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Alabama Spring Football 2013 Preview: Receivers

Alabama was so stocked at wide receiver in 2012 that it absorbed three major injuries to players in the two-deep, plus a twisted ankle to star Amari Cooper, and barely even showed the effects. Well guess what. Not only is every important wideout coming back, but major new talent is arriving both there and at tight end/H-back. Stand by, boys, this could be good.

Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

Poor Marvin Shinn. An Under-Armour All-American at Vigor High School in Pritchard, Alabama, the 6’3", 198-pound Shinn just looks like a receiver. But in 2011, he couldn’t win enough playing time to avoid the redshirt, and in 2012 it was only the aforementioned rash of injuries that got him onto the field. Shinn looked like a solid young possession receiver when he got playing time.

That wasn’t enough, and my best guess is that he would be no better than 8th on Alabama’s ridiculous wideout depth chart this year if he were to stick around. Less than shockingly, Shinn is not working out with the team, and is widely expected to transfer. That’s a sad story, but the story of who is left behind is a very happy one for Tide fans.

It starts with 6’1", 195 Amari Cooper, whose 59 catches, 16.9 yards per catch, and 11 receiving TDs topped Julio Jones’ freshman totals of 58, 15.9 and 4, respectively, even though Jones started the whole season and Cooper didn’t start until game 5 and was slowed part of the season by an ankle sprain. Cooper got better as the season went along: over the last 9 games of the season, the fleet freshman Floridian hauled in 50 catches for 862 yards, 17.2 yards per catch, with 10 TDs, and over the last 5 games it was 27 catches at 19.5 yards per catch, with 6 TDs.

Cooper’s blazing speed is hidden by a deceptively smooth gate. His hands are as good as his legs, and when there is competition for a catch he aggressively attacks balls in the air. (Yeah, check out that photo.) Amari bids to follow in Julio’s steps and become a rare Alabama All-American wide receiver.

While Cooper is clearly the pick of the litter, Alabama’s roster is cluttered with experienced quality wide receivers. Kevin Norwood was AJ McCarron’s #2 target last year, at least during the small part of the season when he was not hobbled by the foot injury he experienced in game 4 against Arkansas. Norwood missed two games and was limited in several others, yet still grabbed 29 balls for 4 TDs, averaging a healthy 15.9 yards per catch. His 3 grabs for 66 yards against Notre Dame gave him 7 catches for 144 yards in BCS championship games on his career. The 6’2" 198-pound Norwood has the body and determination to work in traffic, and his ability to turn it deep on occasion makes him even more effective in the possession role.

DeAndrew White, 6’0", 185, battled Norwood at the top of the depth chart early in the season, but tore an ACL in the September Ole Miss game and missed the rest of the season. White caught 8 balls for 105 yards and 2 TDs before his season was cut short. He has a remarkable ability to climb the ladder for jump balls, but will likely have to climb the depth chart this season, as 11 months typically isn’t quite enough rehab time to get to 100% from an ACL.

Kenny Bell returns as a proven deep threat. Before missing the last 2-1/2 games of the season with a stress fracture to his left leg, the 6’1" 180-pound Bell hauled in 17 receptions for a stellar 25.4 yards per catch average and 3 TDs. His injury came just as McCarron’s confidence in the deep throw was starting to peak, and he is an odds-on favorite to team with AJ and haul in multiple long TD strikes in 2013. Bell is expected to be fully recovered for the spring.

The injuries to Norwood, White and Bell opened a door, and the guy who came through it was 5’11", 185-pound Christion Jones, who was effectively the #2 option for a fair part of the season. Jones hauled in 27 passes for 13.6 yards per reception and 4 TDs and ran effectively after the catch, but may have to show marked improvement if he is to be targeted as many times in 2013 as he was last year. Cyrus Jones, who along with the aforementioned Shinn, stepped up in the late season when the Tide’s infirmary began to fill with fallen wideouts, is, like Shinn, likely to move along in 2013. However, in Jones’ case, he will be moving to defensive back—at least in the spring—and not to some team with a less-crowded depth chart.

Despite the return of proven wideouts like Cooper, Norwood, Bell, White and Christion Jones, talented newcomers are likely to make an impact on the depth chart. That’s partially because wideout is perhaps the easiest position on the field for a true freshman to make an impact. You don’t see many star wideouts who didn’t make some noise their first year on the field. 2012 was fairly standard in that regard: only 1 of the top 10 receivers in the SEC (by receiving yardage) redshirted as a true freshman, and the other 9 averaged 338.1 yards and 3.8 receiving TDs their first year on their respective squads.

Most likely to break into the rotation is Chris Black, a 2012 signee who was already in the two-deep when he experienced an August shoulder injury that required surgery and ultimately kept him off the field all-season. The speedy 5’11", 178-pound Black was ranked just ahead of Cooper out of high school by most recruiting services. He is healthy, and big things are expected from him.

Leading this year’s recruiting class at the position is 6’3" 187-pound Pennsylvanian Robert Foster, ranked by Rivals as the nation’s #2 high school wideout. Foster is slim but wiry and strong, and doubled as a physical safety in high school. He would appear to be somewhat in Norwood’s mold as a possession receiver who is also a deep threat. Blue-chip athlete ArDarius Stewart, a 6’1" 190-pound graduate of Fultondale High in Fultondale, Alabama, is also expected to start out at receiver. If Stewart does not make an immediate impact in August, he may move to safety, or else risk running into the same problem Marvin Shinn encountered.

Alabama often plays with two tight end-type players on the field, one called a tight end and the other an "H-back" who typically lines up a step behind the line but does not split out wide. The picture is not so rosy here: there may not be two significantly experienced players returning to start at that position, much less enough to provide experienced depth.

Three-year TE starter Michael Williams has graduated, and he will be missed. The 6’6", 269-pound Williams may not have been the most dangerous receiver ever, but he essentially served as an extra offensive tackle. Williams’ departure, along with the absence of three starting offensive linemen, will make things a little tougher both for Alabama’s running game and for McCarron’s ability to camp in the pocket and survey his targets.

The leading candidate to start at tight end is 6’7", 258-pound Brian Vogler. Vogler was listed at 2nd on the TE depth chart in 2012, but caught only 2 balls for 21 yards all season. Nevertheless, Vogler is considered more of a true receiver than was Williams, and the jury is out on how much of the slack left by the loss of Williams’ blocking ability he can pick up. The backup is expected to be 6’5", 259-pounder Malcolm Faciane, who redshirted in 2011 and did not catch a pass in 2012, although 6’4", 240-pound Kurt Freitag could push for playing time as well.

Alabama has played the H-back position in multiple ways. Last year’s starter Kelly Johnson, a senior walk-on, was pretty much a dedicated blocker, hauling in only 5 catches for 39 yards on the season. By contrast, Brad Smelley was the Tide’s 2nd-leading receiver in 2011, with 34 catches for 356 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Last year, Alabama experimented early in the season with a third way to use the position, using 6’1’, 242-pound Jalston Fowler in the old-school ball-carrying fullback role until Fowler went down with a horrific knee injury against Western Kentucky. If healthy, Fowler would likely be at the head of the H-back parade, but I have heard little about his progress from the injury and will not factor him into the 2013 depth chart until I see or hear otherwise.

If Fowler doesn't play, incoming freshman sensation O.J. Howard from Autauga, Alabama will likely start if he lives up to even part of the hype. The 6'6", 230-pound Howard has the frame to eventually play tight end, but for now should be considered as more of an extra, slightly more physical wideout, in the Smelley tradition. Howard is the highest-rated tight end Alabama has signed in a long time, a physical freak who can streak down the field and leap high to out-muscle DBs for jump balls. Howard is already on campus and if all goes as hoped, he will eventually, and perhaps in 2013, add a dimension to the position that may never have been seen at Alabama--remember that Ozzie Newsome was a wideout when he rolled with the Tide.

6'4", 244-pound Harrison Jones is next on the depth chart, but Jones has been in Tuscaloosa for 3 years and has only 1 catch for 5 yards to his name. Walk-on Corey McCarron, 6'2", 240, and the brother of Katherine Webb's boyfriend, will have an opportunity to fill what may be a depth void at the position. If all else fails, remember that H-back is an optional position.