We’ve seen a lot from the major blog sites doing their different countdowns of the Alabama Crimson Tide’s “Most important” players— each with varying criteria for what is “important.” Meanwhile, NFL stats heads will tell you that, no matter the circumstance of the team or players, the QB is always the most important, followed by a pass rusher and cornerbacks.
While I don’t believe that’s quite as true in college where talent/recruiting disparity and varying schemes are factors that come more prominently into play, there’s still some truth to that. If Mac Jones has a bad season and Bryce Young isn’t ready to replace him, then Alabama will absolutely struggle.
However, my personal view is that Jones is absolutely serviceable enough and has proven he has the ability to not completely tank, so I will not be talking about him. Nor will I be talking about more established players like Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, and Najee Harris. We know how good they are, and we can count on them to perform.
Instead, the definition of “important” for this piece is more centered around players who absolutely must develop their game from what we saw in 2019 for Alabama to get over the hump and round out into an all-around elite team.
#3- Christopher Allen, Outside Linebacker
At 6’4”, 250, the 4th year junior is a massive, intimidating presence who is yet to live up to his fairly lofty recruiting rankings as a top-100 player. As a freshman in 2017, he was immediately thrust into a pivotal role when Christian Miller, Anfernee Jennings, and Terrell Lewis all were injured at the start of the season. He showed his athletic talent on a few plays, but more often than not looked mystified at the snap and subsequently forced to play catch-up to get into position.
But, hey, he was a true freshman thrown into the fire unexpectedly into a major role on a championship team. Nobody could begrudge him struggling to get playcalls correct.
Most expected him to be able to build on his early flashes as a freshman in year two, but a torn ACL in the preseason ended those hopes. He took a medical redshirt and came back in 2019 as the primary backup to Jennings and Lewis.
Despite seeming mostly invisible behind the two senior starters, Allen did play the most snaps of the back-up linebackers (138 regular season snaps compared to 12 from Ben Davis and 35 from King Mwikuta), especially in the three game stretch of Southern Miss, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M while Terrell Lewis played on limited snaps due to his injury recovery.
When Lewis sat out of the bowl game against Michigan, Allen again stepped in as the first team guy all game long and generally seemed to play well.
In 2020, though, he’s no longer the promising young talent with senior leadership above him to take 100% of the responsibility. He’s now officially the most experienced outside linebacker on the team (unless you count Ben Davis) and will be expected to live up to his potential. Alabama’s defense has never placed a premium on high-impact edge rushers, but they are expected to be able to shut down the outside run game while also being able to occasionally effect the QB. Without that outside presence, the defense will forever be chasing ball-carriers horizontally and getting gashed all game long.
Allen doesn’t have the luxury of a proven talent on the opposite side to be an explosive and/or positionally sound run defending player. At the very best, one of the 1st or 2nd year players will make an immediate impact as a pass rusher and Allen can focus on being that solid, consistent defender. At worst, the entire defense will be depending on him to provide both the pass rush and run support while a freshman learns the ropes on the other side.
Either way, Allen playing well is absolutely integral to an improved front seven performance.
#2- Evan Neal, Offensive Line
Sure, Neal was the starter at left guard in all of 2019. Does he really fit in the criteria for this article?
The former 5-star offensive tackle out of IMG Academy came to Alabama at nearly 380 pounds, lost 20, and immediately won the starting job at left guard as a true freshman on his way to numerous freshman All-American awards.
However, Freshman All-Americans are assuredly not All-Americans. Neal was often the victim of inside stunts that led to opposing defenses getting pressure on Tua Tagovailoa. Mostly freshman mistakes, to be sure, but mistakes nonetheless. And now most expect him to make the move to tackle, where any missed assignments or slow-footed backpedals will be magnified after two seasons of Jedrick Wills, Jr. being nearly perfect.
While Alabama’s offensive line returns 4 starters from an already elite 2019 unit, one player out of sorts can ruin even the most talented of lines. Neal absolutely cannot afford to have a sophomore slump while making a position change while Alabama is attempting to break in a new QB without two first-round receivers in Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy.
#1- Jordan Battle
Rashad Johnson, Mark Barron, HaHa Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins, Eddie Jackson, Deionte Thompson, Xavier McKinney— Since Nick Saban started this historic run in 2008, the Crimson Tide has had at least one elite safety in the backfield every single season. It’s been the one true staple of the Saban defense over the years.
Now, with McKinney and his running mate, Jared Mayden, having both moved on from Alabama, the Tide has to find two brand new starters. 4th year player Daniel Wright might have the seniority, but rising sophomore Jordan Battle is the man who immediately won the coaches’ trust as a true freshman last season.
Halfway through the season opener, Battle was already seeing significant snaps with the first team defense while Saban shuffled around the defensive backs, and he was rewarded by getting to make an airball interception on Duke’s final play of the game:
He rotated in and out for the first half of the season before playing as a full-time starter against Arkansas and again in the following week against LSU. That the coaches trusted him to play nearly every snap against the best passing attack in college football is a glowing endorsement Battle and the expectations he will have next season.
While Pat Surtain II will be heading up a revamped cornerback group, a cornerback can only do so much from their half of the field. Battle will be sorely needed in the young secondary to step up as a sophomore and take command of the last line of defense this season. An elite safety is a player that can cover up holes on a defense and become a game-breaker on more solid defenses. But a deep safety over his head is an absolute liability that can break a defense much more quickly than one overmatched linebacker or defensive lineman.
If these three players step up their game going into 2020, then Alabama will have very few question marks on what’s been billed by many media types to be a rebuilding year. A useful pass rusher and game-breaker at safety paired up with Dylan Moses at linebacker and a young, deep defensive line gives the Tide plenty of leeway to find another couple of defensive backs and decide Moses’s best running mate inside as the season progresses.
Meanwhile, a consistent-to-dominant right tackle on an already experienced offensive line should give whichever QB plenty of room to make some easy tosses to Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith while also giving Najee Harris that extra little bit of space to truly conjure some ball-carrying wizardry in his senior year.