Alabama Crimson Tide Preview

Nick Saban leads the Crimson Tide in an early Fall 2011 practice

The SEC has three national championship-caliber teams in 2011, and all three play in the SEC West. While Alabama’s 2010 season was a disappointment given the expectations, the Crimson Tide finished strong and has the best defense of the three teams (LSU and Arkansas are the other two) that figure to be at the top of the standings. Filling holes at wide receiver, offensive tackle and defensive line are the biggest challenges.

Returning Offensive Starters: 7 (SE, WR, LG, C, RG, RT, TE)
Returning Defensive Starters: 9 (NT, LDE, MLB, WLB, JACK, RCB, LCB, SS, FS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Projected Overall Record: 11-1 (LSU)
Projected SEC Record: 7-1 (LSU)
Projected SEC West Record: 4-1 (LSU)

Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Av
Running Backs: Ex
Wide Receivers: Vg
Offensive Line: Ex
Defensive Line: Av
Linebackers: Ex
Defensive Backs: Ex
Special Teams: Av

OFFENSE

Alabama runs a multiple offense that is mostly rooted in the pro set. But Alabama has turned to the Pistol offense a good bit over the last year, and the results have been favorable. The base offense is either a two-tight-end Ace-package look, or a three-wide look with lots of motion. Some fans complained the 2010 version relied too heavily on the passing game, but that was largely dictated by an offensive line that didn’t do a good enough job moving people in the ground game. This year’s OL appears to be stronger across the board, even with the vacancy at left tackle, and with a new quarterback, you can bet Alabama will rely more heavily on its ground attack – especially early in the year.

QUARTERBACKS (rating: Av; 4th SEC West, 7th overall)
There’s a full-on battle going on between sophomore A.J. McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims, and nothing was settled in the spring. McCarron looked like the chancy gunslinger, while Sims appeared to play more within himself. Both had virtually identical stats at the end of the spring, so Alabama now has the football equivalent of the congressional debt ceiling fight on its hands: One month to decide how to fix things. It’s possible Alabama could play both, but two-quarterback systems are usually ripe for failure, unless the second quarterback is a completely different player than the usual starter. That’s not the case here, where both McCarron and Sims are pocket passers.

Alabama might even play three quarterbacks. Blake Sims ran the Wildcat in the spring but also spent time under center in traditional sets. He looked a better passer than advertised, and his elusiveness gives Alabama an option under center it hasn’t had in quite some time. But Sims may be needed more at running back thanks to injuries and transfers.

Phillip Ely was signed and went through spring practice, but he’ll redshirt barring some kind of bizarre injury luck. Ely is cut from the Greg McElroy mold of game-managing quarterbacks, but his inexperience was clear in the spring. Walk-on Morgan Ogilvie is also around but didn’t play in the spring game, meaning he’s only in the plans for the fall if there are serious and numerous injuries north of him on the depth chart.

RUNNING BACKS (rating: Ex, 1st SEC West, 1st overall)
Despite losing Corey Grant and Demetrius Goode to transfers and Dee Hart to injury, Alabama still ranked atop the SEC’s running backs category. Leading the pack is Trent Richardson, who finally steps out from Mark Ingram’s shadow as the unquestioned leader of the Tide backfield. Richardson doesn’t have Ingram’s cutting ability, but he’s a more powerful runner, arguably faster than Ingram, and is a stellar blocker and receiver. Richardson should be in mix for the Heisman Trophy from the word “go”.

Backing him up are Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler, a pair of thunderous powerbacks who need to polish the edges of their games. Lacy has breakaway speed, but his pass receiving is rough. His blocking skills looked improved in the spring. Fowler, who originally started out at linebacker, is a steamroller with surprising gear speed. He hasn’t been involved in the passing game enough to get a true read on his abilities.

Hart was expected to be the third-team back, but a torn ACL has shelved him for the entire 2011 season. Blake Sims thus becomes an option even though Alabama would prefer to have him as a Wildcat quarterback. Sims is built well enough for the position but probably isn’t an every-down solution. Another possibility is true freshman Brent Calloway, who was to start out at linebacker before the various injuries and suspensions. Calloway is a great athlete, but not necessarily the most instinctive runner. Cornerback signee Christion Jones might also get a look. Walk-ons Ben Howell and Nick Tinker round out the group. Howell runs surprisingly downhill for a walk-on, while Tinker has good bulk. Alabama uses no fullback, although Fowler could be a lead blocker in short-yardage situations.

WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Vg, 3rd SEC West, 4th overall)
Despite losing Julio Jones and Preston Dial to the NFL, Alabama’s wide receiver corps still ranks near the top of the SEC heap thanks to three returning starters. Marquis Maze will have the pressure on him in 2011 as he attempts to replace Jones as Alabama’s go-to receiver. He has speed to burn, but is the antithesis of Jones’ physical presence. Maze prefers to run by rather than through a defender. His problem up to this point has been consistency, as he occasionally disappears for parts (or all) of a game. Without Jones to keep safeties off him, Maze might struggle.

Darius Hanks will miss the first two games as he pays the NCAA back for playing a couple of games before redshirting his first season. While bigger than Maze, he’s still more comfortable in the slot. Hanks has good hands and seems to be at his best when the pressure is on. While he sits early on, Brandon Gibson is likely to get his snaps, and then continue in Hanks’ old role as the third receiver. Gibson is a bit more physical than Hanks and is a key cog on special teams. He lacks top-level speed, however, and doesn’t have a lot of experience despite being a fifth-year senior.

JUCO transfer Duron Carter stands the best chance of being the physical receiver Alabama needs. He is tall and has decent bulk, but still isn’t the fullback-playing-wideout that Jones was over three years. Kevin Norwood is a taller Hanks and had a good spring; he’s one of the few Alabama receivers who looked good catching balls in traffic. Kenny Bell is a pure speed player but has enough height to be able to go up and fight for balls. Bell will get jersey No. 7 all to himself, as Keiwone Malone transferred to Memphis.

Many eyes will be on DeAndrew White, who is perhaps the best mix of speed, size and physicality on the Alabama bench. White redshirted last year and seemed to grow into his frame since arriving in Tuscaloosa. He had a decent spring. Ronald Carswell grayshirted in 2010 but didn’t play much in the spring. He appears to be cut from Hanks’ mold. Michael Bowman certainly has the size and physical presence, but he’s struggled getting open in the past and has been in the coaches’ doghouse recently. Walk-on Hardie Buck may actually get some snaps.

Of the signees, Marvin Shinn and Danny Woodson Jr. both have the height missing from the Tide lineup, but both players need some polishing, especially Woodson, who isn’t eligible at the moment. Bradley Sylve may end up playing as the Tide’s kick and punt returner now that Dee Hart is out. Jabriel Washington was signed as an “athlete” but was expected to open at cornerback. He might get his first look at receiver instead.

At tight end, Michael Williams returns as the starter on the line. He’s a huge presence at 6’7” and thick, and is basically a third offensive tackle. But his hands have developed nicely, and even though he won’t outrun many people, was involved in the passing game more towards the end of 2010 and into the spring. He’s a hard worker. If Alabama employs the Ace package as its base again this year, the other starter will be one of two seniors, Brad Smelley or Chris Underwood. Smelley is a converted quarterback and a good receiver, but is slight as a blocker. He missed several key blocks during the 2010 year. Underwood hasn’t been utilized much since signing in Nick Saban’s first season, but his hands have developed and he had a strong spring showing. He can play either H-back or tight end.

Brian Vogler and Harrison Jones both have intriguing qualities. Jones, originally famous for simply being Barrett Jones’ brother, came on in fall practices last year and then had a nice spring. Like Underwood, he can play either position. Vogler is a traditional tight end and the more accomplished receiver of the two. Walk-on John Baites is restricted to the H position, but he played in a couple of games in late 2010 and could be an option around the goal line in certain packages. Signee Malcolm Faciane is trying to bounce back from major knee surgery, and will likely redshirt given the numbers in front of him.

OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Ex, 1st SEC West, 1st overall)
This is stepping out a bit on faith to rank Alabama’s offensive line as one of the best in the country, because relative to expectations, the Crimson Tide underachieved greatly in 2010, in both pass protection and especially in consistently opening holes in the running game against top opponents.

Frequently, Alabama racked up big yardage against overmatched opponents, but running the ball when it mattered was something the Tide just didn’t do. The problem was mostly the result of injuries to right tackle D.J. Fluker and center William Vlachos, and growing pains on the part of left guard Chance Warmack. All three players find themselves in the mix for all-SEC consideration.

Fluker went from being a gangly, slow curiosity as a redshirting true freshman in 2009 to a starter in 2010, and he got better with every game. He could be Alabama’s next great SEC offensive tackle. Vlachos is a tactician at center and is a tough out despite being one of the smaller starters at his position in the conference. Warmack has all the tools and looked improved in the spring.

The players that start alongside these three will be determined by how Alabama decides to approach the death of Aaron Douglas. Despite finishing the spring as the second-team left tackle, it appeared as if the athletic Douglas would be given every chance to win the job once the fall started. He never got the chance, though, thanks to a tragic overdose following an offseason party. Douglas’ death leaves Barrett Jones as the likely starter at left tackle. Jones finished the spring at the position and held his own at A-Day. Despite playing right guard in 2010, many NFL scouts consider tackle to be his best position.

If Jones stays at left tackle, either sophomore Anthony Steen or senior Alfred McCullough will start at right guard. The coaches love McCullough’s attitude and versatility, but Steen has the greater upside. Fans still grit their teeth, however, remembering Greg McElroy’s fumble against Auburn, which came over Steen’s block. If McCullough doesn’t win the job, he could very well be the top backup at four different positions.

John Michael Boswell has never been able to crack the starting lineup, but he’s versatile enough to play anywhere on the line and should push Warmack at left guard. Kellen Williams finished the spring as Vlachos’ backup in the middle, but Tyler Love was also in the mix for the job prior to a late injury. Love is also in the mix at left tackle along with Arie Kouandjio. Chad Lindsey will push Williams at center. Backing up Fluker at right tackle will be Austin Shepherd, who had a surprisingly good spring.

Isaac Luatua and Ryan Kelly figure to redshirt while competing at both center and guard. The most interesting new addition is Cyrus Kouandjio, who figures to jump right into the battle at left tackle, where he’ll be competing with his own brother. Cyrus Kouandjio is more athletic, but also very raw.

Perhaps the most interesting development to watch will be the development of the line under new offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland. Stoutland replaces Joe Pendry, who retired following the 2010 season. Pendry was regarded as a very cerebral offensive line coach and a stickler for technique. Stoutland is more vocal and aggressive.

DEFENSE

Alabama runs a 3-4 scheme, but for most of 2010, the Crimson Tide played effectively in a 4-2-5 setup thanks to the increasing use of nickel packages in the face of spread offenses. Still, when talking about defensive needs for the upcoming season, most talk is geared towards the base defense for some reason. Alabama opened the 2010 season with questions at linebacker and a defensive secondary projected to be weak; it opens 2011 with the consensus best linebacker/secondary combo in the nation. Funny the difference a year makes. But the defensive line still needs to get better at pressuring the passer, and Alabama appears to be going with a smaller starting lineup on the ends than in years past.

DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Av, 3rd SEC West, 5th overall)
If the starting lineup from spring ball holds, Alabama will enter the 2011 season with a prototypical, stout noseguard in Josh Chapman flanked by two smaller, quicker ends, a decision that marks a move toward a creeping innovation in football defenses: Big men in the middle, smaller players outside who are at home in a zone blitz-heavy scheme.

Damion Square and Ed Stinson were tentatively sitting atop the defensive end depth charts at the end of spring. Square, who was shut down two years ago by a knee injury, finally looked like his pre-injury self. He’s got enough bulk to be able to hold the point of attack, he’s active and he’s instinctive. He’s also a hard worker. Square will start on the strongside, while Stinson gets the weakside assignment. Stinson spent most of 2010 as Courtney Upshaw’s backup at Jack linebacker, but it was a rough performance. He moved to end at midseason, but didn’t have enough bulk for the position then. He’s still slight in build, and struggled at times this spring in the running game, but he does cause problems in pass rush. Stinson will be more effective coming from the corner when Alabama goes to a four-man front.

JUCO transfers Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams will likely be the first two players off the bench. Dial is a physical wonder at 6’6”, 320, and he carries his weight very well. He resembles former Tide great Eric Curry. He’ll likely be the top backup at both positions, now that Darrington Sentimore has transferred to a junior college. Williams, who prepped in Australia, is said to have had a productive offseason in the weight room and will push Chapman this year. Nick Gentry will also play at nosetackle and at both tackle and end in a 4-man front. He’s smaller than Chapman or Williams, but is an accomplished pass rusher.

With Sentimore gone, Undra Billingsley and Brandon Lewis become the top candidates to back up Stinson and Square alongside Dial. Lewis struggled to transition from JUCO last year but had a nice spring and showed more speed and moves than expected. Billingsley can play inside or outside and was athletic enough to be at tight end two years ago, but didn’t do much in 2010. Sentimore’s absence also opens potentially opens up a slot for William Ming, who got into a couple of games last year and played late at A-Day.

Chris Bonds came to UA with plenty of promise two years ago, but has yet to make an impact. He did not play at A-Day. Wilson Love turned heads after being moved to the defensive line from tight end early in spring camp, but like Bonds, did not see the field in the spring game. Brandon Ivory, on the other hand, saw plenty of action in the spring. He’s a nosetackle through and through, and wearing No. 62 makes him look quite a bit like Alabama’s last No. 62, Terrence Cody. Ivory is smaller and quicker, however.

Alabama cleaned up in defensive line recruiting this year. In addition to Williams and Dial, Alabama added Jeoffrey Pagan, D.J. Pettway, LaMichael Fanning and Xzavier Dickson to the mix. Dickson is a pure defensive end and could actually start out at Jack linebacker. Pagan is coming off serious knee surgery and will probably redshirt; it’s similar to the injury that has stalled Bonds’ career. Pettway also needs a redshirt to add bulk. But Fanning is an intriguing player. He projects at either defensive end position but seemed to hit a growth spurt over the last 6-12 months. If he shows up with the right kind of playing attitude, he could force his way onto the field this year.

LINEBACKERS (rating: Ex, 1st SEC West, 1st overall)
No one in college football has Alabama’s talent at linebacker. Inside backers Dont’a Hightower and Nico Johnson were as solid as any last year, and their primary backups, Chris Jordan and C.J. Mosley, are better than 90 percent of the other starters at the college level this year.

And now, you can add Trey DePriest to the mix. DePriest enrolled early in the spring and looked like a three-year veteran once he got up to speed. Alabama probably doesn’t need DePriest to play this year, but it’s going to be nearly impossible to keep him off the field.

At the Jack position, Courtney Upshaw has the talent to be a first-round draft pick in next April’s NFL Draft. He is pushing 6’4”, 270 and has the speed of a running back. Upshaw also plays defensive end in the Tide’s nickel package and is just as effective with his hand down as up. He’s backed up by senior Alex Watkins, a pure speed rusher, and freshman Adrian Hubbard, who is 6’7” and looks like Upshaw’s future clone. Also available is Anthony Orr, who moved from defensive end following the 2010 season. He’s not the pass rusher that Upshaw, Watkins and Hubbard are, but he should be effective against the run.

The one position of concern is strongside backer. Jerrell Harris won the job in the spring, but Harris has looked good in the spring two years running now and hasn’t been able to get it to translate to the field in the fall. He’s a physical freak and has coverage skills that rival some safeties, but he’s prone to overpursuit. Jonathan Atchison is likely to be his top backup; he missed most of the spring with an arm injury but should be good to go. He’s built more stoutly than Harris and should be better against the run. Tana Patrick can play inside or out, but finished the spring playing outside. He can also play Jack. He was highly regarded in high school but is yet to break out at Alabama.

Walk-on DeMarcus DuBose is also in the mix for an inside reserve position, as is Rowdy Harrell. With the defection of Petey Smith over the offseason, it’s possible one of the two could make the traveling squad. Signee Vinnie Sunseri figures to eventually end up at linebacker, but he’s at safety for now.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Ex, 1st SEC West, 1st overall)
Alabama had virtually no returning experience in 2010 outside of safety Mark Barron. But by the end of the year, the Crimson Tide had as many as four possible draft picks for the 2012 NFL Draft.

Chief among those is still Barron, a safety with a linebacker’s build who is also an accomplished centerfielder in pass defense. Barron was injured against Auburn and the effect on Alabama’s defense was immediate and substantial. Robert Lester starts alongside Barron. He led the league in interceptions last year and is as physically imposing as Barron is.

At corner, things are less settled. Dre Kirkpatrick will absolutely start on one side. Opinions vary, but some observers believe Kirkpatrick could leave early for the Draft in April and possibly go high in the first round. Few college corners have his combination of height, speed and ball skills. The other side will be either Demarcus Milliner or DeQuan Menzie. Menzie was slowed for the whole of the 2010 season due to an Achilles injury suffered while playing basketball. But he roared back in the spring, taking the starting job away from Milliner in Alabama’s base package, and playing the Star safety position in nickel with the same level of skill as Javier Arenas used to.

Depth is copious behind these five players. Phelon Jones and John Fulton give Alabama two other game-ready cornerbacks. Walk-on Ranzell Watkins had a strong spring and started for the second defense at A-Day. At safety, Will Lowery returns as the dime safety, while both Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry looked much improved this spring. Williams, in particular, had a strong A-Day and looks like he could be a major contributor in the fall.

Vinnie Sunseri played a good bit at safety at A-Day and is flexible enough to play linebacker. But all eyes will be on another signee, Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, who is built like Barron and Lester and could go flying up the depth chart as soon as he steps on campus. He was the nation’s top safety prospect last year. Alabama also signed a pair of cornerback prospects, Christion Jones and Jabriel Washington, but both are likely to redshirt given Alabama’s depth.

SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Av, 4th SEC West, 7th overall)
Alabama didn’t lose either its kicker(s) or punter from 2010, but special teams were still a problem in the spring. Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster split the kicking duties last year, with Foster handling longer kicks and kickoffs. Kicking was erratic in the spring from both kickers. But the same story was true in spring 2010, yet Alabama had it fixed before the first game of the fall.

Cody Mandell finished 2010 as the starting punter, but he was pushed hard by Jay Williams in the spring. The battle appeared to be too close to call. Both players have strong legs, but need to be more consistent.

The real question is who will handle returns. Dee Hart had things locked down in the spring, but a knee injury will keep him out for the year. Kickoffs could end up falling back to Trent Richardson, but Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze both figure to be in the mix, as well as perhaps Blake Sims. Maze is a leading candidate to take over punt returns along with Kenny Bell and Dre Kirkpatrick. Fans, however, are clamoring to see true freshman Bradley Sylve, whose high school films displayed plenty of prowess in the return game. Fellow signee Jabriel Washington could also be an option there.

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