5 questions Alabama hopes to be closer to answering Saturday in spring game

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) warms up prior to the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game against the Clemson Tigers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If not for a last-second touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow, Alabama would once again be the defending national champion.

As a result, the Crimson Tide are simply coming off their third straight SEC title and appear to be relatively unchallenged in the conference. No question about it, coach Nick Saban and Co. have taken their program to another level.

The Tide are sure to be preseason picks to capture the West again come Media Days in July, and more than likely they will also be chosen to win the league for the fourth consecutive time. There’s a dark horse or two — Auburn adding Jarrett Stidham at quarterback is quite intriguing — but to bet against ‘Bama is foolish.

Saban still had plenty of issues to be concerned with this spring, though. The passing game proved to be flawed down the stretch a year ago, plus another crop of standout defenders is moving on to the NFL.

With the annual A-Day Game scheduled for Saturday, here are the five most important questions that Big Al needs to answer as spring ball ends.

Hurts solidified at No. 1

Jalen Hurts had one of the best freshman seasons for a QB in conference history and was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year as a result.

Nevertheless, his 13-of-31 performance through the air in the College Football Playoff National Championship was alarming, as many of his misses weren’t even close. It was his third outing in a row throwing the ball poorly.

Some of the loudest buzz coming out of Tuscaloosa this spring has been about early enrollee Tua Tagovailoa, a 5-star signal caller — rated even higher than Hurts in high school — who seems awfully advanced as a passer at this stage. His upcoming debut at Bryant-Denny Stadium is eagerly anticipated, to say the least.

Does Saban have a controversy on his hands? No, he doesn’t. At least not yet. Still, if Tagovailoa balls out, you never know.

Backfield awfully crowded

Alabama’s top five rushers from 2016 all return, including Hurts and his 954 yards on the ground as a field general.

Damien Harris, the Crimson Tide’s leading rusher a year ago, has been hobbled this spring and might not play Saturday. Bo Scarbrough, who is devastating when at 100 percent, is still recovering from the broken leg he suffered against Clemson.

Sep 10, 2016; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back B.J. Emmons (21) carries the ball against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Tide defeated the Hilltoppers 38-10. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Nevertheless, there is no shortage of ball carriers for ‘Bama. Joshua Jacobs unexpectedly flashed as a freshman last year when there was attrition in front of him, as did B.J. Emmons (above). A couple of new additions will likely get plenty of touches, too. Najee Harris, arguably the No. 1 back in this year’s recruiting class, is one of them.

When everyone is fully healthy and ready to play this fall, inevitably a couple of really talented players will be buried on the bench.

Williams replacing Robinson

Even though Cam Robinson won the Outland Trophy last year and could be a first-round pick, his absence may not be felt all that much.

Despite never lining up anywhere other than left tackle for the Tide, Robinson is being projected as a guard by a lot of NFL scouts. He’s more mauler than technician, plus he’s not as bouncy on his feet as some would like.

Jonah Williams, who excelled at right tackle in 2016 directly out of high school, is making the move over to left tackle — the most important position on any offensive line with a right-handed quarterback — this spring. As great as Robinson was, it’s possible that this is actually an upgrade for Alabama.

Alex Leatherwood, another 5-star recruit, is in the mix at right tackle. We’re yet to know if he’s ready as a freshman like Williams was.

Another reload on defense

Two seasons ago, the Crimson Tide said goodbye to the likes of A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Reggie Ragland and Cyrus Jones on defense.

All four of them were second-round selections, yet each was rather replaceable. If anything, last year’s defense was more dominant than the one from 2015, with Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster and Marlon Humphrey becoming superstars.

Oct 22, 2016; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Mack Wilson (30) hits Texas A&M Aggies wide receiver Speedy Noil (2) during the first quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Now it’s Allen, Foster and Humphrey graduating to the pros — not to mention Dalvin Tomlinson, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson and Eddie Jackson. Perhaps the only depth chart in the country capable of dealing with that level of defection is the one at ‘Bama. Saban has been stockpiling 4- and 5-star signees each and every February.

A pair of 5-star linebackers from 2016, Ben Davis and Mack Wilson (above), hardly saw the field in Year 1. Dylan Moses is another from this latest cycle.

Improvement on special teams

Adam Griffith, who was never more than a mediocre kicker during his three seasons as the starter, is out of eligibility.

Next in line is Andy Pappanastos, a redshirt senior who has only attempted two field goals in his career — the first when he was at Ole Miss prior to transferring — and made just one. Saban can be stingy giving scholarships to specialists.

The return game won’t be live Saturday, as the odds of injury are too high, but the Tide hope to be more explosive on the receiving end of punts and kickoffs in 2017. After Jackson broke his leg, Trevon Diggs was shaky last season returning punts. He was average at best returning kickoffs, as well. Xavian Marks did some good things here and there.

Jackson’s natural ability with the ball in his hands was rare. The opportunity is there for a newcomer to stake his claim.


John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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  • Prediction: Jonah Williams will be more productive and reliable than Cam Robinson & will be a consensus All-American, if not this season, then in 2018. Not at all surprised, either, that Cam’s future as a left tackle in the NFL is murky. My bet is he’ll wind up at guard, where blindside protection responsibilities will be less if an issue.

    • If it weren’t for Najee Harris, I would bet that Brian Robinson would get a healthy amount of carries this year. As it stands he might have to play second fiddle to Najee/Scarborough for a while.