Last year’s Crimson Tide offense over-achieved down the stretch: that much is without question. After entering the season with an undetermined quarterback race, a pieced-together offensive line and an unseasoned wide-receiving corps that had the unenviable task of replacing Amari Cooper’s production, expectations weren’t necessarily high for Lane Kiffin’s offensive squad in their most recent championship run.
However, after the Ole Miss game, the Alabama offense began to settle in and solidify. Jake Coker snatched the reigns as the starting quarterback, Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart distinguished themselves as a frighteningly explosive wide receiving tandem, and the offensive line became a run-blocking machine for eventual Heisman winner Derrick Henry. In retrospect, that rag-tag unit panned out quite well, keeping pace with offensive juggernaut Clemson en route to a victory in the national championship game.
The Tide will find itself in much the same position in 2016, replacing the fantastic Ryan Kelly at center, as well as Dominick Jackson at right tackle. The ever-present pre-season quarterback race is in full effect once again, with four horses vying for the inside track. The running backs, though supremely talented and highly lauded, are unproven. The only constant is the wide receivers, as the Tide will have a bevy of targets, including championship game hero O.J. Howard at tight end.
Still, Alabama will need a few previous bit players to step onto the main stage and flesh out what could be a potent offensive roster. So who will step up for the Tide offense this year? The following trio will serve as a barometer for this team. If they have great seasons, chances are the Tide offense will once again be in high gear. Let’s take a closer look.
Cam Sims (Wide Receiver)
In a position in which the Tide is probably best-stocked with returning talent, junior Cam Sims is an physical anomaly. With phenomenal size (6-5, 206 pounds), super speed and excellent ball skills, one has to wonder why Sims hasn’t had a break-out season yet. The answer to that query is simple: Sims had a severe knee injury towards the end of the spring of 2015, as he tore his ACL and LCL. While Sims was ready to play in time for the 2015 season (as he participated in 12 games), there’s no doubt the injury affected his confidence in the rebuilt knee and thus, his ability to execute.
Flash-forward to this past spring. A fully-healthy Sims showed out in the annual A-Day Game, leading the White team receivers with three grabs for 66 yards. In context, that A-Day yardage total eclipsed his yardage totals for both the 2015 and 2016 seasons (Sims had six receptions for 46 yards in ’15, and seven catches for 62 yards in ’14). Healthy, Sims has a chance of living up to his self-billed role as the Tide’s "silent assassin" on the edge in 2016.
Sims’ height gives him an instant advantage against the typically 6-foot cover corners who will lock up on him this fall. For a young inexperienced quarterback, a 6-5 receiver can be something of a security blanket: throw it high and away from the defender, and the big man is likely to come down with it ala Calvin "Megatron" Johnson. But Sims isn’t just a tall guy, he is a giraffic acrobat, with the ability to stretch and contort, lean and twist, to make freakishly athletic football plays. Again, that kind of ability may make him quite popular with a newish Tide quarterback adapting to the speed of SEC defenses. Sure, Ridley will remain the most explosive receiver in crimson on the field, and Stewart can do things with the ball in the air that defy physics. But Cam Sims has a chance to have an explosive season for the Tide, as when healthy, he has the skills to become a household name.
Lester Cotton (Offensive Guard/ Tackle)
Lester Cotton is a bit of a legend around his old Central High School stomping grounds. The 6-4, 319 pound sophomore was the leader of his high school team, a moving success story who carries the torch of Tuscaloosa’s downtrodden into the national spotlight. The once five-star rated offensive lineman grew up in the shadow of Bryant Denny Stadium, and after catching the eye of Nick Saban at a camp, he has quickly inserted himself into the "best five" offensive line rotation as a true sophomore.
First off, Cotton has tremendous size and the build of a SEC lineman. Sure he’s big, but he also has length (particularly in the arms), which puts him in the rare company of linemen who are a natural fit at either tackle or guard. Despite that length, he keeps a low center of gravity and has excellent foot quickness for a player only a year removed from the Alabama High School Athletic Association playoffs. Speaking of high school, Cotton was such a force as a high school senior that he was credited with a ridiculous 233 pancake blocks. That is just sick regardless of the level of competition.
However, the SEC is not AHSAA Class 5A football. The athletes are bigger, stronger and faster. Cotton played in four games as a true freshman, and though he acquitted himself well against lesser competition, his true test will come under live fire in 2016. Exiting the spring, Saban listed Cotton among the top five linemen, and he has practiced primarily at left guard and at right tackle. Though the potential for left tackle Cam Robinson to miss games due to his off-field indiscretions this spring seems to be declining, Cotton could be the most likely candidate to slide over and protect the quarterback’s blind side if CamRob indeed has to sit out a few games. That would be a heady test indeed, as the Tide opens the season against the talented USC Trojans. Regardless of the position, expect to see Cotton on the field in the starting five this fall.
Cotton has tremendous upside, and very well may represent the Tide’s left tackle of the future. In the meantime, Alabama will need him to become a force at right tackle or left guard, reinforcing the line and giving Alabama’s running game what it will need to be successful again in 2016.
Damien Harris (Running Back)
We all know about Bo. Everyone loves Bo. Can’t wait to see Bo. In the wake of physical specimen Derrick Henry’s Heisman run in 2015, many have tagged the similarly sized Bo Scarbrough as the next great Bama back. Why wouldn’t they? He has Henry’s size and an explosive athleticism not typically seen in larger-framed backs.
However, Alabama has a second back on the roster that resembles another Heisman Trophy winner from the Tide’s past…namely Damien Harris. Anyone who watched Bama’s A-Day Game can recognize that the Ingram-esque Harris is not yet willing to concede the starting role to Scarbrough just yet, as the 5-11, 214 pound sophomore from Kentucky exploded onto the scene after a freshman campaign that saw him used sparingly behind Henry and Kenyan Drake.
As previously mentioned, Harris is very similar to another Tide great at running back, namely Mark Ingram. With a similar size and frame, the young runner has developed his game in the mold of Ingram as well, adding much-needed bulk in the off-season while improving his field vision and instincts. In his days at Alabama, Ingram was conscious of being patient with his line and "pressuring the holes" created by his blockers, and Harris appears to have taken a page out of #22’s playbook this spring. Not only was Harris selecting the right gaps, but he was waiting for them to full develop rather than blazing into the premature clutter of bodies, as was often the case in 2015. He has excellent balance and improved footwork, and combined with the extra weight and better decisiveness, Harris may just be the best back on the Bama roster at the moment.
Granted, Saban is not one to ride one horse at running back, 2015 and Henry aside. Last year’s dependence on Henry at running back was an anomaly in the tenure of Saban at Bama. He prefers a balance between a tandem of backs, giving the ball to the man with the hot hand in a given situation while keeping two top-flight running talents fresh well into the fourth quarter. While one has to suspect a return to that formula in 2016 with Harris and Scarbrough, there’s no reason to believe that Harris won’t be on the fat end of that usual 60/40 split of carries. Together, he and Scarbrough can be a "thunder and lightning" combination in the Tide backfield, and 2016 will be his year to shine.
Xavian Marks (Return Specialist)
While Xavian Marks is technically an offensive player, listed on the official roster as a running back, he will likely contribute most as a return specialist on special teams. After all, at 5-8 and 163 pounds, he marks quite the departure from the typical Bama backs like Scarbrough and Harris. Even Drake, who was fleet of foot like Marks, was six feet tall and over 200 pounds. But what Marks lacks in size he more than makes up for with blazing speed, making him an ideal choice as return specialist to replace Tide great Cyrus Jones, who handled punt return duties for the championship Tide in 2015.
The diminutive sophomore from Texas isn’t just fast, mind you. He’s Olympics-fast, clocking in at 10.39 in the 100 meters in high school. We’re talking Barry Allen, Wally West type of speed. He also runs track for the Crimson Tide, and with the possible exception of defensive back Tony Brown, is probably the fastest member of the Alabama football team. His speed is ridiculous, and he has enough shimmy-shake to slip through small holes before turning on the afterburners. While the return game was not a part of the A-Day game plan this spring, one need only watch a little of Marks’ high school tape to see just how effective the sophomore can be as a punt returner this fall.
With sure hands (he has been used in the spring as a receiving option out of the slot and back field), Marks is sure to make an impact and flip the field in favor of the Tide. Alabama used him a little on slip screens through the spring, as his stature allows him to get lost behind Alabama’s behemoth linemen to great effect. But it is as a return man that Marks will likely make his biggest impact, as the kind of God-given speed that he has makes him tailor-made to be an explosive weapon on special teams.
As previously mentioned, Alabama will need the above players to succeed this fall to make the Tide offense as potent as it has been in the last two seasons under Lane Kiffin. Alabama’s offense can be even more dynamic with a two-back system, especially late in games when opposing defenses have worn down. Cotton and the rest of Alabama’s offensive line must execute if either back will have much of a chance of penetrating SEC defenses this fall. And given the usual rash of injuries that strikes the receiving corps, Sims could end up being one of the Tide’s top targets for the quarterback-to-be-determined.
Regardless, the Tide finds itself in much the same position it was in last season, with a potentially scary-good defense, an unproven signal caller, possibly legendary running backs and a talented (if unseasoned) offensive line. That recipe worked well in 2015, and there’s no reason to believe there won’t be the opportunity for similar results in 2016.