By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
April 11, 2012
After two national championships in three seasons, it’s almost inconceivable to think that Alabama might actually have a few positions of instability heading into a season. But it’s true.
Thanks to injuries, position experimentation and plain ol’ graduation, there will be several areas of interest for patrons to watch Saturday. Here’s a brief rundown.
1. Is Jalston Fowler the real deal?
The answer is, he’d better be. Starting tailback Eddie Lacy has yet to complete a season in Tuscaloosa without having to endure a significant injury. This spring, Lacy was joined on the training table by Blake Sims (basketball injury) and T.J. Yeldon (hand). Fowler, therefore, has gotten most of the snaps with the 1s. Given Nick Saban’s preference for experience in key positions, Fowler would seem to be the favorite to back up Lacy once the fall arrives. For A-Day, Fowler will work with the first offense, while Dee Hart will probably run with the 2s. Yeldon and walk-on is also available, but the real interest will be in Fowler going against Alabama’s top defenders.
2. The men in the middle
Jesse Williams slides from defensive end to nosetackle, replacing Josh Chapman. Williams was never challenged for the job this spring from either Brandon Ivory or Wilson Love, and was good enough that Alphonse Taylor will likely spend A-Day as an offensive lineman. Williams gives Alabama all seniors starting on the defensive line (Damion Square and Quinton Dial get the call at end) and should be a better pass rusher than was Chapman, although Chapman absolutely disabled some opposing running games. Depth could be an issue here if Ivory and Love take longer than expected to develop. Incoming freshman Dakota Ball was impressive in all-star games last winter and might have to contribute in 2012.
3. Strongside linebacker is a fact, Jack
Jerrell Harris could wind up being one of the Tide’s most-missed players in 2012. But Adrian Hubbard is trying to ensure a smooth transition. Whereas Harris was a 6’3”, 220-pound, bulked-up safety, Hubbard is a 6’7”, 250-pound defensive end who can run. Saban is said to consider the strongside linebacker and Jack positions to be mirrors of one another; if that’s true, the combination of Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson at Jack this year ought to be a thing of beauty – or terror, depending on the color of one’s jersey. The other question is whether enough depth exists. Jonathan Atchison backs up Hubbard. He needs to show he has recovered from a serious elbow injury. At Jack, true freshman Ryan Anderson won’t stay benched for long. He’s competing with Chris Bonds, Anthony Orr and possibly William Ming for playing time.
4. The new Good Hands People
Alabama lost three senior wideouts from the 2011 team and a fourth, junior college transfer Duron Carter, has yet to join the team. Had Kevin Norwood not emerged as a playmaker in the BCS Championship Game, there would be much more nervousness heading into 2012. Along with Norwood, Kenny Bell and Christion Jones have had strong springs. DeAndrew White is also expected to do big things, although he’s been battling injuries. True freshman Amari Cooper is likely the next option ahead of fellow signee Chris Black and redshirts Marvin Shinn and Danny Woodson Jr. Walk-on Nathan McAlister put up gaudy stats in an earlier scrimmage, but with the incoming signing class, it will be difficult for any walk-on to break into the playing rotation. Settling on a rotation of 6-7 people will be a priority.
5. Big guys, thin position
The offensive line hasn’t exactly been the bastion of good health recently, especially at tackle, where Arie Kouandjio has been limited. Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker will be the tackles for the 1s, but the 2s will have to make do with Austin Shepherd, last year’s fourth tackle, and Kellen Williams, who has played only at guard or center his first three seasons. There is little, if any depth behind them for A-Day, and what’s there will mostly be walk-ons. The interior will also be limited Saturday. Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen will frame Barrett Jones for the first offense, while the second offense will probably use a combination of Ryan Kelly, Isaac Luatua and Alphonse Taylor in the middle. Chad Lindsey is also available. More help is on the way in the fall, fortunately.
6. Spies say kicking is better
If you’re looking for a position that might just be vastly improved from 2011, consider kicker and/or punter. Word from Tuscaloosa is that all kickers are doing better, particularly punter Cody Mandell. It remains to be seen how much improvement will be shown during A-Day – the format of the event sometimes doesn’t even allow for live kicking – but any improvement will be welcomed after the debacle against LSU in November that nearly cost the Tide a title shot.
7. Will the offense be any different?
With Doug Nussmeier taking over for Jim McElwain as offensive coordinator, some aspects of the offense are bound to be different. Alabama is expected to retain the same basic offensive look, although some of the route combinations in the passing game might be more intricate. Restrictions on the defense during A-Day (there are few blitzes, and the defense often stays either in Cover 1 or Cover 3 base) make it difficult to evaluate the playcalling, but fans will be looking for any nugget of information they can get. Alabama has been known to toss in a couple of gadget plays at A-Day under Saban, either just for fun or to give foreign spies something to worry about for the upcoming season. Let’s see if Alabama does it again this Saturday.
8. Whither the H-back?
With Brad Smelley now trying to get a shot at playing in the pros, Alabama has to fill the vacant H-back position. The only problem is, the Tide doesn’t have a true H on the roster. Brian Vogler appears to have the position now, with Harrison Jones and Brandon Lewis also in the mix. The most intriguing name is probably Brent Calloway, who started practice at running back, moved to strongside linebacker and is now at H. He might just stick there, too, as Alabama prefers the H position to be more athletic and versatile than the Y spot.
9. Belue, Dixon try to corner a starting job
With Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie preparing for the NFL Draft, there exists two openings for new starting cornerbacks in Alabama’s defense. Dee Milliner is expected to move up into Menzie’s old slot, while John Fulton’s light apparently came on this spring, and he’ll probably start on the other side. But Alabama uses three corners as often as it uses two, and that’s where JUCO transfers Deion Belue and Travell Dixon come in. Dixon, with his 6’2” size and good speed, was expected to nail down a position early on, but it hasn’t happened that way just yet. Deion Belue is pushing both Fulton and Milliner and is solidly ahead of Dixon at last report. The fourth corner figures to be an odd man out for Alabama, which typically plays only three corners and three safeties on gameday, barring injury. So the stakes are high.
10. Can Ely get the job done?
One of the unexpected developments of spring was backup quarterback Phillip Sims being shut down due to shoulder bursitis. As a result, Alabama has Phillip Ely and a cast of walk-ons to duel against A.J. McCarron at A-Day. Ely got a little work at A-Day last year, but not much. He’ll see much more action this time around, and his progress will be closely watched. With McCarron one great season away from early entry into the NFL Draft, Alabama could be facing the prospect of having Ely siting one snap away from a starting job in the very near future.