All the rage the last few months has been around the 2021 recruiting class, and the Tide’s meteoric rise from being ranked #55 to #2 in a very short period of time. That excitement, coupled with the total lack of spring football, has led to most of us fans totally forgetting about most of the 2020 signing class. A class which, by the way, features four 5-star prospects and an astounding nine top-75 players.
It’s been discussed ad nauseum that freshmen will have the short end of the stick when it comes to trying to break into the starting lineup this year due to COVID cancelling so much spring and summer practice time, but time and time again Alabama has seen freshman join during fall camp and wind up starting day 1 anyway. Julio Jones is the premier example of a player so elite that he was immediately the best receiver on the team the moment he stepped onto campus.
In a less drastic example, linebacker Christian Harris enrolled in August last year and quickly shot up the depth chart. Most expected him to be competing with Josh McMillon to be the day 1 starter, and then Dylan Moses and McMillon both were lost for the season, and Harris was a shoe in starter by default.
Calvin Ridley, despite all of his talent, couldn’t break into the starting rotation in 2015 until Robert Foster broke his collarbone.
For a freshman to break into the lineup, it takes a combination of talent, mentality, and opportunity (read: depth chart luck). So to narrow the field, let’s first take a look at the positions of opportunity and discuss the options at those spots.
Tua Tagovailoa is off to the pros, so technically it’s an open position. However, Mac Jones now has a 1⁄3 of a season of starting experience, and will be tough to unseat. Bryce Young is the most talented QB Alabama has ever recruited, passing even the #2 overall mark of Brodie Croyle back in 2002, and he will absolutely be the center of fans’ attention to see if he can take over the job.
If a freshman QB gets the nod as a starter, he’s automatically the most impactful on the team. It’s just the nature of the position.
Alabama is most likely set at running back with seniors Najee Harris and Brian Robinson as well as Trey Sanders returning from injury. But it’s notoriously a position that uses a lot of players and sustains a lot of injuries, so Jase McClellan or Roydell Williams might see some carries.
Miller Forristall has the starting tight end job locked down, but Alabama routinely uses two tight ends, and the other three returning players inspire very little confidence. If grad transfer Carl Tucker doesn’t win the job, might Caden Clark be a dark horse candidate?
LaBryan Ray and D.J. Dale both return as starters, though both missed big chunks of last year to injury, so Alabama has Christian Barmore, Phidarian Mathis, Byron Young, and Justin Eboigbe all with starting experience. It’s a lot of depth of guys with less than one season of starting experience, so there is absolutely a chance for a true freshman to vault past the glut with the right amount early performance.
In comes Timothy Smith. The 5-star nose tackle has an inhuman acceleration off the line of scrimmage and is a much more talented pass rusher than Dale. If Smith is able to adjust to college ball, don’t be surprised to see him push Dale out on third downs and pass rush packages this season to become that reserve interior pass rusher that fans always love so much (Christian Barmore last year).
This is by far the best opportunity. Alabama lost both starters, and only Chris Allen has any starting experience from his freshman season (when he got benched) and in the Michigan game at the end of the season.
Will Anderson, Drew Sanders, Chris Braswell, and Q Robinson are all top-70 recruits, and the first three are all 5-star players. Anderson and Braswell are both pure edge rushers, while Sanders and Robinson are more versatile players that can play strongside and inside linebacker as well as rush the passer.
I think Sanders’ combination of versatility and athleticism make him the most likely to carve out a major role of the group, though don’t be surprised at all if either Anderson or Braswell become a go-to situational 3rd down pass rusher like Tim Williams was before he eventually became a full time starter.
Alabama is looking to replace both an outside corner and a nickel corner, so there will be opportunity. It’s a bit of a cheat since he’s not a freshman, but JUCO transfer Ronald Williams, Jr. is likely the favorite to win the job at outside corner. The rangy 6’2” corner is a polished player with outstanding footwork and ball skills and is competing with Jalyn Armour-Davis and Marcus Banks for two spots. I like those chances.
Again, Alabama is replacing both starters from 2019. Jordan Battle was exceptional as the 6th defensive back and back-up safety last year as a true freshman, so expect him to slip into one of the two starting spots. Past him, 4th-year man Daniel Wright and sophomore DeMarcco Hellams will be competing for the other spot.
While both have talent, Alabama also has a couple of freshman coming in who, with a good August performance, could very easily crack the starting lineup.
Brian Branch had absolutely nutty stats as both a defensive back and wide receiver, drawing all kinds of comparisons to Eddie Jackson as a deep-ranging free safety that’s a threat to take any given pass back for a pick-6. I think he’s going to be right in the thick of things to be the starter opposite Battle from day one.
And then there’s Kristian Story. The high school QB and Alabama player of the year is moving full-time to defense to be a massive safety/linebacker hybrid in the mold of former Tide DB Ronnie Harrison. He’ll have a big learning curve, but is a unique and special athlete that I could see making a role for himself as the “money” linebacker in dime packages.
Who will be Alabama’s Most Valuable Freshman in 2020? (not including Bryce Young because QB’s are a cop-out answer)
This poll is closed
Other (make your case in the comments)