Five positions to watch as spring football nears

 

Jan. 21, 2012; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA;  Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban looks out at the crowd behind  the Coaches' Trophy during the Alabama Football National Championship Celebration at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Photo Credit: Kelly Lambert-US PRESSWIRE
Alabama Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban looks out at the crowd behind the Coaches' Trophy during the Alabama Football National Championship Celebration at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Photo Credit: Kelly Lambert-US PRESSWIRE

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

Feb. 20, 2012

 

Alabama’s basketball tournament hopes might be the top topic of interest at the moment – with the health of the Crimson Tide’s baseball program running a close second – but it’s never too early to talk spring football.

Alabama lost seven starters from its 2011 defense and six from its starting offense, making the upcoming 2012 season somewhat analogous to the 2010 team. The 2010 team finished the season with three losses and might be one of the most frustrating stories in recent Tide football history. It coughed up a late-season game against Auburn that could have derailed a championship, provided erstwhile South Carolina QB Stephen Garcia with his lone career highlight, and ended the season in a second-tier bowl despite being one of the most talented teams in school history.

The 2012 team will have to avoid many of the same pitfalls. Like the 2010 team, Alabama’s 2012 team will have its quarterback back, but A.J. McCarron will have to avoid Greg McElroy’s 2010 fate – statistical improvement, but not necessarily improvement in the overall product of his play.

Here’s a look at all positions that will be open this spring, highlighting five we think stand out from the others:

1. Nosetackle

Departed: Josh Chapman, Nick Gentry

Competing: Jesse Williams, Undra Billingsley, Brandon Ivory, Wilson Love

Analysis: In 2010, Alabama transitioned from Terrence Cody to Josh Chapman. Chapman wasn’t as ready then to handle the responsibility as many thought he’d be, but by the end of the 2011 season, Chapman became as irreplaceable as Cody was. The Chapman-Nick Gentry combination became downright nasty in 2011, with Chapman the ideal 3-4 noseguard and Gentry one of the conference’s best inside pass rushers. Alabama has a choice to make headed into 2012: Move Jesse Williams over from the tackle/end combo slot, a position he thrived at in 2011, or hope Brandon Ivory is ready. Alabama got a sneak peak at this conundrum when the Tide took on Georgia Southern. Gentry was suspended and Chapman hurt, and Williams had been violently sick the week leading up to the game. Undra Billingsley started the game, but struggled. Ivory played solidly in relief. Ivory is a traditional 3-4 noseguard, while Billingsley is more of a 4-3 strongside tackle. Wilson Love is smaller and might be able to fill Gentry’s role. This battle figures to be filled with fireworks through the spring and into the fall.

2. Center

Departed: William Vlachos

Competing: Barrett Jones, Chad Lindsey, Kellen Williams, Tyler Love, Isaac Luatua, Ryan Kelly

Analysis: Alabama’s story arc of 2009-2011 mimics Vlachos’ story. He shone in 2009 and 2011, but struggled at times in 2010, and Alabama’s offensive line fortunes did the same. Heading into 2012, Alabama has a choice similar to the one it faces at nosetackle: Move Barrett Jones over from left tackle, or open the job to competition from a couple of journeyman backups and rookies with little experience. Assuming Jones stays at tackle, Chad Lindsey would enter spring the prohibitive favorite. He unseated Kellen Williams’ as Vlachos’ primary backup toward the end of 2011, and has much more of the prototypical center build and emotional makeup than does Williams. Williams ended the season at guard. Tyler Love has struggled to find playing time over a career now entering its fifth year, but he was in the mix to back up Vlachos last fall before an injury took him down. Luatua and Kelly seem more likely to be backups at guard next year; both are redshirt freshmen. The end path is unclear at this point, but if Alabama wants to put its five best linemen on the field, the lineup would seem to have to include Cyrus Kouandjio. The only way Kouandjio gets on the field at this point? Move Jones to center.

3. Strongside linebacker

Departed: Jerrell Harris, Alex Watkins

Competing: Jonathan Atchison, Tana Patrick, Adrian Hubbard, Trey DePriest, Dillon Lee

Analysis: Prior to the 2011 season, we highlighted this position as a critical part of Alabama’s defense despite it being an afterthought in 2010. Jerrell Harris eventually grabbed the spot, and his play over the course of the 2011 season – and especially in the postseason – demonstrated just how important the SLB post is in Alabama’s defense. It’s typically the first position that comes off the field when Alabama goes to a nickel set, but having Harris develop into an effective coverage linebacker and run-stopper allowed Alabama much more flexibility than it had in 2010, when Chavis Williams played an entire season without making one memorable play whatsoever. As for 2012, the choice would be simple if health wasn’t an issue: Jonathan Atchison is the only true strongside linebacker on the roster, but he has been either slowed or completely sidelined at times while battling a serious elbow injury. The other competitors each have at least one major knock against them. Tana Patrick has practiced far more at inside linebacker than outside linebacker, and has been slow to pick up the defense. Adrian Hubbard is bigger than the ideal SLB, and seems much better suited to the Jack position. Trey DePriest is an inside linebacker and would have to play SLB out of necessity. Dillon Lee is a true freshman and seemingly more suited for inside duty. This one may go to the fall when Reggie Ragland and Tyler Hayes arrive in town.

4. H-back

Departed: Brad Smelley

Competing: Harrison Jones, Brian Vogler, Malcolm Faciane, Brandon Lewis, Tommy Keys

Analysis: Preston Dial manned this position in 2009 and 2010, and when he graduated, there was much hand-wringing over how anyone could replace him. Turns out Brad Smelley not only replaced him, but by the end of 2011, was probably better than Dial had ever been. The problem with the guys fighting for the 2012 job isn’t that they’re bad players, it’s that none of them are built like Dial and Smelley were. Tommy Keys comes the closest, but he was a walk-on to the program in 2011 and there’s no guarantee he’ll even be with the squad in 2012. The other four names are all built more like traditional tight ends. Among them, Brian Vogler finished 2011 highest on any depth chart. While Brandon Lewis is the only one of the four to see significant duty before the onset of mop-up time, Vogler had supplanted him as the 2011 season came to a close. Vogler is pushing 6’7” and might not have the flexibility necessary to play the H-back position, which, in Alabama’s offense, is sort of a hybrid fullback/wideout. Lewis, a converted defensive tackle, would be more along the lines of Travis McCall, who played there during Nick Saban’s first two seasons – a dedicated blocker only tangentially involved in the passing game. Faciane would figure somewhere in between Lewis and Vogler. The wild card is Harrison Jones, brother of tackle/center Barrett Jones, who seems to have grown since arriving on campus and might have outgrown the position. Had WR/TE Michael Bowman not been suspended late in the 2011 season, he might have been the favorite for the job; his status at this point is uncertain.

5. Running back

Departed: Trent Richardson

Competing: Eddie Lacy, Dee Hart, Blake Sims, Jalston Fowler, T.J. Yeldon

Analysis: The sheer magnitude of Richardson’s departure to the NFL makes this position battle one of great interest to the fan base. Eddie Lacy would seem to have it wrapped up already. He’s the only player with significant game experience, and his combination of speed and power seems made to order. But Lacy has had a problem staying healthy, making it imperative to find at least two other players not only capable of playing the position, but capable of gaining the coaches’ trust. The most talented of the others is Dee Hart, but Hart has had his own injury problems, is coming off major knee surgery and isn’t the ideal size for the Alabama offense. Jalston Fowler has the most experience outside of Lacy, and is a huge running back at nearly 260 pounds, but he runs with a narrow base and has just one real “move” – attempting to run over defenders the way asphalt steamrollers regard a plug of bubble gum. Blake Sims would give Alabama some intriguing trick-play flexibility to its offense, thanks to his previous experience as a quarterback, but Sims is still raw and learning the position. T.J. Yeldon may stand the best chance of challenging Lacy. Although just a true freshman, Yeldon has the ideal size/speed makeup for the position. The arrival of Kenyan Drake in the fall just adds more talent to the mix.

And now, the other positions up for grabs, in no particular order …

6 & 7. Both wide receiver positions

Departed: Darius Hanks, Marquis Maze, Brandon Gibson

Competing: Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White, Marvin Shinn, Danny Woodson Jr., Duron Carter, Christion Jones, Hardie Buck, Amari Cooper, Chris Black

Quick analysis: Norwood is coming off a breakout performance in the BCS Championship Game. Bell has shown promise. White showed flashes in 2011, but was too inconsistent. Carter’s size gives him an inside shot to win a job if he maintains eligibility. Jones figures to have a role of some kind. Shinn and Woodson both have good size, but no experience. Shinn is apparently further ahead. Buck, a walk-on, may get a handful of snaps. A deep recruiting class will shake this group up, with two of them (Cooper, Black) already enrolled. Alabama typically plays a maximum of seven receivers in its “A” rotation, so some will be left out.

8. Right guard

Departed: Alfred McCullough

Competing: Anthony Steen, Isaac Luatua, Ryan Kelly, Kellen Williams, Arie Kouandjio

Quick analysis: This is Steen’s job to lose. Kouandjio might make some noise if he moves over from tackle.

9. Middle linebacker

Departed: Dont’a Hightower, Chris Jordan

Competing: Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley, Tana Patrick, Trey DePriest, Dillon Lee

Quick analysis: Hightower is off to the NFL, leaving the loser of the Johnson-Mosley battle at weakside linebacker to take this spot. Actually, Alabama flexed its inside linebackers so often in 2011, all three players ended up playing both the middle and weak positions. There won’t be any dropoff here unless Mosley can’t shake the aftereffects of an ugly hip injury sustained in the BCS title game. DePriest would be next in line.

10. Jack linebacker

Departed: Courtney Upshaw

Competing: Adrian Hubbard, Xzavier Dickson, Anthony Orr, William Ming, Ryan Anderson

Quick analysis: Hubbard is next in line, but if he has to move to strongside backer, Dickson figures to get the position. Orr had a great spring in 2011 but never played during the year. Ming may be looking at another position change in the spring after floating between Jack and end for two seasons. Anderson is the wild card, and will push Hubbard and Dickson sooner rather than later.

11 & 12. Both cornerback positions

Departed: Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie, Phelon Jones

Competing: Dee Milliner, Deion Belue, Travell Dixon, John Fulton, Ranzell Watkins, Bradley Sylve, Jabriel Washington, Caleb Castille

Quick analysis: Milliner was a starter in 2010 and practically a starter in 2011, playing in every package except the 3-4 base. He’ll be fine. The big question is whether John Fulton gets promoted at the other corner slot, or whether one of Alabama’s incoming JUCOs, Deion Belue and Travell Dixon, takes the slot. The fact Alabama took two JUCOs should be indicative of what the coaches think of Fulton’s development so far, but there may be room for all to play. Watkins and Castille are walk-ons; Watkins made the “A” group last spring before falling behind once fall practice started. Sylve, a converted receiver, and Washington figure to play on special teams. Both are smallish and need more seasoning.

13. Strong safety

Departed: Mark Barron, Will Lowery

Competing: Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, Nick Perry, Jarrick Williams, Vinnie Sunseri

Quick analysis: Thanks to Alabama’s depth, it’s possible the Tide could lose a first-round draft pick at the position and not feel it. Sunseri stepped in when Lowery went down with an ACL tear late in the year and not only was there not a dropoff in performance, Sunseri was arguably better. Both Perry and Williams have played sparingly the last two years and are special teams fixtures, but most eyes are on Clinton-Dix, who is almost identical in height, weight, speed and body type to Barron.

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