TUSCALOOSA _ Probably the only thing worse than sitting on the exercise bike and watching his University of Alabama teammates go through practices was being on the sideline of the 49-7 pounding of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl.
That wasn't the way that junior safety Mark Barron wanted to end his collegiate career.
"I wanted to play so bad," Barron said. "I really wanted to be out there on the field. I missed the contact, I was just sitting there going 'Man I wish I was out there hitting,' there was a lot of big hitting. (Linebacker Courtney) Upshaw, our freshman year we kind of had a little tag-team thing going on with kickoffs and the hits and everything. I saw him out there and it wanted me to be out there even more."
He'll have that chance. After carefully thinking things over and talking with everyone from his family to NFL personnel, Barron announced Saturday morning that he's returning for his final year of eligibility.
"It was a difficult process for me," Barron said. "It's probably the hardest decision I ever made in my life, including the decision of where I'm going to school.
"But I feel like I made the right one."
Barron made the announcement roughly 12 hours before the midnight deadline for underclassmen to declare themselves eligible for the 2011 NFL Draft. Dareus, running back Mark Ingram and wide receiver Julio Jones have already departed and all three all expected to be first-round selections.
Saban said he didn't anticipate anyone making a last-minute jump.
"We had several other guys that we did some research on with due diligence," he said. "As far as I know everybody's all set to come back."
Barron was named the team's defensive MVP after making 75 tackles, one fewer than last year when he was named both first-team All-SEC and third-team All-American, to go with three interceptions, two sacks, nine passes defended and two quarterback hurries.
In 2009 he led the SEC in both interceptions (seven) and passes defended (18). Despite being the only returning starter in the secondary, Alabama made 22 interceptions.
"Mark has been a great player for us and productive as any player on our team and that's including the guys who are going out for the draft," Saban said. "Not only in terms of the tackles that he made, the interceptions that he's made, but the leadership that he provided and being selected captain by his teammates as a junior I think is really goes a long way. Any time the teammates pick you for anything, that's not the coaching picking, it's like this is for real.
"Everyone has a tremendous amount of respect and trust in this guy for who he is, what he is, how he affects the team and how he affects everyone on the team."
Barron likely would not have been a first-round selection and a torn pectoral muscle sustained against Auburn, which can take four months to recover from after surgery, would have cost him a chance to participate in the NFL Combine and at minimum most pre-draft individual workouts.
Barron didn't go so far as to say that the injury was the primary reason behind his decision, but it obviously played a major part.
"There's no question about the fact that he could move up significantly (in the draft) coming back," Saban said.
Last year two safeties were selected in the first round, Eric Berry No. 5 by Kansas City and Earl Thomas No. 14 by Seattle, with three picked in the second round.
UCLA's Rahim Moore is considered the top safety heading into the pre-draft evaluation period, and a potential late first-round selection. Behind him the top names include Oklahoma's Quinton Carter and West Virginia's Robert Sands, with Ahmad Green of Florida (despite being listed at 5-9) and DeAndre McDaniel of Clemson considered the top seniors.
Roughly six weeks after surgery Barron no longer needs a sling, but is facing at least two more months of rehab. He could be held out of all contact during spring practices to minimize any risk of re-injury.
"I'm getting better," said Barron, who noted that one of the reasons he kept playing against Auburn was that he didn't realize how severe the injury was. "I have more movement than I'd had, that's good. I feel like it's healing pretty well and coming along."
Consequently, the Crimson Tide's defense will return all but two starters next season, defensive ends Marcell Dareus and Luther Davis (who split time), after essentially having just two come back after the 2009 national championship.
As for the Capital One Bowl, Barron was encouraged by how well the secondary played and how far the unit progressed last season.
"It was good to see the younger guys stepping up and playing well," he said. "They had to do some things without me that I might have helped them with."
Saban takes exception
Saban was critical of another report about an Alabama assistant coach potentially being up for another job.
This time it was that linebackers coach Sal Sunseri had been contacted by his former boss with the Carolina Panthers, John Fox, who was recently named the head coach of the Denver Broncos. Sunseri has been involved in recruiting this weekend.
"I think you all need a life when it comes to all this stuff that people put on the Internet," Saban said. "Sal Sunseri would come to me, I know John Fox very well. Sal has worked for John Fox. Sal would come to me and tell me if he had been contacted as all of our coaches have done, and that has not occurred. That's not to say it might not occur, but it has not occurred to this point.
"But I'm not going to respond to rumor and innuendo relative to staff. I want to make this very clear to you all, it's really not fair to our coaches and it's not fair to our recruiting, but every time someone puts something on the Internet you all write it and put it all in the paper like it really is true. You should verify things before you write them, especially in a newspaper. That's the professionalism that you're supposed to have. Anybody can put anything on the Internet."