With Fall camp now over and with the Tide beginning preparations for the Virginia Tech Hokies, we can now get a better idea of exactly which players from the incoming class are likely to see playing time as true freshmen. The level of recruiting hype a player receives is generally indicative of his likelihood to play early, but as we will see, that is not always the case, and you at least have to wait until the end of Fall camp to get a more accurate measure of a player. With that in mind, here is how I see how the incoming recruits looking right now:
Guaranteed To Play
James Carpenter: The only non-true freshman of the group, the JUCO transfer Carpenter is guaranteed to play in 2009 more so than any other signee. JUCO players only get interest from Saban if he feels they can make an impact immediately, and to that end Carpenter grabbed the starting left tackle job by the third practice of the Spring. The only thing that could keep him from playing, and starting, in 2009, is a season-ending injury (a standard caveat that obviously applies to everyone). He's as much of a lock to play as you can ever get.
Dre Kirkpatrick: The five-star cornerback, and consensus top player in the state of Alabama, has more than lived up to the recruiting hype to date. Unlike the highly-touted flameout cornerback recruit of the 2008 recruiting class, Alonzo Lawrence, Kirkpatrick has wowed everyone in his short time in Tuscaloosa -- reporting a month late due to academic issues didn't slow him down -- and even Coach Saban said he has done "extremely well." A pulled muscle kept him out of the last scrimmage, but even with a very deep defensive backfield, Kirkpatrick is going to play immediately, and if he can stay healthy, he will likely see tons of meaningful playing time.
Likely To Play
Kevin Norwood: Late last October, a few felt that Norwood was the #1 wide receiver on Alabama's recruiting board -- even if the recruiting "experts" weren't so high on him -- and he has shown why those people felt that way with his strong camp performance. Norwood has drawn rave reviews from both players and coaches, and with two great scrimmage performances, it's almost a given that he will play. Only the sheer depth of Alabama's receiver corps is keeping Norwood from being a lock to play at this point, but even so he's a virtual certainty to see plenty of playing time in the first month of the season.
Trent Richardson: Prior to his sprained shoulder, Richardson would have been guaranteed to play at this point. Thanks to that injury, I've downgraded him slightly, but if initial reports are correct then the injury is nothing overly serious, and he should be good to go for the Virginia Tech game. With Roy Upchurch being knicked up as well -- plus the fact that he has never made it through an entire season healthy -- the third back in the rotation is guaranteed to be a highly valuable commodity, and Richardson seemingly has that spot locked up. Unless the shoulder injury is more serious than initially thought, or unless it becomes a recurring issue, expect Richardson to play a good bit in 2009, and even more if Upchurch cannot remain healthy.
Nico Johnson: Many felt that Johnson was the best prep linebacker prospect the state of Alabama has turned out since Cornelius Bennett, and he has not disappointed in camp. He's big, fast, physical, and has shown a good knowledge of the game to boot. Had the linebacker corps not been the deepest it has been in Tuscaloosa in ages, Johnson would be guaranteed to play, but even so he's too talented to keep off the field. At the very least, he'll see spot duty on defense and he'll be a special teams standout.
Kerry Murphy: As was the case with Richardson, Murphy would have been guaranteed to play prior to the murder of his brother. Nevertheless, it's still almost a given that Murphy will play. He may work in slowly at first, but he'll likely see reps at some point this season. Thanks to the extended period of time it took him to get to Tuscaloosa, Murphy will be eligible for the upcoming 2010 NFL Draft, and if he takes a redshirt and then plays out the remainder of his eligibility, he'll effectively be a seventh-year senior. Expect the staff to get as much out of him as we can, and him get some snaps somewhere in 2009.
On The Bubble
Tana Patrick: The Andalusia standout is almost everything that Nico Johnson is -- to be sure, a tad bit less mobile, but a tad bit bigger too -- and he too has impressed immediately in Tuscaloosa. As was the case with Johnson, he would be guaranteed to play if not for the depth of the linebacker corps, but even so he's going to make a legitimate shot at playing time, and he could easily go either way. Surely we would like to redshirt Patrick, but he could provide valuable snaps on defense, and be a special teams standout to boot, and the staff may simply reach a point to where they can no longer keep him on the sideline.
Darrington Sentimore: The Destrehan product had a prolific prep background, and he has backed up it since arriving in Tuscaloosa by earning praise from several upperclass members of the offensive line. Moreover, Sentimore is a particularly useful prospect because he is versatile enough to move inside on passing downs, but he can also provide a rush off the edge, all the while being a solid run defender. He should eventually be a star in Tuscaloosa, but a redshirt remains a legitimate possibility simply because the defensive line has so much depth. As is the case with so many others, in just about any other year in the past two decades, Sentimore would play as a true freshman. This year... ?
Anthony Steen: Considered a very impressive physical specimen, Steen came in ready to play physically as a true freshman, and he has had a very impressive Fall camp. In fact, most recently, he has been taking reps as the back-up left guard behind Mike Johnson, and he has moved himself into a position where he may play this year. We have other linemen that we could play, and the preference is clearly to redshirt him, but Steen has impressed and could see some early playing time, especially if we run into some injuries along the interior line.
Rod Woodson: The Olive Branch native has the reputation of being a high-end athlete and an absolute headhunter in the secondary, a reputation he has lived up to in Fall camp. Some minor arthroscopic shoulder surgery slowed him a bit, but he's healthy now and making a case of his own to play early. We really have five quality safeties right now -- Justin Woodall, Mark Barron, Robby Green, Ali Sharrief, and Tyrone King -- so we shouldn't really need him on defense (unless the injury bug hits hard). That said, however, Woodson has the raw athleticism and sheer physical style of play needed to be a true impact player on special teams, and his abilities there may very well prove him too valuable to remain on the sidelines.
Jonathon Atchison: After spurning Auburn for the Tide, most thought Atchison would need some time in the S&C program before earning playing time, but after he showed up in Tuscaloosa at over 220 pounds, that line of thinking went out the window. Atchison is a good athlete who played against good competition at the prep level, and he worked hard enough in the off-season to get to where he needs to be physically in order to play. Obviously the depth of the linebacker corps is hurting his case, but our thinnest position is likely Sam -- where Atchison should end up -- and he too could be a very good special teams player as well. Every year someone plays as a true freshman because of their abilities on special teams, and Atchison may be that guy this year.
D.J. Fluker: As much as I'm sure the coaching staff loathes the thought of doing so -- a redshirt means Fluker becomes draft eligible after only two seasons of playing time for the Tide -- the smart money now seems on the gargantuan tackle taking a redshirt. He has shown off his raw ability at times this Fall, and is still fully expected to be a superstar in due time. That said, he clearly still needs technical refinement (particularly with edge rushers), and we are generally deep at the tackle position. As of right now, Fluker looks to be running with the third team at tackle. Obviously the light could go on for him at any time and he be on the field in a big way a week later -- his raw size and talent is that exceptional -- but for now the smart money looks to be on Fluker redshirting in 2009.
Michael Bowman: Most thought Bowman was the most likely to play of the incoming receiver class, and he has generally looked good in camp. His biggest issue, more than anything else, has been the general lack of playing time available at wide receiver. With Kevin Norwood having such a big camp and likely earning playing time in his own right, that just doesn't leave much to go around. Bowman is clearly good enough to play now, but at some point it becomes an issue of diminishing marginal returns. Unless the injury bug really hits, the problem becomes that you end up wasting a year of eligibility for Bowman for all of five catches. Thus, a redshirt seems likely.
Kendall Kelly: Kelly is largely in the same boat as Bowman... good prospect, just not enough playing time to go around. The Gadsden City standout has recovered nicely from hip surgery, and just having him on campus at this point is a plus -- remember, many thought he would grayshirt because of the injury -- but a redshirt still seems likely. As with Bowman, he could play if needed, but again it's an issue of diminishing marginal returns.
Chris Bonds: The best news of all with Bonds is that he reported healthy to Tuscaloosa, as injuries have always been his major shortcoming. Given that injury history, I'm sure that the staff's preference is that he redshirts in 2009, and with the tremendous depth on the defensive line, barring injuries there is just no real need to play him now.
Eddie Lacy: Many thought Lacy would play in 2009, but after only receiving four carries in the final scrimmage -- mixed with the apparent resurgence of Terry Grant -- it seems that the staff has him heading for a redshirt season. He is clearly ready physically, and he would play in any other year, but the real concern is that, barring injuries, Lacy just wouldn't see many carries. Again, it's an issue of diminishing marginal returns... you waste a year of eligibility on a high-end player just to get all of 25 carries (most of which come in garbage time). He may still play if the injury to Richardson turns out to be more serious, but for now he seems headed for a redshirt.
A.J. McCarron: The highly-touted prep standout impressed nearly everyone immediately, and made a legitimate challenge for the back-up job as a true freshman. Nevertheless, he received significantly fewer snaps than any other quarterback in the final scrimmage, and the staff is seemingly prepping him for a redshirt season. At this point, it seems that only a significant, long-term injury to McElroy -- mixed with bad showings from Darrah and Jackson -- will put McCarron on the field this season. For now, McCarron seems most likely to be running the scout team offense in 2009.
William Ming: The Athens star went a bit unheralded in the 2009 recruiting class only because of the quality of talent surrounding him (both Rivals and Scout had him as a four-star). He's not an elite athlete, but much like Bobby Greenwood, he's a solid athlete with high intelligence and a great work ethic. He'll make an impact before he leaves Tuscaloosa, but with the depth on the defensive line, there's no real reason to waste a year of eligibility.
Brandon Moore: As was the case with Ming, Moore could have gone just about anywhere in the country before picking the Tide, and he's a versatile player who could star on either side of the ball. He has good athleticism, and as a defensive lineman (where he started at UA) he could play either inside or outside. He's had a good camp thus far, but as with Ming, there's just too much depth on the defensive line to waste a year of eligibility.
Mike Marrow: The Ohio native showed up in Tuscaloosa physically ready for the SEC, and he could make contributions on special teams, so it's not completely out of the realm of possibility that he will play. Nevertheless, we have a lot of big, physical guys for the H-back / tight end position right now -- Michael Williams, Undra Billingsley, Baron Huber, etc. -- so we shouldn't need him this year, barring injuries. A redshirt is the smart money as of this writing.
Ed Stinson: After reporting at nearly 250 pounds, Stinson is probably a lot closer to playing physically than many expected he would be at this point, and he could find some playing time early as an edge pass rusher and a special teams contributor. Still, depth at the Jack linebacker position is good right now, and he would clearly benefit from a year in the S&C program. As with Marrow, he could play if needed, but a redshirt is the most likely scenario right now.
Chance Warmack: The early enrollee impressed everyone this Spring, and made things better by dropping about 30 pounds in the off-season S&C program. Nevertheless, he has seemingly lost the right guard battle to Barrett Jones, and we have some other guard prospects who could play in a pinch, if needed, in order to save his redshirt. Moreover, at this point, I think the odds are better that Steen would play as a true freshman, though again the preference would be to redshirt him too. As is the case with so many, Warmack could play if needed, but hopefully that won't happen.
Kenny Bell: The Louisiana speedster impressed several in summer workouts and early in Fall camp, but unfortunately he has shin splints, and the only thing that will sufficiently heal that injury is rest. He is going to miss the latter part of Fall practice, and with the depth of the wide receiver corps -- not to mention that he needed to bulk up regardless -- there is no reason to expect Bell to play in 2009. He'll take a redshirt and look to make an impact in 2010.
This survey of the 2009 recruiting class is, of course, just speculation for right now. Nevertheless, I think the aforementioned is a pretty solid take on things. The 2009 class was undoutedly a very good one, and quite a few members are going to play. I imagine somwhere between eight and twelve members could legitimately play as true freshmen, but the number is likely going to be down somewhat from last year. As the Tide continues to add quality depth, more and more players who otherwise would have been forced into immediate action will instead get the luxury of a redshirt year to grow and develop as prospects.