Despite high expectations, very little set with Tide's defense
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. _ It didn’t take University of Alabama coach Nick Saban more than a couple of minutes Friday to remind reporters that the Crimson Tide won’t have a set depth chart until the first week of the regular season.
He says that at the start of every training camp, only this time there’s more to it, especially defensively. With just over three weeks of workouts to sort things out very little is settled.
“Everybody that we have on the field has an opportunity to compete,” Saban said. “Some players have had an opportunity in the past to show what they can do, so I think it’s a little more important that we look at maybe some other guys so that we have an opportunity to see what they can do.”
While Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart may have more overall talent to work with than ever before, camp will feature competition nearly across the board.
Excluding senior Jarrick Williams at the nickel spot — the defensive back when the an extra player is used the secondary — the only holdover starters from last season are junior safety Landon Collins along with linebackers Trey DePriest and Denzel Devall.
But not even Devall is sure where he’ll primarily play after staring at the hybrid linebacker/defensive spot known in Saban’s scheme as Jack, or the strongside spot where he’s been also taking reps.
“I’m still at both,” he said. “I know both positions in and out so wherever coach wants to put me at.”
The key could be if sophomore Reuben Foster can stay healthy and show that he’s ready to handle the day-to-day responsibilities at middle linebacker. Junior Reggie Ragland looked good there on A-Day and can play both Mike and Sam.
Junior Dillon Lee, junior Ryan Anderson and senior Xzavier Dickson can also line up at more than one linebacker spot as well, and not just because in Alabama’s system the middle and weakside positions, where DePriest has made 26 starts, are almost interchangeable.
Lee and Dickson worked with the outside linebackers during Friday morning’s observation period of practice while Anderson was with the interior linebackers. Pushing them, sooner or later, figure to be highly-touted prospects Rashaan Evans and Christian Miller at the outside spots, and early enrollee Shaun Dion Hamilton in the interior.
While Alabama needs to pin down two starting cornerbacks and a free safety in the secondary, things are suddenly even more uncertain on the line. Although the Crimson Tide appears to have good depth up front on paper Saban announced suspensions for senior nose guard Brandon Ivory and junior end Jarran Reed. They along with sophomore A’Shawn Robinson formulated the first unit during the spring.
Also suspended is sophomore Tim Williams, who appeared to be making strides as a pass rusher. Saban gave no indication of how long any of the suspensions might last, or what the players have to do to get reinstated.
“He’s great when he’s on the field,” Devall said about Williams.
So while the assumption is that Alabama could again have a very good defense this season, it depends on how things come together. There’s so much talent on the roster that finding roles for everyone will be a challenge for the coaching staff.
But when Saban says the Crimson Tide has a lot of question marks it’s not just rhetoric. His defensive 11 at the end of the month when Alabama opens the season in Atlanta against West Virginia could look nothing like it does now, but the coach disclosed a key determining factor: Hunger.
“I was really pleased with the way our players came back relative to how they did on the conditioning test to end their summer workout program,” Saban said. “We just need to work on the mindset of finish, mental toughness, perseverance in difficult times.”