down to."
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