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August 18, 2010

Upshaw's unknown status becoming a thing of the past

TUSCALOOSA _ One by one the preseason honors have been announced and he's barely had a sniff.

No mention on the coaches' All-SEC teams, which featured nine University of Alabama teammates.

No watch lists with his name while safety Mark Barron, defensive end Marcell Dareus and linebacker Dont'a Hightower have fittingly been labeled as legitimate contenders for numerous defensive awards.

Even Nico Johnson has been in the accolades spotlight, named with Hightower to the Dick Butkus Award watch list for linebacker of the year on Tuesday even though he may not start when the Crimson Tide opens the season against San Jose State on Sept. 4.

That's all fine with Courtney Upshaw, who wouldn't be blamed for feeling a bit overlooked. Rather the junior feels like he has something to prove.

"I'm just ready to show what I can do, to step up and help the defense," Upshaw said during Alabama's recent Media Day. "I don't really care about my name being mentioned and what-not.

"I've always had the mindset I haven't done anything yet."

That's sort of true in terms of regular season statistics and accomplishments as Upshaw's career numbers are limited to one start in 27 games played, 37 tackles (many of which were on special teams), one sack and two fumble recoveries. Of course, he did land on the ball after Eryk Anders sacked Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert with just 3:08 remaining to help secure theBCS National Championship Game.

Since then, though, he's arguably become the leading defensive candidate for a breakout season, which is why the conference media gave him a hat tip in naming Upshaw second-team All-SEC for his lone preseason honor. He had three sacks in a spring scrimmage, led the Crimson Tide in tackles for a loss during A-Day and during last Saturday's scrimmage was credited with four tackles, two sacks and a pass broken up.

"Courtney is a stud," senior tight end Preston Dial said. "You want to talk about someone who took the offseason conditioning program seriously, Courtney was big last year, he has cannonballs for arms, somehow he managed to get bigger. He gained good weight, though. He's faster, he's playing the defense correctly.

"I pretty much go against him every day and he's definitely as good as I usually play on Saturdays."

On a deep, talented linebacker corps where anyone not named Hightower still has to earn his place in the lineup Upshaw appears to be the next closest thing. Expected to be the every-down Jack, the hybrid end/linebacker who usually puts his hand down on the line, he's almost certainly going to benefit from lining up alongside Hightower and Dareus in obvious pass-rushing situations.

While that configuration figures to give offensive coordinators some fits while trying to come up with blocking schemes, Alabama's defensive coaches have the opposite problem. With linebackers like Chris Jordan, Jerrell Harris, Johnson, Chavis Williams, Jalston Fowler, Tana Patrick and Ed Stinson in the mix and vying for regular roles there's obviously not enough to go around. Even the players wonder how it all might play out and how Nick Saban's staff will get as many as possible involved, although some of the newcomers will primarily play on special teams (where Upshaw first made his mark) if at all.

"I personally don't know, but Coach Saban is a great coach and has a knack for putting a guy in the right spot," Jordan said.

So far Jordan's been alongside Hightower in the interior and lately staying on the field in nickel and dime packages.

"Past that, the young guys, they have a long way to go in terms of development, learning," Saban recently said. "We aren't disappointed in any of them. They all have ability."

The coach felt better about the development of the outside linebackers, who have played with a sense of urgency.

"Courtney got to play some last year so he has some experience, he's had a good spring and a good camp," Saban said. "Jerrell Harris is getting better."

Harris came into the fall as the player to beat at strongside (Sam), but Cory Reamer discovered last season that spot is often pulled against the pass. However, he and Johnson, who started three games at weakside (Will) after Hightower sustained a knee injury last season, can slide over and fill in at other places.

Of course, every player asked says it doesn't matter where he lines up, and coaches hope to have everyone's roles essentially nailed down after this week - or as Upshaw put it "let the pieces fall together." But to give an idea of the kind of powerful and fast style he covets, when asked "If you could be a fan for a day who would you like to watch from the stands?" Upshaw said sophomore running back Trent Richardson.

Harris and safety Robert Lester had a different answer, Dareus.

Maybe in the near future someone might answer with Upshaw's name, as he feels this is his chance.

"That's what I'm waiting for," he said.


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