But even the most thankful, even-tempered recruiting fan is looking to February 2013 as a significant time mark on Saban’s Alabama career track.
The reason? Saban will need to feed the machine.
For the first time since Saban’s arrival on campus, Alabama will have two position groups – offensive tackle and quarterback – with a significant talent concern in their lower classes. Putting aside for a moment the realization that the majority of schools would be happy with two position groups being strengths, let alone having the kind of depth across the roster that Alabama enjoys, the reality is Alabama is college football’s superior team at the moment – and Alabama’s placement there didn’t happen overnight, nor did it come easily.
Finding replacements at those positions will be especially important given that left tackle and quarterback are the two most important positions, arguably, on a professional football team. While Alabama is, of course, a college team, it is a program cast in the NFL mold, built to be multiple in its attack strategies and able to control the clock at will. Weakness at QB and tackle threatens this superiority.
Here’s a look at how four of Alabama’s position groups will stack up heading into the 2012-2013 recruiting cycle.
Returning for 2013: A.J. McCarron, Phillip Sims, Phillip Ely, Alec Morris
What’s the problem?: At first blush, Alabama would appear to be more than fine heading into 2013. The problem is, quarterback recruiting is its own unique endeavor, with its own rules.
The rule for top-level programs is stated succinctly: The program must sign a true top-level talent in each cycle, or at the very least in every other cycle. Alabama hasn’t done it recently. The Tide’s last two QB recruits, Phillip Ely and Alec Morris, are a mixed bag of scouting reports (Ely more so than Morris), compared to McCarron and Sims, who could both write their own tickets coming out of high school.
The conundrum becomes a real problem if McCarron has a big junior year in 2012 and opts for early entry to the draft. Sims has shown a lot of talent and playmaking ability since his arrival to campus, but has been shut down for part of spring practice with a shoulder flare-up.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that as many as 11 prep quarterbacks are thought to hold committable offers from Alabama at the moment. The Tide would have loved to have landed Max Browne, considered by most to be the top available signal-caller at his position this year, but Browne ended the drama early by picking USC. Alabama seems to be more in the mix with a pair of North Carolina prospects, Connor Mitch and Riley Ferguson, along with Cooper Bateman of Utah. But are any of the three considered a blue-chipper? It may be too early to tell.
Returning for 2013: Cyrus Kouandjio, Arie Kouandjio, Austin Shepherd, Kellen Williams, D.J. Fluker, Brandon Greene, Brandon Hill
What’s the problem? Few people expect Fluker to exercise his fifth year of eligibility, to the extent that we almost decided not to list him here. Take Fluker out of the mix and it should become very clear what the problem is.
Both Kouandjio brothers have had knee issues, which is disturbing given the role family genetics can play in predicting future injuries. The other issue is that Arie Kouandjio wasn’t exactly setting the practice field afire before he got hurt. Right tackle in 2013 has the potential to be a tripwire if Arie Kouandjio or Austin Shepherd can’t step up. Kellen Williams is currently the second-team left tackle, but that might be a product of necessity alone. All eyes will be on true freshman Brandon Greene in the fall to see if he looks capable of quickly picking up the system. Brandon Hill, if he qualifies, may go inside.
Even if Shepherd or Kouandjio come around at right tackle, the Tide needs depth. Specifically, it needs a manhandler at the right tackle position and an understudy for Cyrus Kouandjio on the other side. So far, Alabama has taken commitments from Grant Hill, Andy Dodd and Bradley Bozeman, but Bozeman is probably the only tackle prospect among the trio. Look for Alabama to target more players as the season goes along, notably among them Kenneth Santa Maria, who has a guard’s body but the footwork necessary to play tackle.
Returning for 2013: Tana Patrick, C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest, Dillon Lee, Denzel Devall, Reggie Ragland
What’s the problem? Two, specifically: the likelihood that C.J. Mosley declares for the NFL a year early, and if Alabama has an issue finding a run-plugger to replace Nico Johnson. Trey DePriest certainly looks the part, but observers say he plays more like Mosley; i.e., more comfortable playing laterally and in space rather than coming into the line to take on a power back head-on.
The greatest unknown, though, is how Alabama’s 2012 class haul will look after the whole group is together in Tuscaloosa. Dillon Lee is there now, and he’s being shuttled between inside and outside linebacker while the coaches try to pick the best landing spot for him. Ragland has the size to play inside, but he also has the length to play outside. Devall looks like a manhole cover, so he might be the eventual answer to the question.
Reuben Foster, considered the top LB recruit in the country, is currently committed to Alabama. But Georgia and Auburn aren’t going to stop their pursuit until Foster’s signature has officially arrived somewhere. Even with Foster in the fold, Alabama would probably like to land another big body. Alex Anzelone is one option, and Walker Jones is another. Jones, the brother of current Tiders Barrett Jones and Harrison Jones, may end up at H-back or defensive end eventually, but he does have the attributes necessary to play inside. Anzelone could also end up on offense.
Another name to watch is current Auburn commitment Carl Lawson.
Returning for 2013: Brian Vogler, Harrison Jones, Kurt Frietag, Malcolm Faciane
What’s the problem? Numbers. Alabama starts two tight ends in its base package, and preferably one of them is an H-back, sort of a combination of fullback, tight end and wide receiver. Alabama is preparing to go into 2012 without a true H-back, with Brian Vogler or Harrison Jones likely holding down the job for the time being. Whether either holds onto the job long-term depends on Kurt Frietag being ready to step in and compete for time, and also how recruiting for the position comes together.
Currently, Alabama holds a commitment from O.J. Howard, who projects as the ideal H-back, but who could also find himself at linebacker. The real threat to his chances at tight end is not whatever linebacker prowess he might possess, however; it’s a recent push from Auburn to get him to flip his commitment. Howard’s commitment to Alabama doesn’t seem to be ironclad at the moment.
Finding a true H could prove to be difficult. Hunter Henry holds an Alabama offer, but getting top players out of Arkansas hasn’t been easy in recent years. Another name to watch is Standish Dobard, a Louisiana prospect. Alabama is also involved with a couple of larger receivers, like Tampa’s Travis Johnson, who might grow into the position eventually.
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