Alabama football: 5 things that will define the Crimson Tide's offense in 2021
Alabama wrapped up its spring practice over the weekend with a spirited A-Day in front of 47,000 Crimson Tide faithful, the largest American sports crowd since the start of the pandemic.
The SEC, it just means more.
Although the Tide dealt with a slew of nagging injuries to probable starters over the last month, the spring still offered Nick Saban & Co., a chance to evaluate the progress of second-year quarterback Bryce Young, as well as get a glimpse of a potential salty defense spearheaded by a cast of impact pass rushers and a deep secondary.
Alabama lost a record-setting quarterback, the Heisman Trophy winner, the best cornerback in college football and a host of other future pros, yet the Tide still enter offseason as the odds-on favorite to repeat as national champions. So while some may see Alabama as a bit vulnerable in 2021, the expectations in Tuscaloosa have not changed.
Over the next week, we’ll look at some questions surrounding Alabama’s offense and defense as the Tide look to maintain their stranglehold on the top spot in college football.
Here are five questions — and potential answers — that could define Alabama offensively in 2021.
Has Bryce Young cemented his spot as Alabama’s starting quarterback?
Very, very likely … but the cement hasn’t totally hardened just yet.
With Alabama playing an all-SEC slate in 2020, the former 5-star recruit didn’t see many opportunities, but Young entered the spring as the favorite to replace Mac Jones as the team’s QB1, and the California native didn’t do anything to jeopardize his chances.
Young took all the first-team reps during the spring, throwing for 333 yards on A-Day on his way to MVP honors. Despite the vanilla scheme, Young still showcased a strong arm, a steadiness managing the offense and improvisational playmaking ability.
Working behind an OL unit still in progress (more on that to come), Young displayed a lethal skill-set to extend plays with light, quick feet. The sophomore doesn’t have elite size, but he is a smooth, agile athlete, and his mobility, both as a passer and a runner, will definitely be an asset in 2021, especially in the Tide’s heavy RPO scheme.
And yet, the quarterback competition isn’t *completely* over, as Saban wouldn’t shut the door this spring, simply saying Young “is the quarterback right now.”
While Paul Tyson received the second-team reps on A-Day, freshman early enrollee Jalen Milroe has reportedly turned lots of heads this spring. ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit couldn’t stop raving about Milroe’s potential on the broadcast — this despite Milroe not playing in the game due to undisclosed reasons.
Barring an injury though, Young will be Alabama’s starter this fall. Although he wasn’t perfect on A-Day (he held the ball a bit too long at times, botched an end-of-half situation and also had a few too many wayward throws), he’s a natural fit for what the Tide want to do offensively and he has a very high ceiling. Should Milroe continue his impressive showing and have a really strong preseason camp, it simply gives Saban another option to toy with behind center.
Could 12 personnel become a bigger factor in Alabama’s base offense?
Sure seems like it.
Under former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, Alabama was largely a base 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) unit, but with former NFL head coach Bill O’Brien now calling the plays, the Tide appear suited to mix in more 2 tight end sets. And that makes sense, too, because they have two really intriguing talents at the position.
Once again, Alabama is loaded at tailback, with as many as six guys competing for carries, but its two-headed tight end tandem consists of a potential 1st-rounder in Jahleel Billingsley, a 6-4, 230-pound matchup nightmare, and an intriguing third-year tight end Cameron Latu, who had folks buzzing all spring.
Throughout the 15 practices, O’Brien worked on utilizing Billingsley and Latu on the field together, lining up Billingsley in a variety of spots — true in-line tight end, split in the slot, H-back, etc. That was the case again on A-Day, as multiple formations produced several explosive plays in the scrimmage confusing Alabama’s defense, including a big busted pass play to tailback Roydell Willams and a 57-yard touchdown to Latu. Latu also had a drop but overall flashed real upside, earning most improved player honors after the spring game.
With a continued emphasis on vertical shots down the middle of the field, look for Alabama to work Billingsley and Latu on the field together much more than compared to the offense’s 2 tight end sets in 2020.
Bryce Young and Cameron Latu have now hooked up for touchdowns in each of Alabama’s three spring scrimmages. Connected for two in the first scrimmage, then one last week and now one already today. pic.twitter.com/yiQ1Q6iLT0
— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) April 17, 2021
So what does that mean for the Tide’s young receiver room?
It’s still a filthy football factory — and that’s compliment, not a pejorative — set to produce many more stars in the years to come, including this fall.
With leading returning wideout John Metchie III not participating this spring, it gave some fresh faces ample opportunities to build chemistry with Young.
Slot receiver Shane Bolden looks like a valuable safety valve for a young quarterback, but it was a recent top recruit who received the most attention Saturday.
Freshman Agiye Hall was one of the stars of A-Day, showcasing his elite body control and strong hands on a couple big receptions. The 6-3, 190-pound wideout led the Tide with 4 catches for 72 yards in the spring game, and that was with a 28-yard reception that taken off the board due to a holding penalty. On ESPN’s broadcast, Saban mentioned Hall’s “juice” and said the freshman is already one of the most explosive playmakers at Alabama.
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) April 17, 2021
The high-upside potential in the Tide’s receiver room doesn’t end with Hall, though. While some natural growing pains will occur due to inexperience, JoJo Earle, Javon Baker, Traeshon Holden, Xavier Williams, Jacorey Brooks and Christian Leary are all former blue-chip recruits who are battling for playing time to continue the legacy set by recent (and future) 1st-rounders like Calvin Ridley, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.
So it’s a young group, but the Tide are well-stocked at the position and should have no problems finding a quality rotation of playmakers.
Can the OL find a cohesive starting 5?
With the offensive line dealing with various injuries throughout the spring, Alabama wasn’t able to get a real look at its potential first-team unit.
Young was harassed throughout A-Day, and that was a theme all spring — the Tide’s pass rushers typically overwhelmed a green offensive line that hasn’t meshed.
Right now, new position coach Doug Marrone can pencil in 3 starters, with mammoth left tackle Evan Neal back, as well as center Chris Owens and right guard Emil Ekiyor, but there’s a big opening at right tackle, which could be manned by a freshman. There’s also a steady competition ongoing at left guard.
Notably, Saban was not overly concerned with the OL’s pass pro issues this spring, specifically citing a lack of continuity with multiple guys out or dinged up.
The group isn’t lacking available options, but with Miami on deck for the season-opener, Marrone will need to make the most of fall camp to determine who his best 5 lineman are.
Who looks poised to be the Tide’s next breakout playmaker?
Hall would be an easy answer, same for Billingsley or Metchie, but I’m going to cheat a bit and tab two lesser-known tailbacks who had really strong springs and should absolutely factor into a crowded rotation this fall: Roydell Willams and Jase McClellan.
With workhorse Najee Harris off to the NFL, the Tide are going to rotate ‘backs this fall. That much is certain: Senior Brian Robinson is the presumed starter, but he isn’t promised a heavy workload with so many options behind him.
It’s clear that O’Brien wants versatile tailbacks, capable of producing productive (and explosive) plays as a runner and receiver, and Williams and McClellan fit that mold.
Williams, a physical, power ‘back, and McClellan, a home run speedster, both finished with more than 100 total scrimmage yards on A-Day and complemented each other’s skill-sets quite well. Neither qualify as future “stars” just yet, but they look like names to know come the fall.