Spring football preview: A new Crimson Tide, or more of the same?

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

March 13, 2014

 

One of college football’s greatest attributes is its pre-programmed turnover. At least every five years, teams are guaranteed to have a completely new starting lineup compared to the ones they fielded five years prior.

 

For Alabama, there will be 12 positions this season changing hands. But several other positions figure to be up for grabs as well.

 

Alabama’s 2013 season did not go as hoped. Alabama finished the season with consecutive losses to Auburn and Oklahoma, and those losses exposed not only some flaws in the scheme, but personnel weaknesses. Head coach seemed to recognize the reality of the situation; offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was allowed to leave for Michigan without much of a fight, and the defensive staff also underwent some shuffling. New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is expected to rely more on tempo than his predecessor.

 

But will it actually come to pass, or will Saban fall into old habits? Coaches are creatures of habit, and both good coaches and bad coaches have frequently said they planned to make core changes in their programs before later changing course. Whether Alabama truly goes for a faster offensive tempo is something that will be either confirmed or disproved once the regular season gets underway. But what isn’t up for debate is the need to replace departed seniors and underclassmen in the starting lineup.

 

Here’s our take on positions both vacant and contested, with highlights on the five most important.

 

1. Quarterback

Out: A.J. McCarron, Luke Del Rio

Competing: , Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod, David Cornwell

Analysis: Everyone knew McCarron was leaving town, but it was a major shock when redshirt freshman Luke Del Rio decided to follow him. Del Rio transferred to Oregon State after Lane Kiffin was hired as offensive coordinator and Florida State backup quarterback made it known he wanted to transfer to Alabama to battle for the job. With Coker not being eligible to join the battle until fall camp, Del Rio was considered to be no worse than second-team behind Blake Sims coming out of spring drills. Del Rio, a walk on, had booked a solid spring camp in 2013 and followed it up with a strong fall, which put him ahead of scholarshipped quarterbacks Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod and no worse than even with Alec Morris. Now, the job looks like Sims’ to lose, at least for the spring. Alec Morris figures to be the biggest competition, even though Morris and Sims couldn’t be any more different if they tried. Sims is a dual-threat, run-first quarterback, while Morris is a pocket passer. Bateman and McLeod will be bracketed next; Bateman has the more impressive raw skill set, but the two were even coming out of last spring. Incoming freshman David Cornwell is a big, athletic prospect not unlike Coker, but he is recovering from knee surgery and not likely to participate in many – if any – live drills. The real fight for this job won’t start until Coker hits campus over the summer.

Prediction: Blake Sims (for now)

 

2. Middle linebacker

Out: C.J. Mosley, Tana Patrick

Competing: Reuben Foster, Reggie Ragland, Dillon Lee, Shaun Dion Hamilton

Analysis: The loss of Mosley is huge, as he was effectively the defense’s quarterback. No one else on the team has a similar skill set, and the one player Alabama was recruiting that did have those similarities (Zach Whitley) unexpectedly signed with UCLA instead. The four main players left to compete for the job include Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland, both large bodies with good speed; Dillon Lee, who has coverage skills but isn’t necessarily an inside banger, and true freshman Shaun Dion Hamilton, who appears built more like weakside starter Trey DePriest than Mosley. It is possible that DePriest takes the role, which would leave weakside linebacker open, a position for which Lee is ideally suited. But if DePriest stays where he is, Reuben Foster would seem to have the inside track for the open job. If Foster does win it, Alabama will likely end up with a much different substitution pattern in 2014 than it did in 2013. Lee figures to play a lot regardless, perhaps in a hybrid coverage role. Foster would give Alabama a more threatening inside presence than the one Mosley provided, but the Tide would likely need DePriest to take over playcalling duties in such a case. The wild card is Ragland, one of the most impressive physical specimens on the team, who up until now has been a contributor only on special teams.

Prediction: Reuben Foster

 

3. Left tackle

Out: Cyrus Kouandjio

Competing: Leon Brown, Brandon Greene, Grant Hill, Cameron Robinson

Analysis: Like the quarterback job, this one will go in two stages – what happens in the spring, and then what happens in the fall after JUCO transfer Dominick Jackson gets to campus. The first questions to answer concern Leon Brown and Brandon Greene, who are currently working at right guard and tight end, respectively. Greene never seemed to fit in with the tight ends after moving there last fall, serving only as a situational blocker. At nearly 6’6” and 310 pounds, and with limited flexibility as a receiver, he seems like a good bet to move back to left tackle, his position prior to the tight end move. Brown, originally signed as a tackle, lost the right tackle competition to Austin Shepherd last spring, then disappeared for more of the year before stepping in for an injured Anthony Steen in the bowl game. With right guard also open this spring, Brown might not waste time at left tackle. That leaves Grant Hill, who was good enough to play with the 1s occasionally last year as a true freshman, and Cameron Robinson, arguably the top prep offensive lineman in the country last year. Hill’s future indeed looks bright, but he is most likely to be Shepherd’s successor in 2015, or possibly get into the mix at guard this year. Everything sort of hinges on Dominick Jackson’s academics; his chances of qualifying appear to be good, and he was considered the top JUCO tackle available in February. But he may be a more natural fit at right tackle rather than left. If Robinson is all he’s supposed to be, he could grab the position by default, especially if the other three competitors are busy working at other slots.

Prediction: Cameron Robinson

 

4. Field cornerback

Out: Deion Belue

Competing: Bradley Sylve, Eddie Jackson, Cyrus Jones, Jabriel Washington, Jonathan Cook, Maurice Smith, Anthony Averett, ArDarius Stewart, Geno Smith, Tony Brown

Analysis: Both cornerback jobs are technically open, as no one claimed the boundary cornerback job last year, either. Deion Belue was healthy for only about two-thirds of the season. Alabama essentially made a competent pass defense out of good safety play, some smoke and mirrors and the expertise of Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. The Crimson Tide can’t afford a similar approach in 2014, as Oklahoma torched the Tide in the Sugar Bowl and gave other teams the blueprint for how to beat Alabama on the edges. In 2013, Bradley Sylve, Eddie Jackson, Cyrus Jones and Maurice Smith all seemed to rotate depending on the week. Sylve was the most consistent, but a high ankle sprain suffered late in the season rendered him non-operational down the stretch. Jackson clearly has the most potential, but he was as raw as the egg on a Caesar salad in 2013. Cyrus Jones had his moments, but was too inconsistent, while Maurice Smith simply wasn’t ready. Those four will go up against Jabriel Washington, who spent most of his time in 2013 backing up Geno Smith at star safety, as well as redshirts Jonathan Cook, Anthony Averett and converted receiver ArDarius Stewart, who (allegedly) is at cornerback temporarily. True freshman Tony Brown is also in the mix, although it remains to be seen whether there will be any fallout from Brown’s arrest shortly after arriving on campus. Unless Brown picks up the defense quickly, this job looks to come down to the Jackson-Sylve-Jones trio. Geno Smith would also be a front-runner, but it appears he is destined to spend most of his remaining time in Tuscaloosa at safety.

Prediction: Eddie Jackson

 

5. Strong Safety

Out: Vinnie Sunseri, Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix

Competing: Jarrick Williams, Nick Perry, Geno Smith, Jabriel Washington, Jai Miller, Laurence Jones, Maurice Smith

Analysis: Landon Collins will start at either free safety or strong safety, depending on who wins this job. If Alabama feels Geno Smith is the best bet to fill a starting role, Collins will probably stay here (his position at the end of 2013) with Smith moving to free safety. But if Jarrick Williams or Nick Perry wins the job, Collins most likely will end up at free safety. The biggest question is who will make the defensive calls. Williams and Perry are both fifth-year seniors, although neither has played much more than a situational role in the secondary in seasons past. Williams is almost the size of a linebacker, but proved to be a good enough cover safety last year that he seemed to separate himself from Perry prior to Perry’s injury. Perry has been a starter before, but typically stayed in the game only on suspected running downs. Holdovers from last year who are also in the mix include Jabriel Washington, Jai Miller and Maurice Smith. Washington, like Geno Smith, is a smaller-frame player probably more suited to cornerback. Miller, who is in his late 20s after spending several years in minor league baseball, played more frequently down the stretch but never with the game on the line. Maurice Smith could be an option, although most of his work to this point has been done on the boundary. True freshman Laurence Jones will go through spring practice and certainly has the size, speed and resume to fight for the job.

Prediction: Jarrick Williams

 

Other open/contested positions

 

6. Flanker

Out: Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell

Competing: DeAndrew White, Raheem Falkins, Robert Foster, ArDarius Stewart, Christion Jones, Chris Black, Cameron Sims, Parker Barrineau

Quick analysis: Alabama uses three wide receivers as often as not, and both DeAndrew White and Christion Jones started in that position last year. They headline the fight for the full-time flanker’s job this year, lining up next to Amari Cooper. White, who elected not to enter the NFL Draft early this year, would seem to be the front-runner. Jones is most effective in the slot role. Raheem Falkins, who played as a true freshman in 2013, and Robert Foster, who redshirted, both figure to be key figures in the rotation along with Chris Black. Incoming signee Cameron Sims and walk-on Parker Barrineau will likely make up the next wave; ArDarius Stewart will get some work in the defensive backfield and might stay there.

 

7. Right Guard

Out: Anthony Steen, Kellen Williams

Competing: Alphonse Taylor, Chad Lindsay, Leon Brown, Bradley Bozeman, Grant Hill, Brandon Hill, Isaac Luatua

Quick analysis: Leon Brown started the Sugar Bowl and did a reasonably good job in his first outing, especially since he was originally signed as a tackle. Of particular interest, though, is Chad Lindsay, who filled in at center for Ryan Kelly in 2013 and won plenty of fans. Lindsay’s build doesn’t seem conducive to being an every-down starter anywhere other than center, but he has the most experience of any potential replacement and has worked at guard before. At issue is whether Lindsay opts to come back for his fifth year. He has graduated and could transfer to another Division-IA school and play immediately, and reports out of Tuscaloosa indicate he’s considering the possibility. The wild card here is massive Alphonse Taylor, who pushed Brown at right guard late in the year and was solid in last year’s offseason workout program. Of the rest, Grant Hill figures to be more of an option at tackle. Brandon Hill and Bradley Bozeman look to be a year away from really getting into the mix. Isaac Luatua has played in blowouts in the past and is also an option.

 

8. Left guard

Out: Kellen Williams

Competing: Arie Kouandjio, Alphonse Taylor, Chad Lindsay, Leon Brown, Bradley Bozeman, Grant Hill, Brandon Hill, Isaac Luatua

Quick analysis: Kouandjio’s 2013 season was an up-and-down affair, and the effects of past knee injuries appeared to affect him at several points during the year. Kouandjio should still be considered the starter, but he’ll be pushed the other reserve guards. Alabama coaches might also have a quicker hook than last year, when Kouandjio started out bracketed with Kellen Williams for the job, but it never really played out that way beyond the first third of the season. Alphonse Taylor figures to give Kouandjio the biggest push from behind, although Leon Brown, Chad Lindsay (if he remains with the team) and Isaac Luatua all have experience.

 

9. Placekicker

Out: Cade Foster

Competing: Adam Griffith

Quick analysis: At least until signee J.K. Scott gets to campus in the fall, this one is Griffith’s to lose. There will likely be several walk-ons joining the team for spring drills, but Griffith is considered a near-lock to win the position.

 

10. Weakside end

Out: Jeoffrey Pagan

Competing: A’Shawn Robinson, D.J. Pettway, Anthony Orr, Dalvin Tomlinson, Jonathan Allen, Dakota Ball, Dee Liner

Quick analysis: Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen are considered the front-runners for the strongside end position; A’Shawn Robinson is almost universally considered to be the next starter on the weakside. His greatest competition would come from D.J. Pettway, who played at Jack and occasionally at the two end positions the last time he was in Tuscaloosa, but Pettway has the look of a pure end rather than the combo tackle/end position Pagan held. Dee Liner could sneak into the mix as well. Anthony Orr played here in 2013, but only in blowouts. Dakota Ball was hurt for most of 2013 and played mostly on the strongside in the few snaps he managed to log.

 

11. Strongside end

Out: Ed Stinson

Competing: Dalvin Tomlinson, Jonathan Allen, A’Shawn Robinson, D.J. Pettway, Anthony Orr, Dakota Ball, Dee Liner

Quick analysis: Dalvin Tomlinson had “future star” written all over him before a knee injury cut him down early in the 2013 season. Jonathan Allen got most of Tomlinson’s snaps as a result. Allen put together a good first year, although he needed to be more consistent overall. If Tomlinson is completely recovered from his wounds, he’ll most likely grab the starting nod. Of the rest, Dakota Ball and Dee Liner figure to have the best shot to grab playing time, while A’Shawn Robinson figures to lead the fight for the weakside end position.

 

12. Jack/Strongside linebacker

Out: Adrian Hubbard

Competing: Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, Tim Williams, Anthony Orr, Walker Jones, Ryan Anderson, Dillon Lee, D.J. Pettway

Quick analysis: This is actually two competitions in one. Adrian Hubbard played both strongside linebacker and Jack linebacker during his tenure at Alabama, as has the two players most likely to start in 2013, Denzel Devall and Xzavier Dickson. But Alabama never got the performance it sought from the corners last year, and Dickson finished the season suspended from the team. Devall would seem a lock to start somewhere, but what happens after that is a bit more cloudy. If Alabama starts both Devall and Dickson, it will end up with two larger-than-average outside backers again. In fact, both Devall and Dickson have played defensive end when Alabama is in a four-man front. Dillon Lee is probably the most likely competition out of the reserves, if for no other reason than he is more agile and quick. But Lee may be competing as an inside linebacker as well. Ryan Anderson has played both inside and out, and was originally thought to be a Jack prospect. Tim Williams could compete at Jack, or move to end full-time. D.J. Pettway seems to have outgrown the Jack position, but don’t count him out yet. Anthony Orr seems to have moved to defensive end full-time, but spent parts of two seasons at Jack. Walker Jones redshirted in 2013 and is probably a bit behind the rest of the group. Depending on how Dickson does this spring, he could force Devall over to strongside linebacker full-time, or the strongside position could open up for a different style of player than Alabama has been accustomed to seeing recently.

 

13. Boundary cornerback

Out: John Fulton

Competing: Bradley Sylve, Eddie Jackson, Cyrus Jones, Jabriel Washington, Jonathan Cook, Maurice Smith, Anthony Averett, ArDarius Stewart, Geno Smith, Tony Brown

Quick analysis: Although Fulton started a couple of games, the real starter here was essentially Cyrus Jones, who is still with the team. But Jones never held the job long enough to really be considered a returning starter. If anything, Bradley Sylve looks like the favorite to win the job, provided his ankle has healed. Jones is his top competition, however, with Eddie Jackson the likely starter on the other side. Maurice Smith is next in line. Pretty much what was said above about the field cornerback position applies here as well.

14. Punter

Out: Cody Mandell

Competing: Adam Griffith

Quick analysis: As of now, Griffith is the only scholarshipped option at the position, but he is probably just an emergency option. Incoming freshman J.K. Scott will be considered the favorite for the position as soon as he arrives on campus in the fall, but for this spring, either Griffith will handle the duties or they will fall to a walk-on. Alabama has had several in and around the program over the last couple of years, one of the more frequent being Wilson Whorton. It’s unclear at this time how many walk-ons are expected to be invited to compete for the job this spring.

 

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