By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 17, 2012
The great thing about college football is it never ends. The worst thing about college football – it never ends.
Alabama knew the day would come when one or both of its celebrated coordinators would leave for jobs elsewhere. So far, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is staying put. But offensive coordinator Jim McElwain will begin his career as a head coach at Colorado State. Not the easiest job in the world, but manageable.
Unfortunately, Alabama also has to replace ace recruiter Sal Sunseri, who left behind Alabama and his son Vinnie for a shot at coordinating Tennessee’s defense.
Ahead for head coach Nick Saban and whatever assistants he can muster is the closing month of recruiting season. National Signing Day is Feb. 1, and currently Alabama has no worse than an even-money shot at finishing – again – with the nation’s top class.
Then there is spring practice to consider, and with such a large number of seniors and juniors leaving the program, there will be a handful of questions to consider as practice begins, primarily about personnel groupings and position moves.
Here’s a quick look at some of those topics.
What to make of Alabama’s next offensive coordinator?
If there’s one thing our earlier article on offensive coordinator candidates correctly predicted, it’s that the names associated with the job in the beginning stages of the search would be inaccurate by the time someone was actually hired. Neither Doug Nussmeier (Washington), Brian Schottenheimer (New York Jets) nor Pep Hamilton (Stanford) were on the original list. However, all of them either have direct or indirect ties to Nick Saban or have/had NFL experience.
Nussmeier followed Jim McElwain as offensive coordinator at Fresno State and served on the same Michigan State staff, under John L. Smith, as McElwain did. Schottenheimer played at Florida and coached for awhile for Steve Spurrier before moving onto the NFL, and is, of course, the son of longtime NFL head coach Marty Schottenheimer. Hamilton’s ties to the Alabama job are the weakest of the three, but he did have several years experience in the NFL with the Jets (albeit not with Schottenheimer), Bears and 49ers.
With Nussmeier all but official to Alabama, here’s a brief rundown of Washington’s offense in 2011: 63rd rushing, 35th passing, 38th total offense. Those numbers won’t get anyone excited, but the Huskies were 25th in scoring offense, which points to an offense that didn’t amass as much yardage as some, but was highly efficient when it did get scoring chances. This is backed up by the fact the Huskies had the nation’s 7th-leading quarterback in terms of efficiency, Keith Price, and also had a top-20 running back, Chris Polk, who finished 16th in the nation in total rushing. An offense that isn’t flashy, but puts up points and is efficient – where have we heard that before?
This hire is more lunchpail than luxury, but it likely means a smooth transition and a continuance of the same dominating style Alabama has crafted from 2008 onward.
What’s left to do in recruiting?
When Jordan Jenkins chose Georgia, that muddied the picture somewhat. The subsequent media uproar over RB Justin Taylor, who apparently will be grayshirting but likely to stick with Alabama, suggests that Alabama has an extra target or two it wants to add before National Signing Day.
With Jenkins off the table, Alabama figures to be targeting around 10 players. The names of at least seven of those are known: WR Dorial Green-Beckham, QB Jameis Winston, DT Eddie Goldman, DT Korren Kirven, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, QB/TE Jeremy Liggins and OL Arik Armstead.
Green-Beckham is probably the longest shot on the board, although he’d be the biggest prize. He’s expected to pick Missouri over Arkansas. Winston is committed to Florida State but most expect him to reevaluate his pick before Feb. 1. Alabama is no worse than a 50-50 shot there.
For as many as three of the others, Alabama looks like the current No. 2 selection, which unfortunately, doesn’t get you anything. Goldman is thought to be leaning to Florida State, while Armstead is looking hard at Notre Dame. In both cases, Auburn is a major player. Kirven’s name has shot to prominence recently and Alabama is thought to lead. Alabama’s interest in Tomlinson is unclear, but might signal that Alabama is falling behind with Goldman.
Liggins is intriguing for several reasons. The first, he could easily step into the vacant H-back position Alabama has in its offense (more on that in the next section). But he’s also considered a legitimate quarterback prospect by many analysts. LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are all believed to be even with Alabama or ahead at the moment.
Wait and see.
What storylines will top the list as spring practice starts?
The easy one is the fight to replace Trent Richardson. In reality, that’s about the third- or fourth-most important battle to be fought this spring.
Reason being, there is no replacing Trent Richardson. Line up someone and hand him the ball. A Trent Richardson can’t be developed; he can only be born. Time will tell if Eddie Lacy, Dee Hart, Jalston Fowler, etc., will be up to the task.
Instead, keep a watchful eye on these three position battles, as they’ll determine the makeup of both Alabama’s defense and its offense: H-back, nosetackle, strongside linebacker.
In Nick Saban’s first two years, the Crimson Tide ran a straight Ace-package offense with two tight ends, Nick Walker and Travis McCall. Both players were blockers first and foremost, particularly H-back McCall. But beginning in 2009 with the emergence first of Preston Dial and then Brad Smelley, Alabama’s offense morphed into a softer Ace look. In 2011, Smelley redefined the role as essentially a “flex” position.
Moreover, Alabama has no one who can replace him.
Harrison Jones and Brian Vogler are both built like traditional tight ends. Converted defensive end Brandon Lewis looks like a blocking specialist. No one has seen Malcolm Faciane yet, but he’s considered more of a tight end prospect and many believe he could actually bulk up and move to tackle. Jalston Fowler might be Alabama’s best hope. Wideout Michael Bowman would probably have had as good a shot as any this spring, but he appeared to make a return visit to Saban’s doghouse late in 2011 and was left off the BCS Championship Game roster.
Signee Kurt Frietag would seem to be a candidate, but rumblings are that Frietag might begin his career on defense. If you’re looking for a real off-the-grid choice, look at DE Undra Billingsley or JLB William Ming. Billingsley wears No. 86 today thanks to being moved to tight end for a brief time as a freshman. Ming played some tight end in high school and is currently buried on the depth chart at Jack. The takeaway here is that without a flex player in 2012, Alabama might have to revert to its pre-2009 offensive strategy, or go more open with three wideouts.
Defensively, Alabama must find a nosetackle to replace Josh Chapman. Undra Billingsley started the Georgia Southern game there but didn’t finish it. Brandon Ivory played the back half of the game and did a reasonably good job. Jesse Williams could be asked to play there, but he was very effective playing the combination tackle/end position last year. If Williams moves in, look for Quinton Dial to start in his old spot. There’s probably no set of circumstances that would provoke Nick Saban to switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, but it bears noting that Alabama could find itself hoping for a true freshman to step up at noseguard in the fall – not the best of scenarios.
The strongside linebacker position carries with it at least one noteworthy fact: In both championship years under Saban, the position played a key positive role in the defense despite being the first LB position to be removed from the field when the defense went to nickel. In 2009, Cory Reamer progressed from being a part-time player to an important part of the Tide’s rush defense. In 2011, Jerrell Harris went from being a potential recruiting bust to a key component of the Tide’s defensive success, and capped it off by permanently installing himself in Jordan Jefferson’s nightmares.
On the flip side, Alabama did not get great play in 2010 out of the Harris/Chavis Williams combination, and in 2008, the Harris-Reamer combination was similarly problematic.
For 2012, Alabama has precious few choices. Jonathan Atchison is the only true SLB on the roster, but he’s been hounded for two years by elbow problems and was not able to dress out for the second half of the season. Adrian Hubbard, the heir apparent at Jack, might have to take over the spot, but he seems almost too big for it. Tana Patrick is another option. The key is to find not just a placeholder for the position, but a playmaker.
For now, the next priority is to finish strongly on National Signing Day, which will involve not only closing on a handful of final targets, but also keeping some in the fold who may have been loyal to former coaches McElwain and Sunseri.
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