Spring football preview: Returning experience may be deceiving as Alabama goes for third straight title

 

Jan. 21, 2012; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron waves to the crowd after the Alabama Football National Championship Celebration at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

Jan. 21, 2012; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Crimson Tide quarterback waves to the crowd after the Football National Championship Celebration at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

March 17, 2013

 

For a team that lost only a few seniors over the offseason, along with a modest number of early entrants into the 2013 NFL Draft, the 2013 Alabama Crimson Tide doesn’t necessarily feel like a veteran team heading for an inevitable third straight BCS National Championship.


There’s been a lot of turnover on this team, and not all of it normal or good. Three players were dismissed permanently from the program after arrests stemming from accusations of violent and, quite frankly, shocking and disturbing behavior related to alleged assault, theft and weapons charges. A fourth was accused of using stolen merchandise from the original crime and was also let go.

 

As a result, spring football couldn’t get here fast enough for many, primarily because it puts Alabama football back in the headlines for good reasons rather than bad. The biggest question now has very little to do with replacing a handful of missing starters, and much more to do with whether the 2013 Alabama team can avoid the pitfalls of the 2010 team, which was bereft of leadership and prone to distraction.

 

Several positions are up for grabs this spring. Here’s our take on those positions, with highlights on the five most important.

 

1. Boundary Cornerback

Out: Dee Milliner

Competing: Geno Smith, Jabriel Washington, Bradley Sylve, , Cyrus Jones, John Fulton, Dee Hart

Analysis: The fact Alabama is looking at Christion Jones, Cyrus Jones and Dee Hart at this position ought to tell you everything you need to know about the situation. Had Geno Smith not improved dramatically over the last two months of 2012, this position would be a virtual panic button. The big problem for Alabama, though, isn’t whether Smith can handle the job, it’s whether Deion Belue can improve enough on the other side to help ease the pain. Belue had his moments in 2012 but was obviously not as ready to play as many thought he’d be in the preseason. Belue’s small size made him vulnerable against physical receivers, and it’s not a given that he will move to the boundary and let the new starter take the field corner position. Of the players competing for the job, Smith has the best mix of smarts and athletic ability. Washington and Sylve have top-line speed but neither took a step forward in their redshirt year. John Fulton has the most experience, but will probably miss spring practice with a toe injury. He is still the presumptive favorite to be the third corner when Alabama goes to a nickel or dime look (with Smith moving to Star safety). It’s unlikely both Hart and the two Joneses will all remain on defense, but it’s very likely one of the three will. Cyrus Jones seems like the best bet of the three, although NARCAS rated Christion Jones based on his potential at cornerback coming out of high school, not as a wide receiver. He is very physical and could be the surprise winner of the job.

Prediction: Geno Smith

 

2. Left guard

Out:

Competing: , Austin Shepherd, Brandon Hill, Alphonse Taylor, Isaac Luatua, Chad Lindsey, Caleb Gulledge

Analysis: Going off pure potential, Arie Kouandjio would be the odds-on favorite to win the job and start next to his brother. But Kouandjio’s knee issues have severely hampered his durability so far during his stay in Tuscaloosa, and it might very well be impossible for him to hold up to the constant grind of starting. Alphonse Taylor is probably his biggest competition, unless Leon Brown wins the right tackle job early on (see highlight No. 3) and allows the coaches to reshuffle the depth chart. Chad Lindsey looked like the potential favorite for the job early in the 2012 season, but as the season wore on his lack of size became more evident and he’s more likely to play at center rather than guard. Through no fault of Kouandjio’s or Taylor’s, their biggest shortcoming is they’re simply not Chance Warmack, who was probably the best Alabama offensive guard since the 1970s. Whoever wins the job will probably be a step back from Warmack. While Kouandjio is the initial favorite, the massive Taylor was one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 recruiting class.

Prediction: Arie Kouandjio

 

3. Right tackle

Out: D.J. Fluker

Competing: Leon Brown, Austin Shepherd, Kellen Williams, Brandon Hill, Caleb Gulledge, Brandon Greene

Analysis: You don’t sign JUCO players to sit, so if Leon Brown doesn’t grab this job it will be a disappointment. Austin Shepherd, however, improved steadily as 2012 went along and gives Alabama a true third tackle option, so this won’t be a cakewalk for Brown. Like the situation at left guard, the biggest obstacle facing Brown or Shepherd is that neither is D.J. Fluker, who made himself a stack of NFL money late in the season thanks to his performances against Georgia and Notre Dame. Brown and Shepherd seem to be a rung above the rest of the players here, but Kellen Williams is a senior with playing experience and Brandon Greene has a good chance of being Alabama’s starting left tackle in 2014, so the eventual winner of this job can’t go to sleep on it once the fight is over.

Prediction: Leon Brown

 

4. Strong safety

Out: (as free safety)

Competing: Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, , Nick Perry, Jarrick Williams, , Christion Jones

Analysis: We’re cheating a bit here, as both safety positions are technically open, as the strong safety position was never truly settled in 2012. The one thing that seems almost certain, given how well Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix played over the final two months of the 2012 season, is that he’ll start somewhere, whether it’s free safety or strong safety, thus putting everyone else into a pot to determine who’ll start next to him. We’ll give Clinton-Dix the free safety job and just talk about the other. Vinnie Sunseri was the early starter at strong safety in 2012 but was exposed in man coverage as the season went along. By the end of the year, he was a very situational player, and will likely keep that role (dime safety) if nothing else in 2013. Nick Perry became the starter for awhile, but the coaches seemed to only trust him on running downs. If Perry can display better one-on-one coverage skills, he could certainly wind up with the job. Jarrick Williams was set to play a big role in 2012, when he destroyed a knee late in fall camp. He seems to have responded extremely well to treatment, but the issue with Williams has always been whether he would outgrow safety and become a linebacker. That brings us to Christion Jones and Landon Collins. Collins got the Mark Barron/Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix treatment late in the year, playing safety earlier and earlier in games in which Alabama was ahead. Typically, this means the coaches feel he’s ready to contribute regularly. As for Jones, he has enough beef to play safety, not just cornerback, but his eventual contribution won’t be determined until later in the spring.

Prediction: Landon Collins

 

5. Placekicker

Out: Jeremy Shelley

Competing: , Adam Griffith

Analysis: Jeremy Shelley was pretty much automatic for two years for Alabama, albeit from about 40 yards in. Alabama hasn’t had a true long-distance threat at kicker since probably the first three years of the Michael Proctor era; Leigh Tiffin hit a few but was never confidence-inspiring. Cade Foster certainly hasn’t inspired confidence in his two years as kickoff specialist and long-range kicker, displaying some fundamental mechanical flaws that have a habit of popping up at inopportune moments. As such, redshirt freshman Adam Griffith figures to get a long look not just as Alabama’s short-yardage kicker, but as the long-range kicker as well. Because of Foster’s tackling prowess, we expect him to retain the kickoff duties, as that keeps Griffith out of harm’s way after the ball is kicked. But Griffith is considered the favorite to take over the rest of the duties.

Prediction: Adam Griffith

 

OTHER JOBS THAT ARE OPEN

 

Tight end

Out: Michael Williams

Competing: Brian Vogler, Kurt Freitag, Harrison Jones, Malcolm Faciane, O.J. Howard

Quick analysis: Brian Vogler stepped up his game as a blocker as 2012 wore along. At 6’7” with good hands, he represents a possible upgrade over Williams, who was essentially an extra left tackle. Malcolm Faciane is expected to be his backup.

Prediction: Brian Vogler

 

H-back

Out: Kelly Johnson

Competing: , Harrison Jones, Kurt Freitag, O.J. Howard, Michael Nysewander

Quick analysis: The loss of Brent Calloway hurts, as it takes away the best proven receiving option from this unit. Harrison Jones is essentially a second Y-style tight end, while Jalston Fowler is primarily a running back. Look for Fowler to play fullback when Alabama goes to the I, while Jones gets the nod at all other times. O.J. Howard has great speed and receiving skills, but will need to acclimate to the speed of the college game. Given that Kelly Johnson was a walk-on, it’s not out of the realm of thought to see Michael Nysewander compete for the job. Kurt Freitag is the wild card, depending on his development this spring. He can play either H or Y.

Prediction: Harrison Jones

 

Center

Out: Barrett Jones

Competing: Ryan Kelly, Chad Lindsey, Isaac Luatua

Quick analysis: The job seems to be Kelly’s to lose. Lindsey spent most of 2012 at guard and is a bit behind as a result. Luatua has been almost exclusively a guard since he arrived on campus and will probably be Anthony Steen’s backup at right guard if Brandon Hill redshirts.

Prediction: Ryan Kelly

 

Weakside defensive end

Out: Damion Square (at strongside DE)

Competing: Jeoffrey Pagan, LaMichael Fanning, Chris Bonds, William Ming, Dalvin Tomlinson, Korren Kirven, Wilson Love, Anthony Orr, Xzavier Dickson

Quick analysis: Ed Stinson will likely move to the strongside from the weak, replacing Square, and opening up the weakside. Had not gotten arrested and kicked out of the program over the offseason, this conversation would be over for all practical purposes. Pettway would have either started there, rotated with Jeoffrey Pagan, or started at Jack linebacker and forced Xzavier Dickson’s move. Pettway will end up being one of the biggest losses from the 2012 team, a senseless situation on top of it all. Alabama simply has no one like him on the roster. Pagan is a traditional defensive end and looks at this point like a more talented version of Brandon Deaderick, who Nick Saban turned from a 4-3 rush end into a 3-4 tackle/end behemoth. Fanning and redshirt freshman Dalvin Tomlinson figure to be the biggest competition. The wild card is Dickson, who could grow out of his Jack slot, opening up a place for Denzel Devall to start.

Prediction: Jeoffrey Pagan

 

Running back

Out: Eddie Lacy

Competing: T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake, Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart, Blake Sims, Derrick Henry

Quick analysis: This will be the shortest competition in history, barring injury. T.J. Yeldon will move up, and the only question at that point is who will go out of spring as the backup. Once fall camp gets here, all bets are off again thanks to the quality of the signing class. Kenyan Drake would seem to be the pick to fall into the front of the line, but he ran afoul of team rules a couple of times in 2012 and also needs to work on ball security. Recovery from injury will determine whether either Jalston Fowler or Dee Hart is able to return to 2012 performance levels, not to mention that Fowler figures to get a look at H-back while Hart is starting the spring on defense. Blake Sims will likely stay at quarterback, but his experience at running back demands he be mentioned. All eyes will be on huge Derrick Henry, who could figure in the depth chart at multiple positions.

Prediction: T.J. Yeldon

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