10 things to keep an eye on during Alabama's training camp
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. _ Even though the University of Alabama football team has been dubbed as the one to beat in the Southeastern Conference, it doesn’t mean that Nick Saban could tell you his preferred starting lineup when the Crimson Tide opens the season Aug. 30 in Atlanta against West Virginia (2:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2).
Granted, he has an idea how things should and will play out during training camp, but first there are 22 days of on-field workouts, including four two-a-days and two scrimmages, to get through before the first week of regular practices.
Depth chart? Yeah, don’t ask.
“We’re a team that has a lot of question marks,” Saban said earlier this month during SEC Media Days.
On offense, some of those are obvious, especially at the quarterback position where someone will take over for three-year starter AJ McCarron. Defensively the Crimson Tide took a step back in 2013 compared to the previous few seasons, but there’s no doubt the coaches have a lot of talent to work with.
“We probably weren’t quite as good as we were last year as we were in the past,” Saban said. “We’re in a little bit of a rebuilding situation even though we played a lot of young players who have the right attitude and character to improve and be more consistent players. There are still some question marks about how our defense comes together.”
Here are 10 things to keep an eye on when Alabama opens preseason practices on Friday:
1. The quarterback competition: Senior Blake Sims is the closest thing to an incumbent, sophomore Alec Morris is the only other quarterback with playing experience at Alabama, and redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman is the up-and-coming prospect. Yet the player to watch is Florida State transfer Jacob Coker.
“Decision making and judgment is a critical factor, accuracy with the ball is a critical factor, and leadership is a critical factor,” Saban said about the position. “Two out of three of those things are a little bit innate in terms of a guy understanding a system, feeling confident in application of that system so they can make good choices and decisions, can lead, can be accurate, to enhance the players around him. That’s the challenge with a young quarterback.”
2. The cornerbacks: With sophomore Eddie Jackson out with a knee injury the starters for A-Day were converted wide receivers Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones. While Jackson is trying to make a fast recovery from surgery, early enrollee Tony Brown and fellow true freshman Marlon Humphrey enter the mix with hopes of becoming Alabama’s next shutdown defender(s).
“I think as a whole the secondary is doing a great job,” senior wide receiver Christion Jones said. “They’re answering to what all the critics are saying could be a glitch in our secondary. We’ve got a lot of guys who haven’t played much, a lot of new names that are working hard this summer. I think that the secondary is going to prove themselves and prove everyone else wrong because they do work hard from the ones and twos to fill the gaps that we lost.”
3. Who’s leading? It was more than interesting that senior linebacker Trey DePriest, who was hailed as the defensive leader during the spring, didn’t represent the Crimson Tide at SEC Media Days. Instead it was junior safety Landon Collins who joined Jones and junior wide receiver Amari Cooper.
“Trey has been a very good player for us,” Saban said. “I think he has a tremendous ability to impact and effect our players on the team. But until you see how players respond and the chemistry develops, which I thought it started to do that on defense in the spring, I think Landon Collins is a very good leader and he’s had some impact. We have more players probably sort of aware of the importance of the role of leaders on the team to sort of try to affect and serve other people.”
4. Lane Kiffin: Although Alabama’s new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach was on-hand for the spring, fans and reporters will soon get a better feel for how he meshes with everyone and what kind of changes might be in store for the offense.
“Not too different because we’re still under Coach Saban,” Cooper said. “I think Coach Kiffin takes advantage of match-ups. I think he has a good sense of what it’s like to be an offensive coordinator. He’s a very calm person and brings that calmness to the team when things get serious and when you are battling for a national championship every year.”
5. The offensive line: Even though three starters return it’s pretty much a given that line coach Mario Cristobal will do some experimenting during camp, especially to see where junior-college transfer Dominick Jackson might best fit. Nevertheless, the key to the starting five figures to be true freshman Cam Robinson at left tackle.
“I guess it would be hard to stay humble, but it just depends on the person,” Robinson said after arriving on campus as an early enrollee. “But if you’re not humble, you get here and you get to practice you’ll be humble quick.”
6. The young linebackers: There’s no doubt that Reuben Foster is a tackling machine, but he first has to stop injuring himself when making some of his trademark vicious hits. When Foster sustained another stinger during the second scrimmage of spring the coaching staff knew it had to get another player up to speed at middle linebacker.
After he got his bell rung again during A-Day an ESPN microphone caught Saban telling him, “That’s what we have to get fixed” about not keeping his head up when making hits.
How Foster develops could directly impact where junior Reggie Ragland lines up, while junior Dillon Lee, who was arrested for driving while under the influence in the spring, has to prove to coaches that they can trust him.
7. The pass-rush: Line coach Bo Davis was brought back in hopes of improving the pass-rush and combined with the extensive depth at defensive end and linebacker the Crimson Tide figures to do just that. Sophomore A’Shawn Robinson could be poised for a big season, but there’s also Jonathan Allen, D.J. Pettway is back after being kicked off the team last year, and Dalvin Tomlinson missed most of last season due to a knee injury.
“His coaching style is more aggressive, hands-on,” Tomlinson said about Davis. “We just play more faster and aggressive and do less reading before we take off.”
8. Special teams: The only certainties are that sophomore Cole Mazza will be the long-snapper and Jones the primary return man.
“We have two new specialists,” Saban said. “We’re probably going to have a freshman punter (JK Scott). Adam Griffith is going to be a new field goal kicker.”
9. The rookies: Last season Alabama used 35 first- or second-year players including 14 true freshmen. Among them, tight end O.J. Howard, Jackson, A’Shawn Robinson and Mazza made starts. The Crimson Tide will head into training camp with players like Cam Robinson and Scott looking to lock down roles and Brown aiming to win one.
There’s no way of knowing how many new players may get on the field this season, but two to especially watch during training camp are defensive end Da’Shawn Hand and linebacker Rashaan Evans, who will try and show coaches that they can’t afford to keep them on the sideline.
10. The suspended players: Saban disclosed during SEC Media Days that running back Kenyan Drake and defensive lineman Jarran Reed had been suspended following recent arrests. Drake’s most recent transgression was a misdemeanor count of obstructing justice after crossing a police line to get to his car following a shooting, and Reed was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.
The coach gave no indication about when they could potentially be reinstated, but both could potentially make significant contributions this season if they can get back on track.