Post-National Signing Day recruiting discussion typically involves individual player evaluations and team rankings aggregated from those individual rankings, but in this piece I want to take a closer look not at overall ability of individual players, but instead how the signees in the 2012 Alabama recruiting class look to fit into the program, identify how and where they may fill short-term needs, and in some areas speculate a bit about what certain signees suggest about some scheme changes and recruiting needs moving forward. With that in mind, I'll start with a piece focusing on the eleven offensive signees that Nick Saban and company added in this recruiting class and later in the week I'll address the defensive side of the ball in the same fashion.
Alec Morris turned out to be the quarterback signee in this class after Alabama initially missed and later withdrew on their recruitments of both Gunner Kiel and Jameis Winston. Morris is a particularly intriguing recruit because he was highly productive as a prep player against a high level of competition and has a seemingly impressive skill set. Those apparent assets, however, have to be weighed against his offer list that was quite frankly cupboard-bare outside of Alabama, a sign that many have pointed to as a major red flag.
With A.J. McCarron still having two years of eligibility remaining, there was not necessarily a short-term need to add another high-end quarterback signee in this class, but the key here will be the future plans of Phillip Sims. After leading 'Bama to a national championship, McCarron figures to have an absolute lock on the starting job now, and accordingly nearly all expected Sims would transfer out this offseason. Oddly enough, though, Sims has not only not transferred to date -- and we're past the time frame where mid-year transfers routinely occur -- but in fact there has not even been any real discussion of a potential Sims departure, an indicator that many have interpreted as portending a return for the Virginia native in 2012. Either way, if Sims actually sticks in Tuscaloosa then Alabama figures to be set at the quarterback position until at least 2014, but if he heads for the exits then someone like Morris or Phillip Ely could be forced into playing relatively early in their careers.
For obvious reasons the hope is that Sims sticks, but regardless of what he does it can be expected that Alabama will go full force in their attempt to land a high-end quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class. Morris is an intriguing prospect and may be the long-term answer, but the odds seem relatively low that the staff would definitively choose to build around him moving forward.
Moving to the backfield, replacing Trent Richardson will obviously be an exceedingly difficult task, but to help mitigate his absence Alabama signed TJ Yeldon, arguably the state's top prep tailback prospect since Carnell Williams. A Richardson clone Yeldon is not -- frankly, who is? -- but he is a very talented prospect whose skill set matches well with what Alabama has been able to generate great success with from the tailback position. At the risk of receiving the homer fan charge, Alabama's late flip of Yeldon away from in-state rival Auburn figures to be a big recruiting coup that will pay dividends in the years ahead. As an early enrollment and with questions about the ability of Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart to successfully complement Eddie Lacy -- incidentally, Brent Calloway is likely headed to the defensive side of the ball this spring -- Yeldon figures to be called on as key contributor this fall as a true freshman. Fifty to seventy-five carries in 2011 for Yeldon wouldn't be a real surprise if he can remain healthy.
Kenyan Drake was also added as a tailback, but it's harder to ascertain exactly how he plays into short-term plans. Drake is a smaller player at roughly 6'0 and 195 pounds, and playing in a spread attack at Georgia's Hillgrove High School he was more of a tailback-in-name-only. He could possibly end up contributing at tailback, but he doesn't look to be the short-term contributor that Yeldon will almost certainly be, and it's possible that Drake could end up at either wide receiver or cornerback before he leaves Tuscaloosa.
Meanwhile, 'Bama went light in the trenches, signing only three offensive line prospects, one of which, Brandon Hill, is a potential academic casualty, and another which, Caleb Gulledge, could just as easily end up on the defensive line. Hill has generated a major split of opinion based on his academic concerns and his massive size -- at 6'6 and roughly 350 pounds Hill will likely need to trim down before he gets on the field, and even if he does his natural position may be guard -- and Gulledge will need to add weight in the strength and conditioning program before he can be counted on as a contributor. All things considered, this could be perceived as one of the weakest offensive line classes signed under Nick Saban.
Dearth of offensive linemen notwithstanding, though, given the importance of the offensive tackle position in modern day college football, it has become almost a necessity that a high quality tackle prospect be signed with each class, and 'Bama held true to conventional wisdom by adding the 6'6 and 295 pound Brandon Greene. With Greene, 'Bama has a player with the athleticism and the long frame needed to play the tackle position in the SEC, so the offensive line doesn't look to be a total wash.
For the time being the short-term depth allowed the staff to focus on other areas, as both Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker, the starting tackles from 2011, return for 2012, where they will be buttressed on the depth chart by Arie and Cyrus Kouandjio. That short-term abundance of depth, however, may prove fleeting, as Jones and (likely) Fluker will not return for the 2013 season and the Kouandjio brothers have combined for three knee surgeries in the past eight months. Assuming that the Kouandjio brothers can stay healthy in 2013 there won't be an issue outside at tackle, but if they miss more time that could force Greene or a true freshman from the 2013 recruiting class to play immediately. Accordingly, expect 'Bama to load up on offensive linemen next February.
Kurt Freitag is the only true tight end signee in this class, and that move looks to be somewhat of a head scratcher. With the graduation of Brad Smelley, the Alabama offense is now seemingly lacking a true H-back on the roster, and while Freitag looks to be a solid addition he figures to grow into more of a traditional end-of-line tight end who will be more of a threat as a blocker than receiver. Does the lack of a true H-back in this class mean that Alabama will move forward under new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier with either the two tight end ace package that dominated the offense in 2008 with Nick Walker and Travis McCall or a three-wide base set where a slot receiver becomes an every-down player? Perhaps so, perhaps not, but in any event there does not seem to be a true H-back on the roster right now, and the addition of Freitag does not look to change that.
Finally, the wide receiver corps routinely struggled in 2011 and moving ahead to next season loses its two most significant contributors, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks. It's no secret that Alabama has struggled to develop talent at the wide receiver position in recent years, and with loads of playing time up for grabs going into 2012 it should come as no real surprise that Nick Saban and company signed four wide receivers in this recruiting class
Amari Cooper may be the best pure receiver of the group, and he has the size to be a major target outside. Given his early enrollment he will likely see the field this fall if he can stay healthy. Meanwhile, Chris Black and Cyrus Jones are smaller players whose physical skill sets rely heavily on speed and athleticism. Neither of those two will ever be able to address the lack of size outside, but both have talent and can potentially be long-term replacements for Maze and Hanks. Black is an early enrollment and therefore could legitimately challenge for early playing time as speedster outside to help complement Kenny Bell when the Tide spreads the field. Jones, on the other hand, won't report to Tuscaloosa until the summer, which will make it more difficult for him to contribute early, though he may be a better pure athlete than Black.
The biggest x-factor outside is Eddie Williams, the Panama City Beach native who many considered to be one of the nation's top overall prospects. At 6'4 and 205 pounds, Williams is a physical player who would quickly address the lack of size in the wide receiver corps, but the problem is that Williams is a safety by trade and many feel that is his best position at the next level. No one doubts his raw physical ability, but his assignment to the wide receiver position certainly has the feel of a forced decision and for all of the focus placed on speed and athleticism with respect to wide receivers, technical refinement is nevertheless a necessity and given that he will not enroll until this summer Williams has his work cut out for him to be a significant contributor as a true freshman. Given his raw ability it's reasonable to think he could easily be a star, but it's just as reasonable to think he could be someone who languishes on the depth chart as he struggles to acclimate himself to a new position.
Either way, for better or for worse, Alabama chose to address a glaring need at the wide receiver position by loading up on several receiver signees and the hope is that those players can come in early and turn things around for the group. Hopefully answers will be found here, but if not expect 'Bama to once again be loading up outside next February.