Thank the lord of the football gods the off-season is finally over. Fall camp begins tomorrow (players report today) and we can finally begin to put what was a rather disappointing 2013 season behind us.
Last year, heading into fall camp, the top question marks surrounding Alabama focused around the offensive line, field goal kicking and tight ends. The team had to replace two first round picks at left guard and right tackle, not to mention the all everything center/left tackle/right guard Barrett Jones. And with the departure of TE Michael Williams and the suspension of Malcome Faciane, the offense was in desperate need of a big bodied blocking tight end, which it eventually found in Brandon Greene.
Field goal kicking was more of a concern than an actual question mark with Cade Foster returning for his senior season and the addition of the highly touted freshman Adam Griffith, who we all hoped would make a push for playing time.
We also questioned the depth of the defensive line, corner and whether or not the defense could once again reload after losing Damian Square, Quinton Dial, Nico Johnson, Dee Milliner, and Jesse Williams.
Well, when the season finally ended and the dust settled after back to back losses, it was clear our questions in August became near nightmares in November and December. The offensive line played better than expected, at least at times, but fell a part late in the year, struggling to control the line of scrimmage and dominate at the point of attack. The corner rotation was not so much as a rotation as it was a swinging door of true freshman and guys who, if this were 2011 or 2012, would have never seen the field.
So, what are the biggest concerns surrounding the 2014 Alabama Crimson Tide?
Much of the same, actually.
#1 Special Teams
We'll get to the quarterbacks in just a minute. Outside of the kick off and punt return team, the state of the Alabama special team units as a whole is bleak, to say the least. In Spring, our 5th string quarterback handled the punting duties, and even with freshman JK Scott on tap and walk-ons Tuck Borie and Adrian Lamothe as potential back ups, it is still unclear who the starting punter will be against West Virginia.
After only attempting three field goals all season, and we won't speak of his final attempt of the year, Adam Griffith should be the full time field goal kicker, that is unless JK Scott is able to out perform him in camp. This is what Coach Saban had to say about Griffith following Spring practice:
"Adam Griffith is a very talented guy but needs to be more consistent." He went on to say that "there will be competition in the fall" from JK Scott.
While the quarterback competition makes me nervous, our field goal kicking and punting situation gives me constant and seething heartburn...
#2 Sims or Coker?
One discussion has dominated most Alabama message boards this off-season, and yes this includes Roll 'Bama Roll...
"Just how good is Jacob Coker and can he beat out Blake Sims for the starting job against WVU?"
Coker's old coach, Jimbo Fisher, fueled the off-season fire by virtually saying Coker is the most talented QB Alabama has had in some time. Forget everything AJ accomplished in his three years as a starter, Jimbo believes Coker is better. What we all can't wait to find out is was all this talk just coaching bravado and Jimbo pumping up his guy or actual truth. Even Tomahawk Nation's lead guy Bud Elliot also thinks highly of Coker's potential. Link
But I do not believe the delay is a ploy to keep Coker from transferring. I now believe there is a real, fierce battle brewing, and that Coker has played much better than anyone expected. And Winston has had some struggles in camp. There seems to be a bit of a deadlock.
I also don't believe that Coker has clearly and soundly beaten out Winston. I think Coker's talent, which has always been highly regarded, has shone through more than anyone expected after his foot injury in spring ball..
Again, how much of this is true and how much of this is Bud just talking up what was, at the time he wrote it, their guy? Well, we get to find out VERY SOON THANK GOD.
As we discussed in yesterday's Jumbo Package, Slice of LIfe (along with others) and myself differ on whether or not Coker is, as of today, the favorite to start against West Virginia. My opinion is that, just like with the left tackle position where Cam Robinson will have to fight off the incoming JUCO transfer Dominick Jackson, Blake Sims is the current starter and Coker will have to soundly beat him out if he wants to unseat the senior.
So Coker, though possibly more talented than the senior Blake Sims, is certainly not already the favorite. He'll have to prove to the coaching staff and to his fellow teammates that he fully grasps the offense, that he can distribute the football properly with-in the confines of our offensive philosophy and can avoid untimely mistakes, something AJ McCarron and Greg McElroy achieved to near perfection. In fact, using McElroy as an example shows Alabama doesn't need a supremely gifted quarterback who will light up the scoreboard to win football games and championships.
With all that said, Blake Sims did himself no favors with his performance in the A-day game. That was as dismal of a performance by an Alabama quarterback I've seen in some time and that' saying a lot. The fact that simple six yard out routes were either thrown in the dirt or far out of the reach of our wide receivers made us all question whether or not he was capable of being the guy.
So who will it be?
My gut says Coker will be able to beat out Sims as the eventual full time starter and any discussion of Saban running a two quarterback system is so far-fetched I have trouble even contemplating the possibility. Sims may start the game against WVU, but like the similar McCarron vs Sims QB Battle of '11, my feeling is the race will be well over by the time Alabama welcomes Florida to town on September 20th.
Even with their up and down performance in 2013, I wouldn't have put this group on the list had Eddie Jackson made it through Spring practice unscathed. But he's out and we do not know when he'll return. Furthermore, we don't even know the full extent of his knee injury. So for now, until we see him on the field lining up with the starting defense, we have to leave him out of the discussion.
That leaves us with juniors Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve, sophomore Maurice Smith and the two true freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey.
Lots of talent, full of questions.
Honestly, I put little hope that the two true freshmen will be able to contribute at corner this year and perform to the level we expect from our corners. I know that opinion has been met with some heated disagreement but true freshmen typically don't play well in Saban's defense, regardless of their talent level, and it's hard to expect that these two will buck that trend. It is my belief that both Brown and Humphrey are the future of the Alabama secondary but I don't see that happening this year.
So, that leaves Jones, Sylve and Smith as our three corners. Good news is they all saw the field in 2013, some more than others, and all three will have most certainly benefited from an additional year in the system and the off-season 4th Quarter strength and conditioning program. Many on this blog believe we will see a much improved group of cornerbacks in 2014, even without Jackson and after much thought, I tend to finally agree with this sentiment. However, they'll have to prove it on the field before I can finally remove the bad taste in my mouth that's been lingering since the Sugar Bowl.
#4 Offensive Line
Much like Blake Sims in the A-Day game, the offensive line's performance left much to be desired. Perhaps (hopefully) our defensive line will be unstoppable but maybe our offensive line still has a long ways to go.
The good news here is that, unlike last year, even if it's young and inexperienced, we seem to have better depth across the line, especially at guard. Grant Hill saw a good bit of action last year and can play both guard and right tackle, which adds much needed depth to what many felt was a weakness on the line last year.
As mentioned above, Cam Robinson was named the starter at left tackle for Spring, but I completely expect Dominick Jackson to make a strong push during camp. And which ever guy loses the battle for left tackle will certainly be able to fill in at either left or right tackle if the starter goes down with an injury.
#5 Lane Kiffin
A-Day answered exactly zero questions regarding how Kiffin will handle the mix of Amari Cooper, OJ Howard, Derrick Henry, TJ Yeldon, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White. We can blame that on Sims or the scaled back offense but we still don't have any clue on the type of offense Kiffin will run.
Well, actually we do. All you have to do is just go back and watch the Alabama offense over the last five years because we all know Alabama's identity will not change, regardless of who is calling the plays. Kiffin was brought in to manage the offense and figure out how to utilize our skill positions more effectively. I'm sure he'll bring his unique flair to the offense but Alabama will always be balanced. It's just who we are and will always be under Nick Saban.
But I'd be lying if I didn't question his in game play calling ability and if he's the right guy to lead our offense......Seriously, I still can't believe this guy is our offensive coordinator...
So which position battle will you be watching the closest during camp?