Previews 2014: Alabama Crimson Tide

Oct 26, 2013; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Amari Cooper (9) enters the end zone on his 54-yard touchdown against the Tennessee Volunteers during the first quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 26, 2013; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; wide receiver (9) enters the end zone on his 54-yard touchdown against the Tennessee Volunteers during the first quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-

2014 Alabama Crimson Tide: Team Overview

 

Returning Offensive Starters: 7 (SE, WR, LG, C, RT, TE, RB)

Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (RDE, LT, WLB, SLB, LCB, SS)

Returning Specialists: 0

 

Projected Overall Record: 11-1

Projected SEC Record: 7-1 (LSU)

Projected SEC West Record: 7-1 (LSU)

 

Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Vg

Running Backs: Ex Linebackers: Vg

Wide Receivers: Ex Defensive Backs: Vg

Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Pr

 

Alabama is one of the most interesting teams in college in 2014, if for no other reason that a team one play away from a possible shot at a , returning a nucleus of top talent and poised for yet another title run, is actually a team in transition. A new offensive coordinator is in town, the quarterback position is completely up in the air and changes are expected on the defensive side of the ball to correct a downward trend, particularly in front seven performance.

OFFENSE

Alabama is now the employer of one Lane Kiffin, former Tennessee head coach, NCAA scofflaw and general spoiled brat. At least that’s what he’s been in the eyes of Alabama fans until now. These days, he’s the hopeful savior of Alabama’s balanced, but ground-oriented offensive attack built around the idea that beating an opponent into a bloody coma is the pinnacle of college football strategy. But the ultimate determiner of style may be decided by which quarterback wins the starting job.

QUARTERBACKS

You could write a book about this position right now and still not cover every angle. Ultimately, observers believe this will come down to either junior transfer Jacob Coker, last seen backing up Jameis Winston at Florida State, or fifth-year senior Blake Sims. Both players are mobile, but both have displayed problems with accuracy and reading defenses in the past. The problem relative to both is their proven, respective bodies of work are quite small. Coker in an incredible physical specimen with a good skill set, but he was a late bloomer as a prospect and still is quite raw. Sims, who spent a year at running back for the Crimson Tide, is seen as a threat when moving and has looked sharp as a zone-read quarterback in special packages, but his last two A-Day performances out of the pro set have been mediocre at best. Redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman seemed to wiggle his way into the discussion with a solid spring and offseason program, and while it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get some work in blowouts, it’s a stretch at the moment to give him a legitimate chance to win this battle. If Bateman is the eventual starter, barring a previously unforeseen demonstration of skills, it would mean at least one major injury above him on the depth chart and would probably signal that Alabama wasn’t a championship contender. Sophomore Alec Morris spent more time at punter this spring, and true freshman are on the outside looking in. Morris has the biggest arm of the group, but is slow and seemed to regress in the spring. Cornwell is still not completely recovered from a knee injury suffered as a high school senior and will redshirt in 2014 barring a total collapse in front of him.

RUNNING BACKS

There is an embarrassment of riches here, starting with junior T.J. Yeldon. Due to a soft performance against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and a handful of disappointing plays against Auburn, many had Yeldon ticketed for the third team behind Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake heading into the spring. But Yeldon instead pulled away from the pack, icing the competition with a breakout A-Day performance. Henry and Drake still figure to be important cogs in the wheel, but Yeldon will get the lion’s share of the carries. His combination of speed, receiving ability and between-the-tackles rushing talent is unmatched. Henry is a bruiser and a terror between the tackles, but he is average at getting to the corner and still needs some technique work. Drake is a home run threat if there ever was one, but his maddening lack of consistency, concentration and ball-security issues make him mostly a change-of-pace back at the moment. Sophomore and redshirt freshman Tyren Jones round out the list. Tenpenny has all the tools, but hasn’t shown enough production yet. Jones looks like the prototypical third-down back, and a strong spring opened some eyes regarding his potential. Alabama signed only one running back in the 2014 class, and that player, , was ruled ineligible. Scarbrough is appealing the decision, but it appears unlikely he’ll be part of the backfield in 2014. Jalston Fowler will play fullback – exclusively fullback, if rumors out of camp are correct – giving Alabama its first non-H-back blocker in the backfield in years. Unfortunately, Fowler largely failed in that role in 2013, but Kiffin loves the I-formation and Fowler has gotten consistently positive reviews so far this fall.

WIDE RECEIVERS

This is arguably the deepest receiver group ever to play at Alabama, even if the experience level doesn’t match. Amari Cooper seems poised to have a dominant season, as Cooper recently admitted what many observers were reporting last fall – i.e., he wasn’t playing with the best attitude. If is fully healthy, Cooper and White could be the best pure 1-2 punch Alabama has ever had, at least in regards to route running and instincts. Christion Jones returns in the slot, and he’s always a threat, if not always the most focused receiver Alabama has. The second team – Cam Sims, Robert Foster, Chris Black, ArDarius Stewart and Raheem Falkins – are all impressive physical specimens who have shown flashes of ability in practices and scrimmages, but apart from Black, none have made any significant contributions yet in a game. Walk-on Parker Barrineau was on the fringes of getting into the playing rotation last year, and did enough this spring to justify seeing action. Signee Derek Kief has the size and vertical ability to be a star down the road. The tight end group is all about potential, especially the potential present in , who is essentially a big wide receiver playing tight end. If Howard can improve his blocking, he’ll likely unseat starter Brian Vogler, who has the physique and the raw skills, but who has also been inconsistent as a blocker and not a threat in the downfield passing game despite being 6’7”. Malcolm Faciane will likely see work as a blocking specialist, while Kurt Freitag is in the mix at H-back. The name to watch the most might be Ty Flournoy-Smith, a JUCO transfer who originally signed with Georgia before running into off-field problems and getting released from the program. Flournoy-Smith has the ideal skill set for the H-back position and could also play on the line as the Y.

OFFENSIVE LINE

This is potentially the weakest unit on offense, thanks mostly to questions on the left side of the line. From the middle to the right is solid; center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Austin Shepherd are at the top of the conference pack for those two positions. Right guard will be one of three players, senior Leon Brown, sophomore Alphonse Taylor or JUCO transfer Dominick Jackson. Brown is the most likely to pull away with the job, although he is nursing a couple of injuries as fall camp gets started. Taylor, who will likely back up at left guard, has a massive build and is just now beginning to polish his skill set. Jackson is expected to compete here and at left tackle, and if Brown is not ready, will probably get the nod. The real issues, though, are not nagging injuries at right guard – they’re the play of Kouandjio at left guard, and the inexperience at left tackle. Kouandjio’s 2013 season was average at best, and he appeared stiff and overwhelmed during spring practice. As for left tackle, true freshman Cameron Robinson got off to a slow start in the spring but seemed to have the position locked up by the end of the session. However, his A-Day performance showed he still has plenty of work to do before he can be called a strength of the unit. Sophomore Brandon Greene will back him up. Greene was a highly-touted tackle prospect two years ago but spent the entirety of his redshirt freshman season playing tight end. Grant Hill figures to be in the mix at several positions, including both tackle slots and right guard. Isaac Luatua is also competing at guard. The backup center position is undecided; walk-on Paul Waldrop held it coming out of spring, although Bradley Bozeman was in the mix there as well. Bozeman could also play guard or tackle. Alabama signed an impressive group of lineman in the spring, highlighted by Robinson and Jackson. The others – center J.C. Hassenauer, center-guard Josh Casher and Ross Pierschbacher, who can play all five positions – are all fighting for playing time, with Casher currently the leading candidate to nab snaps as a backup center. Montel McBride failed to qualify.

DEFENSE

Alabama’s offense isn’t alone in its need to change. The 2013 defense was soft at times in the back end, and up front, didn’t have enough speed to contain spread offenses. While Tide coaches mentioned the need to get smaller and quicker, they didn’t follow through on those aims during the recruiting process, with the possible exception of the players they targeted at Jack linebacker. Alabama could actually be bigger in 2014 than in 2013, thanks to new personnel at middle linebacker, Jack linebacker and free safety. Otherwise, Alabama held a reunion for past defensive assistants (Bo Davis, Kevin Steele) and hopes to awaken echoes of dominating performances of yesteryear.

DEFENSIVE LINE

If spring drills mean anything, this will be the most improved unit on the team – and it needs to be. Alabama’s 2013 defensive line, despite seeing two players drafted in April, was a disappointment. The middle of the line didn’t contain opposing running games and the ends didn’t affect the quarterback often enough. The lone bright spot was A’Shawn Robinson, who will start most likely at strongside end, but who will also slide into the middle on certain packages. Senior Brandon Ivory was inconsistent in the middle. The wild card is JUCO transfer Jarran Reed, who can play either tackle or end and who spent the spring making offensive linemen look mediocre. The second wave, led by ends Jonathan Allen, and Dalvin Tomlinson, have differing skills but are all solid players. Pettway, a star two years ago at Alabama before getting dismissed after an arrest, re-signed with the team out of JUCO and was a force in the spring. Darren Lake and Korren Kirven will back up Ivory in the middle. Lake is a pure run-stuffer, while Kirven is more adept at playing on passing downs. Sophomore Dee Liner figures to see some time at end. Dakota Ball has seen work at both tight end and defensive line, while senior Anthony Orr continues to be a fixture on the roster. True freshmen Johnny Dwight, Josh Frazier and O.J. Smith could each vie for playing time in the middle, although Smith has a shoulder injury that needs surgery. The biggest name to watch among incoming freshmen is Da’Shawn Hand, who is a virtual lock to play as a true freshman at end. Hand has a rare mix of size and speed that could make him a real threat as a situational rusher in 2014.

LINEBACKERS
Every season brings with it a hold-your-breath unit, and linebacker is it for Tide fans in 2014. Numbers inside make it so. Trey DePriest is the only inside linebacker with significant experience, and he is one of just four scholarshipped players in the middle of the defense. He’ll start next to either Reggie Ragland or Reuben Foster, while true freshman Shaun Dion Hamilton backs him up. DePriest began fall camp by suffering a knee injury, which is not what anyone wanted to see. While the coaches expect him to be fine, the real question is how Ragland and Foster will replace C.J. Mosley in the middle. Neither have Mosley’s instincts or coverage ability, although Ragland is not bad in space. Foster is an aggressive hitter with a mean streak, but he has garnered the label “Reuben Stinger” after injuring himself via poor tackling technique on multiple occasions. While the inside of the defense is fairly green, the outside is in veteran hands with Xzavier Dickson and Denzel Devall starting at Jack and strongside linebacker, respectively. Dickson also will play defensive end. When Alabama needs to get smaller, Tim Williams and Dillon Lee are available. Lee can play inside linebacker on passing downs, and often will. Ryan Anderson and Walker Jones are two other younger players who can flex between inside and outside roles. Recruiting was kind to Alabama, who bagged not only DePriest’s doppelganger in Hamilton, but also Christian Miller and Rashaan Evans, a pair of pass-rush specialists who likely represent the new breed of lighter, faster Jack linebackers at the Capstone. Keith Holcombe figures to be another outside-inside flex player in the mold of Lee, and could become an early contributor on special teams.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

An honest assessment of Alabama’s 2013 secondary yields the following: The coaches did a superb job just to get what they got from this unit. Injuries started early in the season and never abated, young players failed to develop and some veterans didn’t play to potential. Even though Alabama replaces two starters for 2014, most observers expect better results. Cornerback figures to be a focal point, as Alabama awaits Eddie Jackson‘s return from a torn ACL suffered in the spring. If Jackson is slow to recover, it will at least lock in Bradley Sylve and most likely true freshman Tony Brown, who went through spring drills, as the two starters. Junior showed flashes of brilliance in his first year at corner after coming over from receiver, but he was also responsible for a ton of blown coverages and in the end, the negatives outweighed the positives. Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett are also competing at the position. Sylve was probably the most consistent defensive back in the spring, but Brown is the one most fans are salivating over, given not only his speed and coverage skills, but also his size and hitting ability. Jackson, when healthy, is an instinctive, shutdown-style corner unafraid of bigger receivers. At safety, Landon Collins returns at strong safety, while free safety is a battle between Nick Perry, Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith. Smith seemed to lock down the job in the spring, which will free up Perry and Williams to do what they do best, namely serve as spot players in sub packages. Perry is highly effective against the run, while Williams is a big hitter who does his best work roaming the field with his eyes pointed at the offensive backfield. True freshman Laurence Jones showed potential in the spring, while journeyman Jabriel Washington is competing for time both here and at corner. As for the fall entrants, corner turned heads immediately as fall camp started, while safety Ronnie Clark could become an early contributor on special teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS

This could be ugly. Let’s get the positives out of the way first: Alabama will have top-of-the-conference coverage teams, and Christion Jones‘ return skills make him a force. But the kicking game was shoddy in 2013, and punter Cody Mandell is gone to the NFL. Adam Griffith will step into the placekicker role, but despite his strong leg, he struggled in the spring. Alabama took no other kickers into fall camp, however. True freshman J.K. Scott will almost certainly lock up the punter’s job, as his main competition is quarterback Alec Morris. Walk-ons John Pizzitola and Adrian Lamothe are also in the mix at punter, but Scott has been impressive early in fall camp and both Lamothe and Pizzitola struggled with distance kicks in the spring. Scott could also get in the mix at placekicker if Griffith fails to improve.

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