With fall camp set to begin on Thursday, its time to take a look at which questions and position battles are foremost on our minds headed into the 2011 season. The quarterback battle is the most obvious, but with Nick Saban on the record as saying both A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims will get a chance in game situations, that's one that isn't likely to be settled until at least Penn State (or possibly later). But that's not the only pressing concern for the Tide, so here's a quick check list of what we'll be watching for once practice begins.
The staff is fond of experimenting with the roster, especially early on in camp, and allowing players to work at different positions to gain a greater familiarity with the different assignments of the players around them. Most of them don't stick, but there are a few that may be necessary due to depth concerns. We've already talked at length about the depth at running back, but will we see anyone switching to RB simply to add bodies to the rotation? Blake Sims surprised us all by sticking at QB, but he's a camp arm at best and unless there's a special Wildcat package for him or we have a disastrous run of injuries under center, I wouldn't look for him to get any game snaps at QB any time soon. Making the switch to RB could be his fastest route to playing time. Brent Calloway wanted a shot at playing RB, and it looks like he's going to get it despite being heavily recruited as a LB. Chris Jordan was recruited as a running back but immediately moved over to defense. He's played very well at LB, but he's been a career backup thus far and we're pretty deep at ILB. The question facing Jordan is would the staff move a consistent contributor on defense in his senior season to a position where he'll be fourth string at best just to have a warm body on the practice field?
The most obvious concern here is where will Barrett Jones stick. With Saban indicating he will work at both LT and RG throughout fall, the offensive line could be a work in progress even as the season begins. Jones represents probably the safest/most consistent bet at LT right now, especially considering the unsettled QB situation. The problem is he's just not a true tackle and the staff will have to weigh the risk/reward of allowing someone with a bigger upside but less experience (Tyler Love for example, or even true freshman Cyrus Kouandjio) to take over at LT and allow Jones to move back to the RG spot he's excelled at over the past two seasons. Further, whither Alfred McCullough? He's been a top backup his whole career, but it's a now or never season for him, and if Jones is really going to stick at LT, can he win the RG spot over Anthony Steen?
Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks are the known quantities here, but with Hanks sitting the first two games it's a golden opportunity for someone else to step up and prove themselves. We're desperate for a third (and fourth) receiver, so will DeAndrew White build on an impressive spring and work his way into the offense? Can Duron Carter pick up enough of the offense to be a significant contributor? Will Brandon Gibson finally carve out a role for himself?
With Preston Dial gone, who steps in as the "pass catching" TE next to Michael Williams? Brad Smelley is a solid receiving threat, but he hasn't been the whole package like Colin Peek or Dial before him. Has he improved his blocking enough to step into the H-Back role? How about Chris Underwood? This is his senior year, so it's now or never if he's going to play a significant role on offense. Has Brian Vogler developed into enough of a playmaker from the TE position? Considering the TE has become such an important role in our offense, finding a consistent playmaker next to Williams that can be a security blanket for a new QB is one of the most underrated questions of camp.
We've spent a lot of time talking about the concerns up front on defense, and this is arguably the biggest question we'll be facing in camp and even early into the season. Josh Chapman and Damian Square are the only two linemen with a consistent track record, so who knows how the rotation will end up come September. Biggest questions will be who will step up at DE and can Jesse Williams develop enough over the course of fall camp to be a meaningful contributor behind Chapman. Both Adrian Hubbard and Ed Stinson have shown real progress at DE, while incoming freshman D.J. Pettway has been singled out by his teammates for his work over the summer. Quinton Dial also bears watching.
Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are the givens here, and even though LB is our deepest position on the team there are still plenty of questions to be asked. How big of a role will C.J. Mosely play after a solid true freshman season? Has Nico Johnson improved his pass coverage enough to be an every down player next to Hightower? How will Jerrell Harris handle his final year of eligibility? How much playing time, if any, will we see from Trey DePriest?
With DeQuan Menzie emerging as our best corner over the spring, what do we do about Dee Milliner? He started most of last season and played well (excusing a couple of true freshman moments, of course), but with Menzie and Kirkpatrick looking like the top two, where does that leave him? Do we move him to Star and keep Menzie outside? Further, what about Will Lowery? He played well for a walk on and even started in Barron's place in the Capital One Bowl. Does he still have a role, or will one of the super stud signees like Jarrick Williams, Nick Perry, or even true freshmen Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix surpass him in fall?
Finally, with Trent Richardson and Marquis Maze set to take on bigger roles on offense will the staff risk letting them continue to return kicks in 2011? If not, who gives us the best options there in their place?