Amari Cooper. Christion Jones. DeAndrew White. Alabama's record-setting offensive numbers last year revolved around the aforementioned three wide receivers, in particular Cooper. But with all three gone, where will Alabama turn for offensive production in 2015 (especially with an untested, yet-to-be-determined starting quarterback?)
The easy answer is "receiver by committee", and to an extent, some rendition of that philosophy will be at play, especially early in the season. But if the past history of the Alabama offense and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin are to be trusted, one must expect that a leading weapon will emerge before the midway point in the season, and that receiver will receive a steady diet of pigskin for the duration.
Cooper had explosive talent, and will go down as one of the most prolific pass catchers in Alabama history. But Alabama currently has the next explosive receiver on its roster, with a stockpile of four- and five-star talents waiting in the wings. Though the unit lacks experience, there is no reason to believe that given a viable option at quarterback, Alabama won't see prolific numbers from the 2015 offense as well.
The Prime Suspects
While there will be a good bit of rotation in Alabama's standard wide receiver rotation (which generally involved an X, Y and Z receiver, along with at least one tight end), one could make a pretty good guess at the presumed lead horses after A-Day and fall practice.
At the X position, or split end, Robert Foster is the most likely starter. Given Foster's great size (6'2", 194 pounds) and physical presence, the sophomore had little problem breaking away from Alabama's defense in this year's A-Day scrimmage, using a combination of power against press coverage and a quick burst to create openings. Once open, Foster is relatively sure-handed, making him a steady presence at a critical position (despite his relative inexperience).
While Foster is expected to start at X, junior Raheem Falkins (6'4" 210 pounds) provides quality depth and a big body against physical defensive backs. As a freshman, Falkins drew praise from former quarterback AJ McCarron, and now as an upper-classman, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect the bruiser to see a little playing time behind Foster.
At the flanker (or Z) wide receiver position, there is little question that sophomore ArDarius Stewart (6'1" 204 pounds) is the preferred option. With a skill set reminiscent of Coopers, i.e. great straight line speed, precise routes, smoothness in and out of breaks and fantastic ball skills, Stewart is the most likely candidate to fill Cooper's D.J. Fluker-sized shoes. Stewart has shown flashes of brilliance in limited action during his Crimson Tide career, but those glimpses have cemented him as Bama's most likely big play threat in the receiving corps. Stewart has drawn high praise from both Coach Nick Saban and Kiffin throughout the spring and fall as a player who is executing consistently at a high level and who instills confidence in the quarterbacks with which he has been matched. If one had to pick a break-out star candidate from amongst the wide receiver corps, Stewart would be a solid choice.
Also, Kiffin demonstrated last season to great effect that he is not afraid to line stellar athlete Kenyan Drake up at flanker despite his designation on the depth chart as a running back. Drake spent a good bit of time this fall splitting practice time between the wide receivers and running backs, so one can only assume that his utilization as a receiving threat from the Z position will only expand in 2015. Drake possesses not only the raw speed, quickness, agility and elusiveness of a great flanker, but add to the equation his field vision and Drake may just be the most effective weapon in the Tide's arsenal.
With the departure of Jones, junior Chris Black (6' 192 pounds) is the heir apparent in the slot, as he is one of the Tide's most battle tested receivers amongst the young corps. Black's production has underwhelmed after his projection as a five-star talent, but he has all the skills to be a reliable and productive option between the tackles. With incredible agility and quickness, Black should be able to exploit the bubble in zone coverage to great effect. Black's elusiveness and quick-strike ability will also be used on screens, as he has the ability to turn a low-risk play into a home run. Black was slowed by an injury in the summer, but he is still the odds on favorite to get the start at Y against Wisconsin.
The Tide actually has a wealth of options in the slot, with redshirt freshman Derek Kief (6'4" 198 pounds) splitting time in the middle and at split end. Kief would provide a physical presence in the middle, and his athleticism could provide mismatches against bigger defenders in the front seven. Senior Parker Barrineau (6' 184 pounds) is nothing if not solid, and despite a fall injury, he may be called upon as a senior member of a young unit. The Tide got a boost over the summer with the arrival of graduate transfer Richard Mullaney (6'3" 208 pounds), a prolific former Oregon State Beaver who gives the Tide a veteran presence as well as great size in the middle of the field. Some observers have predicted that if Black is still hammered by injury early in the year, Mullaney is the likely candidate to get the start in the slot.
The tight end plays a substantial role as a receiver in Kiffin's offense, and Alabama has one of the best receiving tight end options (even if underutilized) in all the land in junior O.J. Howard. Howard (6'6" 242 pounds) has all the makings of an All-American tight end, with speed, a huge wingspan and fantastic ball skills. Though is production hasn't measured up to his high school hype, little of that can be attributed to Howard's measurable or skill. It is more likely a product of the system, and given the opportunity to make an impact this fall, Howard could quickly evolve into a lethal receiving weapon for Alabama who can routinely expose mismatches and take advantage of them.
Behind Howard, the player most likely to see playing time in regard to offensive production is senior Ty Flournoy-Smith (6"3" 247 pounds). Flournoy-Smith has great hands and good instincts as a receiver, qualities that he had a chance to display (if only in limited fashion) during the A-Day game. When the Tide needs two receiving tight ends on the field, chances are high that it will be Howard and Flournoy-Smith.
Alabama's blocking tight ends don't catch the ball much (with the exception of behemoth Brandon Greene's game-clinching stealth touchdown pass against LSU last year), but they are a critical part of the running game. With the departure of steady blocker Brian Vogler, the Tide will count on big-bodies like the junior Greene (6'5" 300 pounds) and converted defensive lineman Dakota Ball (6'3" 254 pounds). When the Tide needs an H-back ala Jalston Fowler's role for the last several years, the most likely candidate to fill that role will be senior Michael Nysewander (6'1" 237 pounds), a steady performer who has seen a fair amount of action in the last two seasons.
The Young Guns
While the Tide has enough talent amongst its seasoned corps of receivers and tight ends, there are several young newcomers so talented that they may demand playing time, especially if the unit is bitten by the injury bug early enough in the season to warrant the loss of a possible redshirt year.
Topping that list is true freshman Calvin Ridley (6'1" 188 pounds), the top-ranked receiver in the 2015 signing class. Ridley is an athletic freak, with incredible speed, superior athleticism and ball skills that are reminiscent of Cooper's. There's no question Ridley's is the star of the future at the Capstone. He's already drawn high praise from Kiffin and Saban not only for his talent, but for his work ethic. Ridley's most likely role would come at flanker given his speed and athleticism, but he is one of the few players on the Tide's current roster who has the physical talent to master every receiving position ala Amari. The question is whether or not those ahead of him on the depth chart will play well enough to warrant a redshirt season for the burgeoning star in 2015.
Another newcomer, Daylon Charlot (6' 195 pounds), was highly regarded coming out of high school, and while he hasn't received the same kind of praise cast upon his classmate, there's no question Charlot has the talent to play at a high level if needed. With good size, elite speed and developing ball skills, Charlot could see time at split end or in the slot if needed, though there are a backlog of more seasoned players available in those spots.
At tight end, both sophomore Hunter Bryant (6'5" 222 pounds) and freshman Hale Hentges (6'5" 235 pounds) have the measurables to fill the Tide's traditional hybrid tight end role (much like Vogler) quite well. Like Vogler, both players are adequate blockers who have the physical presence to serve as safety valves in the middle of the field. Another converted defensive lineman, freshman Johnny Dwight (6'3" 300 pounds) is listed on the roster at both defensive line and tight end, and it will be interesting to see if he's developed into a brute tight end similar to Greene. If recent history in an indicator, none of these guys will see the field much this year, as the Tide will rely on Howard, Flournoy-Smith and Greene for most tight end responsibilities.
While there is little experienced depth on the Tide receiving roster, there is an immense amount of top-flight talent of unlimited potential. With a new quarterback under center, Bama will need both a solid running game and a prolific passing attack to continue to maintain dominance in the SEC West.