It's a familiar refrain around Tuscaloosa this time of year..."this will be a rebuilding year." After all, who could argue with such a supposition, as the Crimson Tide must replace a Biletnikoff winner at wide receiver, a three-year starter at running back, and its safeties...all of the safeties. And the Tide coaching staff must do all of this while finding the next quarterback to take on the mantle of Lane Kiffin's tutelage. A rebuilding year, indeed.
But as has often been the case, there is little reason to expect that Coach Nick Saban will field a product in the fall that is dramatically different from that to which Tide fans have become accustomed over the last eight years. Alabama reeled in yet another top-ranked recruiting class in 2015, on the back of multiple previous top-ranked recruiting classes. Despite the Tide's losses, the cupboard remains stocked, even if the players stocking said cupboard are somewhat unseasoned. And Saban has proven that at Alabama, 10+ wins per season is the norm, no matter who comes or goes.
A-Day will mark not only the culmination of spring practice, but it will give the hungry public their first extended glimpse of the Tide's embryonic incarnation in 2015. Yes, nothing is set in stone, and questions will remain after the glorified scrimmage is over. But there are a few points of focus which demand the attention of the Tide faithful, waypoints on the map of what is to come this autumn. Let's discuss...
Who will man the trenches?
While maybe not as sensational as some of the other areas of mystery on the current Tide roster, the status of the Crimson Tide offensive line is of the utmost importance. With yet another green quarterback under center this year (regardless of the outcome of the ongoing battle for the position...more on that later) and the suddenly thin depth at running back, it will be critical that the offensive line serves as a run-blocking force for an offense that will rely on such tactics early on. The 2014 offensive line was dynamic in pass protection, but when it came to road-grading a path for the running backs, the personnel grouping failed to assert its will more often than this offense can accept.
Fortunately, two of the steadier pieces of that line return in center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson. Kelly (6'5", 297 lbs.) isn't your typical center, with a longer, leaner frame than the prototypical bowling ball-shaped mauler that frequents the interior line. In the past, he's struggled with leverage, but Tide fans are likely to see his most polished incarnation as a senior. Robinson is as spectacular as they come at left tackle, a future NFL blind-sider who will only get better in 2015 after becoming the only freshman to start at LT under Nick Saban.
The question marks swirl beyond those two, however. There is available potential, to be sure. Great depth, yes. But, in the words of Jimi Hendrix, are they experienced? More so than with any other position short of quarterback, seasoning is of the utmost importance for offensive linemen. Fortunately for Alabama, the newcomers to the starting rotation have a modicum of experience due to previous injuries and/ or junior college careers. It appears that senior junior college transfer Dominick Jackson has all but locked up the right tackle position, which is good news for Tide fans wishing to see the line's physical presence in the run game bolstered. Jackson is huge (6'6", 315 lbs.) and was recruited out of junior college primarily for his stellar run-blocking ability. It will definitely be interesting to see if he's as-advertised against Bama's powerful defensive line this Saturday.
The guard positions are somewhat in flux, though there are inklings of the starting line up there as well. Through the spring, Alphonse "Shank" Taylor (6'5", 325 lbs.) and Bradley Bozeman (6'5", 320 lbs.) have been the heir apparents at right and left guard. Both are physical players, and both have a little experience backing up starters who were injured in previous campaigns. Bozeman is a versatile lineman who can play both guard positions and is the second stringer at center, having filled in for Kelly when he went down with injury in 2014. Taylor is being pushed by redshirt freshman Ross Pierchbacher (6'4", 295 lbs.), and it will be interesting to see how that battle pans out through the remainder of spring and into the fall.
Other options along the line include utility linemen J.C. Hassenauer (6'2", 295 lbs.) and Josh Casher (6'1", 294 lbs.) Given his druthers, OL Coach Mario Cristobal would likely rather go with the larger, more experienced linemen in 2015, especially in light of the Tide's burgeoning need to once again dominate through the running game. However, youngsters waiting in the wings cannot be underestimated, and will get a chance to show their stuff to the Tide faithful this weekend.
Will the projected starting five (Robinson, Bozeman, Kelly, Taylor and Jackson) stick through A-Day? Or will one of the younger players force Cristobal's hand and stake claim to a starting role? A-Day will highlight the issue and provide some illumination.
What will the 2015 secondary look like?
Who in the heck knows? Other than returning cornerback Cyrus Jones (who has missed the spring with a hip injury), there are multiple possible combinations for the Tide's most maligned defensive package over the last two seasons. Plenty of returning players have considerable playing time, i.e. Geno Smith, Maurice Smith, Bradley Sylve, Tony Brown and Eddie Jackson. But how will the positions shake out...and who will be counted upon?
The good news is that many of these players have substantial playing time in SEC contests from previous seasons. The downside is that the diversity of experience comes due to a) youth, or b) the inability of any of the aforementioned to cement themselves at any particular position.
Things will change, however, in 2015. Saban sought out and hired a proven NFL caliber defensive back coach in Mel Tucker. Also, the Tide will enjoy a substantial upgrade in on-field talent (if not experience) at corner, thanks to several strong five-star DB classes. While Jones has a lock on one of the corner positions, there will be a battle for the other between Tony Brown, Marlon Humphrey and veteran Bradley Sylve. Bama will add two more five-stars to the roster come fall in highly touted Minkah Fitzpatrick and Kendall Sheffield, two players who, much like Brown in 2014, could be called upon to play in special circumstances. Eddie Jackson could still be in the hunt at corner, but given Saban's springtime experiment with Jackson at free safety, it is likely that the former corner will slide into a utility defensive back role for the foreseeable future.
That is a good thing for the Tide, which lost all of its safeties from 2014 to graduation. Joining Jackson at safety will likely be the recently reinstated Geno Smith, who saw some time at safety last season, and newcomers Hootie Jones and Ronnie Harrison. Maurice Smith is penciled in at the Star hybrid nickel position, but he has the size and skill to play safety if called upon as well. Despite a lack of experience at safety, the Tide has the bodies to be strong at the position.
Will Jackson stick at safety and strengthen the position? Will one of the young five-star corners cement a starting role? Who will be the back-up at safety if Geno Smith sits as punishment for his spring DUI arrest? Questions to be answered for the Tide's defensive goat of season's past.
Is Coker really the Tide's next QB?
Many thought Coker, the FSU transfer with the golden arm, would be Bama's 2014 gunslinger this time last year, but Blake Sims managed to beat out the Mobile native en route to one of the best seasons for an Alabama signal caller in recent memory. With Sims gone, many are ready to hand the crown to the 6'5" former back-up to Jameis Winston.
Accordingly, Coker has appeared as the first-team selection under center through most of the spring, with Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett filling out the remainder of the lineup. However, there have been murmurs throughout the spring that Coker continues to be inconsistent, which was the reason that Sims ultimately beat him out in the previous season. Coker has elite caliber arm talent...without question. But in limited playing time last year, Coker seemed out of synch with the offense and unable to establish rhythm.
Still, with another year in the system and the benefit of Kiffin's tutelage, many take for granted that Coker will be under center for the Tide in 2015. But developments in the spring could indicate that his status is not nearly as solid as most assume. More specifically, Bateman was used at wide receiver earlier in the spring, though he is back at quarterback now. Bear in mind that putting a quarterback at receiver is a dangerous proposition from an injury standpoint, and not one a coach would undertake if said quarterback was a legitimate option to start as a passer. Also, Morris' placement at second string is largely ceremonial, as the Texan has been a good soldier for Saban, waiting in the wings at QB and even filling in as punter when called upon.
Follow me now...if Coker is struggling in his second year in the system, Morris is a ceremonial second stringer and Bateman is taking passes at wide receiver, then it's possible that David Cornwell is truly in the running for the 2015 quarterback position as a redshirt freshman. Sure, this could be a stretch...a 9/11 truther level conspiracy theory, you say? I would have agreed several weeks ago. Then, Saban went out of his way to say this:
"Cornwell has done as good as anybody this spring. He is very bright, he has a great understanding of the offense. He does a great job from a leadership standpoint of helping others play better when he is in there, and he has played smart for the most part all spring."
Two "greats." Not "goods," but "greats." He also threw a "good" in there as well. When was the last time you heard Saban gush that way about a quarterback? For contrast, I offer Saban's comments on Sims from the fall of 2014, before Sims was named the starter:
"I think both guys (Sims and Coker) have done a really good job and I think Blake has a lot more familiarity with the system, having been here longer. I think he's more familiar with the things that we do and has done a really good job. Has played really, really well in this fall camp, has played well in the scrimmages. The team has a good rhythm when he's in there at quarterback."
Two "really goods" and a "really, really well" for a guy who helped Bama win and SEC Championship and get into the Final Four. Sure, nothing is set in stone this early in the process of finding the Tide's next quarterback. But Saban has gone out of his way to force Cornwell to the front of public perception this spring. There must be a reason, and that reason may be that he wants to push Coker. Or, it could be that Cornwell is pushing Coker without Saban pulling any strings. Through the spring, Cornwell seems to be a legitimate contender to Coker (maybe his biggest threat), and a strong A Day performance from the redshirt freshman could bring that two-way battle into the blinding light of day.
Henry, Drake and...?
Alabama's one-two punch at running back will be one of the best rushing tandems in the SEC, if not the nation. Derrick Henry is Bama's leading returning rusher, amassing nearly 1,000 yards in relief of T.J. Yeldon in 2014. Kenyan Drake was on his way to a breakout junior season prior to breaking his leg early on, and his presence in the Alabama offense in 2015 will give Kiffin an explosive weapon that promises to keep opposing defenses off balance.
However, revolting developments from the spring have rendered Alabama's once-vaunted running back depth a shambles. First, former third-stringer (and the Tide's next most experienced tailback behind Henry and Drake) Tyren Jones was dismissed from the team after a marijuana arrest. Jones was a former five-star recruit who showed promise in limited action in 2014.
Then, five-star recruit Bo Scarbrough saw his season thrust into jeopardy following an MCL tear in practice that required surgery. Though Saban was optimistic that Scarbrough will be able to return in time for the start of the season, knee injuries such as the one Scarbrough suffered are a touchy subject for running backs, whose aggressive cuts and breaks put stress on the knee. Even if he has physically healed, will he be mentally prepared to test the knee early and often?
Thus, the Tide finds itself somewhat thin at a position that was once its greatest strength. While no third-string tailback has been named at this point, practice notes have indicated that redshirt freshman Lawrence Erekosima (5'7", 175 lbs.) and true freshman Desherrius Flowers (6'1", 211 lbs.) are getting the work behind Drake and Henry.
While it is certain Henry and Drake will get the bulk of the carries under optimal circumstances, what happens if there's an injury to one of the top two backs? Can Erekosima or Flowers step up and fill the void? Both players are absolute unknowns at this point, so seeing them in action at A Day will provide something of a clue regarding their ability, albeit against a ferocious Bama rushing defense.
Will the next Amari Cooper please stand up?
Let's be frank...there's no replacing Amari Cooper. There's an elite trio of receivers at Alabama historically, and Coop can be counted among them, possibly in the top spot. Trying to find a replacement for Cooper is a fool's errand to be sure, but Alabama simply must replace his production by finding a cabal of receivers who are reliable enough to carry the load.
Currently, Chris Black and Robert Foster have gotten a good bit of time running with the first-team, with Black in the slot and Foster on the edge. Black is known as a quick and crafty inside receiver in the mold of the departed Christion Jones, and in his limited experience he has shown flashes of explosiveness. Foster, a former five-star receiver himself, has been a slow-developing talent, but all indications are that he has grown into the role and served as a physical presence with good size and soft hands.
The receiver most likely to turn heads is the Tide's second leading returning receiver, Ar'Darius Stewart. Stewart brings freakish athleticism and good size to the position, and will serve as one of Kiffin's prime offensive weapons. Stewart can stretch the field and make the acrobatic catches required of him, and his presence on his field will demand the attention of opposing defenses.
Behind those three is a hodge-podge of unproven talent that remains largely unknown. However, for the Tide to mirror last year's explosive offense, others will need to step up as reliable contributors. With Cam Sims injured, Raheem Falkins, Derek Kief and newcomer Calvin Ridley will need to make an impact.
Which receivers will separate themselves as the go-to weapons of choice? A Day will provide an inkling of what is to come for the Alabama receiving corps.
Reggie Ragland and ....?
Alabama is blessed with linebacker talent, as there always seems to be an all-star candidate rising up to take the place of the recently departed. Last year, it was Reggie Ragland who was the answer to the departure of Tide great C.J. Mosely. Ragland wisely elected to stay for another season rather than jumping to the NFL, and is now considered the top senior linebacker prospect in next year's draft. But who will fill his shoes following the 2015 season?
A Day will feature a handful of linebackers who could be the next big thing at the Capstone in regard to linebacker talent. With the departure of draftee Trey DePriest, Alabama must find Ragland's inside running mate, and quickly. While special teams hitman Reuben Foster is the likely candidate, sophomore Shaun Dion Hamilton has drawn praise from his teammates as a hard worker and quick learner who, like Foster, is a big hitter in the middle. Either linebacker will be a step down from DePriest in the short term, but with experience, both have higher ceilings. How quickly will Foster and Hamilton adapt to provide Bama's knockout punch in the middle of the field?
The forecast at outside linebacker is equally as promising, with returning pass rushing stalwarts in Denzel Devall and Ryan Anderson. While the veterans are likely cemented as starters, the next generation of Bama outside ‘backers will be on display at A Day, including Dillon Lee, Rashaan Evans and Tim Williams. Which of this trio will get separation and earn additional playing time in 2015? We may see a glimpse this Saturday.
A Day will answer some questions, but it will likely provide a cliff-hanger ending in regards to others, a "season finale" to leave Tide fans wondering through the long, hot summer. While one must beware of drawing too many conclusions from the annual end-of-spring drill (as was learned in 2014), there will be nuggets to be panned and polished until fall camp rolls around once again.