As promised, the following is an in-depth Spring preview for the offense on a position-by-position basis:
Though talk for months has centered on the speculative demise of John Parker Wilson, he nevertheless comes into Spring practice as the likely front-runner. Wilson struggled a good bit this past season, as we all know, but the truth is it will be very difficult for anyone to overtake a senior quarterback with twenty-six starts on his resume. Though most do not want to hear it, all of the talk of Wilson's demise may very well be premature and / or unfounded.
Greg McElroy and Nick Fanuzzi will be given the opportunity to win the starting job. Unfortunately, neither were able to mount any legitimate challenge to Wilson's reign last year, and they may very well not be able to do it this year either. McElroy has only one year of starting experience in his lifetime -- as a senior in high school -- and Fanuzzi, though easily the most athletically gifted of the bunch, still needs a lot of development as a passer. Given that new offensive coordinator Jim McElwain is likely to bring a relatively complex spread offense with him, that might not bode particularly well for either McElroy or Fanuzzi.
At the very least, it seems that Wilson will be given the opportunity to secure his lock on the starting position going into the summer workouts and fall practice sessions. To be sure, he likely needs to improve both mechanics and decision making to secure the starting position in 2008, but I don't think anyone should be surprised if Wilson made some nice progress over the coming weeks and months. Everyone should remember that McElwain engineered the dramatic turnaround in performance of Fresno State quarterback Tom Brandstater a year ago, and it wouldn't be overly shocking if that were to happen this year with Wilson.
However, it should be noted that if at the end of Spring practice we still see Wilson continuing the dumb play, all bets are off going into the Fall.
It's hard to imagine a more wide open situation than what we currently have at tailback. The two largest contributors in the 2007 rushing attack -- Glen Coffee and Terry Grant -- both have a good bit of work to do if they expect to continue to be the two main cogs in the 2008 rushing attack. Grant had injury issues on down the stretch, and even without the injuries he was nevertheless in Saban's doghouse for not allowing run plays to properly develop. Moreover, his size probably means he will never be an every-down back. Coffee is a bit different. He's not explosive and doesn't have breakaway speed, but at under 200 pounds he is a bit too light to be the effective inside runner we need, and besides you can't have your grinding runner putting the ball on the ground consistently, a football sin Coffee was all too often guilty of a year ago. Good luck figuring that one out.
The other two players, Roy Upchurch and Demetrius Goode, are harder to figure because we haven't seen them as much. Without doubt, Upchurch is the most talented tailback on the entire roster, and he has the physical tools needed to be a star. Unfortunately, he has never been able to translate that raw talent into actual on-field production, and that shortcoming may continue into 2008. Demetrius Goode, on the other hand, was a true freshman almost certainly destined to play last season, but a torn ACL ended his campaign before he as much as broke a sweat in the first practice session.
Injuries will also play a significant role in how this all shakes out. Demetrius Goode is coming off of the aforementioned torn ACL, and Terry Grant suffered a sports hernia down the stretch last season. Also, Coffee himself had shoulder surgery as well. I thought all three would be limited this Spring -- i.e. held out of some or all contact work -- but according to Coach Saban in his most recent press conference, they are generally healthy and ready to go. That doesn't quite seem right, but he obviously knows much more about it than I do. Still, there's no guarantee that either of these guys will be 100%, and it could have an impact on things.
All told, it's put-up or shut-up time for these guys. It's obvious given the massive amount of tailbacks that Saban signed in the 2008 recruiting class that the ol' Nicktator is not all that pleased with his current stable of backs, and if these guys don't make a move soon, they run the risk of being left behind. Even with Jimmy Johns at linebacker, and assuming Jermaine Preyear doesn't qualify, we are still looking at seven scholarship tailbacks on the roster when Fall practice begins. I'll let you do the math on that one.
Bottom line for Spring practice, it's time to prove yourself if you want to play. And if you are one of those players who grabs a starting spot, you better get ready to hold off a very talented stable of backs that will be arriving in August.
Coming into the Spring, just like a year ago, the fullback may very well be a starter in name only. Major Applewhite made little use of a fullback in his offense a year ago, and generally substituted another wide receiver or another tight end in its place. Even though Applewhite is now back in Austin, it doesn't seem like a whole lot will change in that sense. Of all of the film I've seen of Jim McElwain's offense, about the only time you will see a fullback on the field is in short-yardage situations and I doubt that will change very much with McElwain now residing in Tuscaloosa.
Baron Huber was the "starter" at fullback last year, and early in the season he played fairly well, but later in the year he generally found himself watching from the sidelines. It's not that Huber isn't a good traditional I-formation fullback, it's just that we don't use that. He would have probably been a very good player had Mike Shula not been fired, but he's essentially just a run blocker and nothing else. Aside from the abilities as a lead blocker, he really doesn't bring a whole lot else to the table, and as a result the coaching staff has been going more towards a more explosive threat via a tight end or a third receiver. If Huber could expand his repertoire to include an effective rushing threat, a good pass blocker, or an effective receiver out of the backfield, he would probably see more playing time, but I don't think that will happen.
Jeramie Griffin is the much more interesting option. He was one of the top fullbacks in the country coming out of high school, and unlike Huber he is actually a very athletic player in his own right. All told, Griffin is more of a tailback / fullback hybrid than a traditional I-formation fullback who functions mainly as a lead blocker. In short, he can add an explosive threat to the offense from the fullback position, and if he comes around that may very well coax the coaching staff into using him at fullback much more. At the very least, we should all be keeping a very close eye on the progress of Griffin this Spring, he has the potential to be a special player, and he may very well change the way we use the fullback in our offense.
No position on the entire roster returns more players than the tight end position, and if any position should be solidified going into the 2007 season it should be this one. The two major contributors from a year ago -- Nick Walker and Travis McCall -- return, as do Preston Dial, Charles Hoke, and Colin Peek. It all makes for a very solid and deep, even if not spectacular, rotation going into year two of the Saban era.
The tight ends were abysmal in the passing game in 2006, but things improved greatly in 2007. Nick Walker shed about 40 pounds, and it paid off for him as a receiving threat. With another year of progress, he could very well emerge as one of the best tight ends in the conference, and he may very well be able to set himself up to play in the NFL one day. The biggest concern with Walker is ball security, as he had several fumbles last year when he absolutely refused to go down when being gang-tackled. That may be impressive to some, but it's a dumb move from a football perspective, and naturally it just resulted in the ball being frequently stripped. If he can improve ball security, though, and continue to make a bit more overall progress, Walker may very well have the best season we've had in ages for a tight end.
The other tight end position is a bit less certain. Travis McCall started last year, and while he's a good blocker, he's not really a threat in the passing game. Charles Hoke is a complete non-factor, and to be frank I'm not entirely sure he'll even be around this Fall. Colin Peek will probably have to sit out the season after transferring from Georgia Tech. Chris Underwood is seemingly a nice project, but we really don't have a clue on him just yet. At the end of the day, though he doesn't add very much to the passing game, it seems like Travis McCall is likely to continue to play a lot at tight end opposite Walker.
The one to follow in all of this is Preston Dial. He was one of the state's top prospects coming out of high school, and he easily has the most athleticism of any of the current crop at tight end. He could very well give us a receiving threat like we have not seen in ages at tight end / H-back, and we have to hope he can come through on that. He had a great Spring last season, but for whatever reason it didn't carry over into the Fall. If the rising sophomore can turn all of that collective talent into on-field production, he could very well team with Walker to form a very potent duo in the passing game.
Aside from defensive end, which we will cover in a later piece, there might be more concern at offensive tackle than anywhere else on the entire roster.
Andre Smith, of course, will start at left tackle, that's a given. Now, Smith's ideal position may very well be guard, but we desperately need him at tackle, so that is where he will stay.
Mike Johnson will undoubtedly come out of Spring as the starter at right tackle. And honestly that's a bit of a concern. In all fairness, Johnson projects much better at guard than he does at tackle, but we just do not have the depth to move him there. At tackle, Johnson is simply a fish out of water. He does fairly well against the poor to mediocre competition, but once we faced the teams in 2007 with great rush ends with a lot of speed and athleticism -- Georgia, FSU, LSU, etc. -- Johnson looked like a Pinto trying to keep up with a Porsche. I like what I see from him in the running game, but from all of the film I've watched on him he simply does not have the agility or the athleticism to keep up with good pass rushing defensive ends. Again though, Johnson is guaranteed to be a starter coming out of Spring practice.
The real problem we have at tackle is a complete lack of depth. Aside from Smith and Johnson, the only other scholarship tackle currently on the roster is Drew Davis, and to say he's a mile behind the two starters would probably be a bit of an understatement. Beyond Davis, we're probably going to have to move one of the guards -- I imagine Taylor Pharr would be a good possibility -- to tackle just so we can split up the squad and scrimmage. Again, it all combines to guarantee that Mike Johnson, for all his faults, will easily come out of the Spring as the starter at right tackle. The real battle at right tackle won't start until this Fall when Tyler Love arrives at the Capstone.
Interior Offensive Line
For all of the concerns we have at tackle, things look pretty good on the interior offensive line. Two starters from a year ago, Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis, return for the 2008 campaign, and that is a big positive. Gone is Justin Britt, but that's probably not much of a loss. To be sure, Britt was a hard-working, tenacious player, but he was also small for a guard and he also had some injury issues.
Moreover, the young depth looks very good. Both Patrick Crump and William Vlachos -- each of which were heavily recruited coming out of high school -- have drawn praise throughout their true freshmen campaigns. Coach Saban has singled them out for praise before, and I've also read several player quotes stating essentially the same thing. Beyond that, Evan Cardwell is a nice addition. He's small for a center, and that hurts him, but even so it's very nice to have enough quality depth on the roster to where you can legitimately say even the back-ups have starting experience in SEC play.
The only problem is that things are very difficult to project at this point. It's not a legitimate problem mind you -- at least not in a football sense -- it just makes it difficult for one to speculate as to exactly how the line will look coming out of Spring. Antoine Caldwell is the big question mark. He could play all five positions, but it's a pretty safe bet that he will be at either center or guard when all is said or done. Given that little tidbit of knowledge, I think we can relatively safely project two possible configurations for the line in 2008. If Caldwell stays at center, Marlon Davis will likely start at right guard, and then Patrick Crump and William Vlachos will battle it out to see who starts at left guard. On the other hand, if Caldwell moves to left guard, we will probably see William Vlachos start at center, Marlon Davis starting at right guard, and Patrick Crump will be the primary back-up for both guards. Either way, it seems that we will have Davis starting at right guard, and some variation of Caldwell and Crump / Vlachos starting at center and left guard.
Again, though, even though it's difficult to project how things will precisely work out, you do have to love all of that talented depth that we have on the interior offensive line. Without trying to overstate things, I think our situation at center and guard is better than anything we've seen in Tuscaloosa in several years.
From the outset, we should make things perfectly clear on the wide receiver position, and the fact that there will be two battles. We currently have a group of wide receivers on the roster who will fight it out for starting spots through Spring practice. And then that same group is going to have to fight like Hell to keep those starting spots when the greatest wide receiver recruiting class in Alabama football history hits the field in August.
For now, though, we have to replace our top three receivers from a year ago, but thankfully have a good bit of talent to work with. Nikita Stover has played a good bit the past couple of years, though honestly he hasn't entirely lived up to his potential as of yet. Earl Alexander is still raw -- he was a quarterback in high school -- but he has the physical tools to be an absolute beast. Both Marquis Maze and Brandon Gibson were highly-touted recruits from a year ago, and you also have to consider Darius Hanks. Plus you have to factor in Mike McCoy and Chris Jackson, the latter of which enrolled early and will participate in Spring practice, and I think another Jackson showed us just how valuable that could be a year ago.
So how does it all play out in the Spring?
It's hard to say, but I imagine that Nikita Stover and Darius Hanks will probably emerge as the front-runners at wide receiver. Stover is a senior, is the most experienced of the bunch, and he played a good bit on down the stretch last year anyway. It only makes sense that he will parlay that into a starting job during the Spring. Hanks is a bit tougher of a read, but it makes sense. If you look at his combine numbers as a recruit, he has as much athleticism as just about anyone in the country, he just wasn't as highly-touted because of a broken leg during his junior season. Even so, he has good speed, good size, and on several occasions several different players were quoted this past season talking about how he wowed everyone in practice. It's all speculative, of course, but I'd say the smart money is on him.
As for everyone else, though, there's a lot of raw talent, and I wouldn't be shocked if any of them made a move up the depth chart this Spring. If nothing else, it's great to see so much talent at the skill positions. However, regardless of what happens in the Spring, everyone's eyes should be turned to the incoming recruiting class. They have an unreal amount of talent, we have little returning experience anyway, and it's probably easier to play early at wide receiver than at any other position on the field. Regardless of what happens in the Spring, beating out the returning receivers may be the easy part. The hard part may very well be holding off the likes of Julio Jones, Melvin Ray, and others.