Spring football primer: Alabama Crimson Tide
Spring game: April 16, 2 p.m. ET
The question most years with Alabama is whether the team leadership and motivation are strong enough, not whether there’s enough talent.
Before the Tide beat Clemson in Glendale, Ariz., coach Nick Saban spoke openly about a sense of entitlement that snuck into the team culture at times in the last several years. After yet another national championship, will the team respond well?
Alabama has won back-to-back national titles under Saban already, in 2011 and 2012. So it’s possible.
The team did lose significant talent, but that’s the same every year. Some of the players who decided to stay for their senior season were pleasant surprises, so there’s more experience than some expected.
This team has gone 7-1 in the SEC for five consecutive seasons. The difference between a College Football Playoff appearance and failing to reach Atlanta is very subtle, and we won’t know what this team is made of until the fall.
Still, the fact that Saban has a chance to tie Bear Bryant with six career national championships — after so many in the media and among other fan bases wrote off the Alabama “dynasty” as expired — infuses some excitement this spring. And there are plenty of position battles and new starters to keep fans interested.
THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Can Blake Barnett and Bo Scarbrough adequately replace Jake Coker and Derrick Henry?
Most fans and outsiders expect Barnett to start Sept. 3 against USC. That’s not a bad projection, but that’s far from a certainty in the minds of the Alabama coaches.
There’s also a feeling that Lane Kiffin has developed first-year starters just fine the last two seasons, so surely he can do the same this year, no problem.
And when has Alabama ever struggled to run the football? The last time a Tide running back won the Heisman Trophy (Mark Ingram, 2009), the team ran the ball even more effectively when he left.
None of those things are foregone conclusions.
Yes, Alabama has an enviable collection of talent at quarterback outside of just Barnett. So the odds say surely one of them will develop into at least an adequate starter.
In the backfield, replacing Henry is the headline but the bigger question is depth. Bo Scarbrough seems like a great choice to be one of the primary ball-carriers. But who will help him? Perhaps Damien Harris will look better in his second season, or one of the two backs arriving in the fall will make an instant impact.
The Tide doesn’t need All-American production at quarterback or even running back. But it does need major contributions from some unproven players. The spring will help the team start to figure that out.
2. What, if anything, will change on defense with the new coaches?
The feeling here is “not much.”
Kirby Smart has been Alabama’s defensive coordinator in every Tide game since 2008, one year after Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. He essentially became the CEO of the defense, despite Saban’s steady input.
But Jeremy Pruitt has served as coordinator at both Florida State and Georgia, and he worked under both Saban and Smart for several years. Clearly the system isn’t broken, and it’s hard to imagine the Tide changing much.
Perhaps the secondary will be a bigger question. Greg Brown didn’t work out at Alabama, and the team parted ways with him after the 2013 season. Saban and Smart tried to co-manage the secondary by themselves in 2014. But it wasn’t until the team hired an NFL defensive coordinator in 2015, with the sole task of developing a bunch of former five-star recruits, that the team’s touted corners and safeties finally resembled an elite group again.
Now that Mel Tucker has followed Smart to Athens, Derrick Ansley will oversee the secondary. Can he retain the growth trajectory Tucker constructed and continue to develop the young talent?
3. Can Tim Williams turn into an every-down player?
On a per-snap basis, there’s an argument that Williams was the most effective pass rusher in the SEC last season.
But more than half of his 19 tackles in 2015 were sacks. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he hasn’t proven that he can be an asset against the run as well. And he’s athletic enough that he should be able to help in coverage against tight ends and running backs, but that remains to be seen as well.
If all he is in 2015 is a 10-sack guy who plays mostly in obvious pass-rush situations, he’ll still be a valuable member of the defense. But if he can learn to become a complete player, he’ll blossom into an All-American candidate and a potential first-round pick.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
- WR Gehrig Dieter: The graduate transfer from Bowling Green is aiming to become this year’s Richard Mullaney. What will his role be in an already-crowded group of pass-catchers?
- OT Charles Baldwin: An early enrollee, the JUCO transfer is the early favorite to replace Dominick Jackson as the team’s starting right tackle. He’s got the build (6-5, 315) and the experience. But will he handle the transition?
- QB Jalen Hurts: He’s likely to fade to the background soon, as the Tide is absolutely loaded with talented players at quarterback. And if Blake Barnett wins the job, the redshirt freshman could keep it for a long, long time. But Hurts, an early enrollee and a member of the 2016 class, has some Blake Sims in him as a runner.
OFFENSIVE STARTERS TO REPLACE
- QB Jake Coker
- RB Derrick Henry
- RT Dominick Jackson
- C Ryan Kelly
- WR Richard Mullaney
Alabama fans shouldn’t be concerned at quarterback. Arguably, the team is in a better situation at the position in 2016 than it was either of the last two years, and Blake Sims and Jake Coker performed just fine. The only difference could be that the team gets much younger there, as both those guys were veterans.
Mullaney was a solid player, but the Tide has more than enough pass-catchers.
There’s some concern at running back, especially with depth. Bo Scarbrough doesn’t have to win the Heisman Trophy for Alabama to get good production out of him as the projected starter. But Damien Harris must play much better than he did in limited time as a true freshman, or the team may have to rely on B.J. Emmons — who won’t arrive until the summer — as a key player early.
The Tide have plenty of bodies along the offensive line, but Kelly was the team’s best blocker last season and he’ll be missed. Clemson abused Jackson in the national championship game, but analytics revealed him to be a vastly underrated run-blocker. So the team will be relying on J.C. Hassenauer and probably Charles Baldwin in those spots.
DEFENSIVE STARTERS TO REPLACE
- LB Denzel Devall
- CB Cyrus Jones
- S Geno Matias-Smith
- LB Reggie Ragland
- DE Jarran Reed
- DT A’Shawn Robinson
This could’ve been much worse, but Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Reuben Foster and Eddie Jackson all put off the NFL draft until 2017.
Alabama boasts a slew of talented young defensive backs, so the team should be OK there. Depth on the defensive line will take a hit as well, but if Daron Payne and Da’Shawn Hand continue to develop, the unit could be more or less as good.
Linebacker will be the toughest position in terms of replacements. Ragland earned a spot in the pantheon of Tide middle linebackers and was a huge improvement from Trey DePriest in 2014. Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton could both start, but it’s tough not to anticipate a drop-off from Ragland.
The team probably will ask Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson to be every-down players. Perhaps Rashaan Evans and Christian Miller can push for playing time at linebacker.
TOP RETURNERS BY CATEGORY
Top returning passer: Cooper Bateman (291 yards in 2015)
Top returning rusher: Damian Harris (157 yards in 2015)
Top returning receiver: Calvin Ridley (1,045 yards in 2015)
Top returning tackler: Reuben Foster (73 in 2015)
Top returning pass rusher: Jonathan Allen (12 sacks in 2015)
Top returning pass defender: Eddie Jackson (6 INTs in 2015)
POSITION OF CONCERN: CENTER
Ryan Kelly will not be easy to replace.
Alabama has enjoyed very good center play in the Saban era, including three All-Americans: Antoine Caldwell (2008), Barrett Jones (2012) and Kelly (2015).
J.C. Hassenauer has been groomed to replace Kelly. He played in seven games as a true sophomore last season, relieving Kelly late in the first half against Texas A&M and playing the rest of the way in his most extensive action.
Judging by analytics from smart football sites like FootballOutsiders.com and ProFootballFocus.com, Alabama’s line has been merely good in the last several seasons after annihilating anyone and everyone as recently as 2012. It’ll be hard to approach that level without excellent play from Hassenauer at center.
Plus, with a first-year starter at quarterback, it’ll be vital for the center to recognize blitzes and ensure that the entire line is prepared with the correct blocking assignments pre-snap.
That’s not to say that Alabama and Hassenauer won’t come through, or that the team is terribly concerned. But on the deepest roster in the country, this probably qualifies as the biggest “concern” on the roster.