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Jumbo Package: Can Alabama Find a Leader for the 2021 Defense?

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Is Jordan Battle going to be THE guy for the 2021 Alabama defense in his second year as a starter?

CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T - Ohio State v Alabama Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

DeVonta Smith, Alabama Crimson Tide

Playmaker Projection: 777 Yards/Season

Scouts Inc.: No. 7 Overall

Similar Historical Prospects: Larry Fitzgerald, Torry Holt

DeVonta Smith has a monster projection that leaves everyone else in this draft class in the dust. Smith’s projection is all the more impressive considering that he gets a significant penalty for entering the draft as a senior. Smith is Playmaker’s highest projected senior wide receiver ever, and it is not even close. That spot had previously belonged to former Buffalo Bills wide receiver Lee Evans, whose projection was more than 100 yards/season lower than Smith’s.

Why is Smith’s projection so high? The bottom line is that Smith had eye-popping statistics even though Alabama did not attempt many passes. The Crimson Tide passed only 425 times in 2020, yet Smith managed to record 1,856 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns. Smith scored a touchdown once every 19 times that Alabama attempted a pass. Only two drafted wide receiver prospects since 1996 scored touchdowns at a higher rate than Smith: Randy Moss and Dez Bryant.

However, what makes Smith’s numbers arguably more impressive than those of Bryant or Moss is that Smith had to compete with a lot of talented teammates. Moss’ most notable receiver colleague was future undrafted free agent Nate Poole; Bryant’s was future first-round tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who was considered more of a blocker than a receiver. By contrast, Smith had to compete for targets with fellow first-round prospect Jaylen Waddle. Of course, Waddle played less than half the season due to injury. However, as a junior Smith also had to compete with future first-round picks Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, and Smith outproduced them both.

Football Outsiders always comes up with some pretty solid content. The article lists all the different metrics they use to try and predict future WR success in the pros, and DeVonta Smith absolutely CRUSHES it. Personally, I love the Torry Holt comparison for Smitty.

“Even the most ardent Auburn fan has almost just waved the white flag when it comes to (Alabama coach Nick) Saban now,” Finebaum said during his weekly appearance on “The Roundtable” on 94.5 FM WJOX.

The Tide’s recent College Football Playoff run would seem to indicate such a statement as does winning 9 of the last 13 meetings, including five of the last seven, with the Tigers. However, the two teams are 2-2 in their last four.

“Yeah, you know (Auburn coach Gus) Malzahn won three times, which is extraordinary, still got him fired, didn’t he?” Finebaum quipped.

Touché.

So, which SEC rivalry now tops the Iron Bowl?

“I don’t want to say anything blasphemous a week and a day after Easter Sunday, but Alabama-Auburn is no longer really the driving rivalry, I think, in the Southeastern Conference,” Finebaum said. “Because everyone understands the reality of it. Nick Saban is going to win, maybe 92.3 percent of the games or whatever. ...

Oh man, I’m loving this quip from Finebaum. There was a whole lot of quit in the Auburn fanbase last year, even leading up to the game.

While appearing on a podcast last week with ESPN’s Adam Schefter, former Tide running back Najee Harris reacted to a scouting report about Jones by offering some of his own commentary on Alabama players’ leadership during Harris’ tenure in Tuscaloosa.

“100 percent leader. 100 percent, man. 100 percent leader,” Harris said of Jones. “I ain’t gonna lie around with you. There was not good leaders at Alabama. I ain’t even gonna play. But he was surely one of them. Like, the team rallied around him, in a way.”

Leadership apparently is still in short supply around the team.

“Coach Saban hasn’t found his leaders yet,” safety Jordan Battle said Tuesday specifically of the defense.

Battle, a junior, is among the players being challenged this spring by Saban. The coach made that clear last week.

“Jordan Battle does a good job,” Saban said. “He plays a lot of good football, but it’s kind of up to him as to how he wants to accept the role of leadership, how assertive he wants to be. People have to earn the right to be leaders. Now, they have to do things right themselves. They can’t be late for meetings. They can’t not do things exactly right. They have to set a good example for others. They have to care enough about other people to help them for their benefits so that’s his choice.

“And that’s a lot of players’ choice on the team. Do they want to take that responsibility of being a leader? He has done that at times, and I think he would be very good if he chose to do it.”

I linked the Adam Schefter Podcast with Najee Harris last week, and I had wondered if anyone else caught that little throwaway line from Najee about Alabama not really having too much in the way good player leadership in his career. Many fans suspected that to be the case in 2018-2019, but it had never been confirmed from someone in the program.

Now, the Tide has lost all of it’s offensive leadership from last year, and is still looking for that kind of person on defense.

Safety Jordan Battle seems to be the prime candidate, and linebackers Christian Harris and Chris Allen also may be asked to pick up some of that level of vocal leadership.

Another name that generated buzz following Friday’s scrimmage, and really all spring, was tight end Cameron Latu. He caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Bryce Young this past week after scoring multiple times in the first scrimmage. Latu is now a redshirt junior and is in his third year as a tight end after starting his UA career on defense at outside linebacker.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder played in 12 games last season, missing only the Arkansas contest, but with Miller Forristall and Carl Tucker moving on, he has a prime opportunity in Bill O’Brien’s offense. Latu has never caught a pass in a game but expect that to change this fall.

“He’s had a really good spring so far, shown a lot of maturity, made a lot of plays,” Saban said of Latu. “Very athletic guy. He’s a good C-area blocker. He’s got a much better command of the offense. I think he’s much more confident. And he’s really a good receiver, he’s got good hands. So we’re really pleased with the progress that he’s made.”

Though I had almost given up, I’ve been holding out hope for Cameron Latu as a potential impact tight end. As a recruit, I loved his explosiveness as a pass rusher (he had a CRAZY good SPARQ score), and I was excited about his potential when he moved to offense.

He’s pretty much been invisible to fans ever since, but has apparently been making some waves in his quest to pair up with Jahleel Billingsley for the second TE spot.

“I think the biggest thing that I’ve tried to help them with is just relating to them because I’ve been in their shoes,” Bolden said. “I understand how it is when I try to tell them not to get frustrated and that they are going to make mistakes, they’re going to mess up and that the biggest thing is just continuing to work.

“And at the end of the day, if you don’t know what you’re doing, at least go fast. If you continue to push in practice and you go hard in practice that eventually you’ll understand that when you know the play right, you will already know how to go fast with the play.

“Knowing the play is the right play, and sometimes when you don’t know what to do like you don’t think mentally that I should go hard right now. So that’s one thing that I’ve tried to help them with is just understanding that you’re gonna make mistakes, it’s gonna happen, but the ultimate goal is just to play fast.”

There’s more uncertainty in Alabama’s wide receiver group than there’s been since 2017. And honestly, probably since the 2015 offseason before Calvin Ridley really caught on. John Metchie showed a lot of promise last year, but can he be a true #1 receiver? Slade Bolden filled in for Jaylen Waddle, but ultimately wasn’t a huge factor in the offense and had some fumble issues. Xavier Williams has only had a couple of targets going into his 4th season.

Past that, it’s a whole bunch of first and second year players, and we all have to hope that one or two of them really manage to seize the opportunity and become playmaking force for the Tide.