The last time Alabama defended a national championship, the results were disappointing – if you can call a 10-win season in the SEC “disappointing.” This time around, the Crimson Tide benefits from better balance, more overall talent and fewer critical losses on defense than the 2010 team had to endure. This team is strong along both lines of scrimmage.
Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (LG, C, RG, RT, QB, TE)
Returning Defensive Starters: 5 (E, NT, MLB, RCB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Projected Overall Record: 11-1 (LSU)
Projected SEC Record: 7-1 (LSU)
Projected SEC West Record: 5-1 (LSU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Vg Defensive Line: Vg
Running Backs: Vg Linebackers: Vg
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Vg
Offensive Line: Ex Special Teams: Av
Alabama’s offense will be changing, albeit it microscopically, in 2012. Jim McElwain is now the head coach at Colorado State, and Doug Nussmeier has replaced him as offensive coordinator. This is still Nick Saban’s offense, to be sure, a ground-control attack that relies on the pass the keep defenses off-balance. In previous years, Alabama has focused its efforts on a twin-TE Ace package as the offensive base, with liberal sprinklings of three- and four-WR sets. Look for a possible return of the fullback in 2012 to complement these looks.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Vg; 2nd SEC West, 4th overall)
A.J. McCarron answered all critics in 2011, putting together a breakout season that culminated in a command performance in the BCS Championship Game. He’ll be asked to shoulder more of the load in 2012 thanks to a running back group filled with question marks, inexperience and injury concerns. McCarron displayed a strong arm in 2011 and better mobility than he was thought to have had, but he’s still primarily a pocket-based gunslinger. The key in 2012 will be staying healthy, as Alabama does not have unlimited options behind him.
After Phillip Sims transferred following spring practice, the most likely backup emerging from fall camp may be first-quarterback-then-running-back Blake Sims. An injury prevented Sims from participating in most spring drills, but fans caught a glimpse of his throwing abilities in spring 2011. He’s not a polished passer and would have to rely on his running skills to be successful, and it’s doubtful Alabama could run its full offense under Sims. But the alternatives might not be much better.
Phillip Ely held the backup job through spring and did appear to have improved since his first camp, but arm strength is an issue on intermediate throws. True freshman Alec Morris arrived in fall camp certainly looking the part, and has been impressive in early drills. The big question is whether coaches would feel comfortable with a true freshman pulling the trigger.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Vg; 2nd SEC West, 3rd overall)
This is a grade given mostly on potential. Eddie Lacy can be as good as anyone – or better – but only when he’s healthy. He’s been dinged up quite a bit over his career so far and is still battling the aftereffects of a major bout with turf toe. He didn’t do much this spring and is being shielded in the fall, but that only goes so far. When healthy, he has a mix of speed and power matched in the conference only by Arkansas’ Knile Davis and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore.
True freshman T.J. Yeldon seems the most likely backup. He had put together a strong spring camp and then broke out at Alabama’s A-Day event. Yeldon still needs to work on pad level and bouncing plays too far outside too quickly, but those are errors of youth and he already looks much improved over post-high school all-star games.
Blake Sims might still get work at running back, particularly if Alec Morris or Phillip Ely wins the backup quarterback job outright. Sims was beginning to make a name for himself late in the 2011 season. Otherwise, Dee Hart will likely fill out the top rotation at the position. Hart is smaller than ideal for the position, but he has tons of speed and can make plays in the passing game. Another true freshman, Kenyan Drake, has shown good ability since reporting to campus, but is a likely redshirt. Walk-on Ben Howell has played in games before, but is probably not a candidate for regular playing time.
And that leaves Jalston Fowler, who started in Lacy’s place with the first offense at A-Day. Fowler is an outsized running back at 6’1” and more than 260 pounds, and in a straight line is a battering ram. But he does lack the breakaway moves of Lacy and Yeldon, and has some work to do as a receiver out of the backfield. He figures to get some time at running back in short-yardage situations, but might also start at H-back, particularly if Alabama decides to make the position more about backfield running than the flex tight end position it’s been since Saban arrived in 2007.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Av; 4th SEC West, 6th overall)
A lack of experience is all that separates this group from potential greatness. Kevin Norwood is being asked to be the bellcow of the unit, and his breakout performance in the BCS title game suggests he can do it. Staying healthy is his only real issue at this point, as it has been a problem for him in the past. Across from Norwood will be either Kenny Bell or Christion Jones, and the odd man out becomes the starter in Alabama’s three-wide set. Jones is a tough, good-hands playmaker who will go across the middle, while Bell has top-of-the-conference speed.
The real question is how long will those three keep true freshman Amari Cooper in their rear-view mirror. Cooper flew under the radar a bit as a prepster in south Florida, but lit up offseason all-star games and then showed out in Alabama’s spring drills. He has special ability and is one of the best pure route-runners at this age that Alabama has ever signed.
Depth is in good shape, even without Duron Carter, who finally washed out of the program and transferred to Florida Atlantic. DeAndrew White has starting experience, while redshirt freshman Marvin Shinn has the kind of size offenses covet around the goal line. Cyrus Jones, another true freshman, and redshirt Danny Woodson Jr. round out the top group. Another true freshman, Chris Black, was set to play until a shoulder injury suffered early in camp likely ended his season before it ever got started. There may be room in the rotation for walk-on Nathan McAlister, who has superb hands but lacks speed and is small. Alabama is reportedly using more players in the playing rotation under Nussmeier than it did under McElwain.
At tight end, Michael Williams appears to be on the verge of a breakout season. He’s already the best blocking tight end in the conference and his hands have been steadily improving. Sophomores Brian Vogler and Harrison Jones figure to back him up, along with redshirt freshman Malcolm Faciane. At least one of those figures to also be in the mix at H-back along with signee Kurt Freitag.
However, Alabama seems to be at its most flexible offensively when using a pseudo-wide receiver or fullback in the H-back role, a la Brad Smelley or Travis McCall in prior years. Jalston Fowler is in the mix, but redshirt freshman Brent Calloway had the job in the spring. Vogler has the height and receiving skills for the job. Calloway is still learning the position after converting from running back. This one figures to be fluid throughout fall camp.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Ex; 1st SEC West, 1st overall)
This could end up being the best offensive line of the Saban era at Alabama if injuries stay away. The tackle combination of D.J. Fluker on the right and Cyrus Kouandjio on the left has the potential to be the best in the country in 2012. Kouandjio’s knee issues, particularly in light of the fact that his brother Arie Kouandjio also seems to suffer from them, will be something to watch as the season plays out. If he stays healthy, Cyrus Kouandjio has the look of a prototypical pass-blocking left tackle, while Fluker is one of the most effective right tackles in the game at the moment.
Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen will start at the guard slots. Both have nasty temperaments and love to maul people in the running game. Warmack also improved his pass blocking significantly in 2011. Between them, Barrett Jones will start at center, his third different starting position in as many seasons. There are no concerns with this group.
Depth could be another matter, though, particularly at tackle. Arie Kouandjio’s health is a major storyline, because outside of him, there are few players ready. Austin Shepherd seemed to nail down the second-team right tackle position, but if Cyrus Kouandjio was to be lost at left tackle, Alabama would probably have to move Barrett Jones there if brother Arie was unable to go. True freshman Brandon Greene may take the position by the end of camp.
Ryan Kelly and Kellen Williams are options at guard, tackle or center. Kelly is a redshirt freshman; Williams has played sparingly in two seasons. Arie Kouandjio is also an option at guard. Chad Lindsey appears to be the next center behind Jones, while true freshman Alphonse Taylor is being groomed to eventually take over for Warmack. Isaac Luatua and walk-ons Russell Raines and Aaron Joiner add depth.
While the offense is undergoing some tweaks, the defense will probably just keep rolling along largely unchanged. Alabama runs a 3-4 over/under scheme up front that frequently employs a four-man front in nickel and dime sets. It’s a frenetic, aggressive defense with disguised blitz packages that has dealt fits to all comers for years. Despite losing six starters to graduation, little is expected to change for the worse in 2012.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Vg; 2nd SEC West, 4th overall)
All eyes were on this group in the spring, as the Jesse Williams experiment ended with mostly positive results. Williams moved from his tackle/end combo position to nosetackle to replace the departed Josh Chapman. He’s a massive, athletic and super-strong force in the middle, but his pass-rushing skills allow him to stay on the field on all downs.
The nosetackle position is a bit of its own thing at Alabama. The players there must be able to hold middle technique in a three-man front, but also flex to a four-man front in nickel sets. Behind Williams, Brandon Ivory appears to be the best bet at the moment. He’s a pure 3-4 noseguard but helped put out a fire in the Georgia Southern game with his play, and has continued to improve over spring and summer. Behind him, Wilson Love has a chance at becoming part of the rotation when Alabama moves to a four-man front. He is lacking in size compared to Williams and Ivory, but plays with good technique.
The real question in the middle is how long it will take Darren Lake to make an impact. Lake may already be part of the playing rotation in short-yardage packages and will push Ivory for Williams’ backup spot this year. Another freshman, Dakota Ball, is cut in the traditional 3-4 mold and also opened camp strongly, but will probably redshirt.
At Williams’ old position, Damion Square appears to have things locked down, while redshirt freshman LaMichael Fanning and sophomore Jeoffrey Pagan are competing for time. Big things are expected for Square, who started opposite Williams last year and is one of the team’s hardest workers. Fanning and Pagan both have extraordinary length for defensive linemen. At Square’s old position, for now, is Ed Stinson, although Quinton Dial is pushing hard for the job. Dial is big enough to play inside in a four-man front, while Stinson, a former linebacker, has above-average speed for an end. Redshirt freshman D.J. Pettway has also impressed people with his offseason work.
William Ming and Chris Bonds add depth outside, and Bonds is also an option at Jack linebacker. True freshmen Korren Kirven and Dalvin Tomlinson are also available, but both will probably redshirt.
LINEBACKERS (rating: 1st SEC West, 2nd overall)
Despite losing Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw to the NFL, Alabama feels good about this group. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley return inside along with Trey DePriest, and those three ought to be able to carry the load while Alabam breaks in new options on the outside.
Adrian Hubbard figures to start somewhere, whether it’s at Jack or strongside linebacker. At Jack, the competition is Xzavier Dickson and Anthony Orr, while at strongside, Jonathan Atchison appears to be the most likely name. Tana Patrick put together a great offseason and is in the mix somewhere, whether it’s inside or outside. Chris Bonds is also a name in the mix at Jack. Hubbard, Dickson, Orr and Bonds are more akin to defensive ends, while Atchison and Patrick are built more like pure linebackers.
Of the freshmen, Dillon Lee and Denzel Devall are the two to watch inside, although Lee is also working at outside linebacker. Ryan Anderson is in the mix at Jack and probably ahead of all but Hubbard and Dickson there. Tyler Hayes and Reggie Ragland are options both on the strongside and at either inside position, while walk-on Josh Dickerson provides depth.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: 1st SEC West, 2nd overall)
Things have taken somewhat of a strange turn in the first week of fall camp, as JUCO signee Travell Dixon left the program and reserve safety Jarrick Williams suffered a torn ACL. Still, Alabama has good numbers, and if further injuries are kept to a minimum, this should be one of the best groups in the conference.
At safety, Robert Lester returns, amid talk of him following Mark Barron’s footsteps into the first round of next year’s NFL Draft. Next to him, the competition is fierce between Vinnie Sunseri, Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins. Expect Sunseri to hold onto the job, but both Clinton-Dix and Collins figure to get more than just special-teams work in 2012. With Williams out, Nick Perry becomes the next player off the bench. Eddie Williams is also available, but he opened camp at wide receiver and will need some time to adjust. Walk-on Hunter Bush might get a look at some point.
At corner, the loss of Dixon looks bad on paper, but Dixon had fallen behind the rest of the players there and that’s likely what catalyzed his departure. Dee Milliner and Deion Belue appear to be the favorites to start at cornerback at the moment. Milliner is garnering preseason all-America consideration, but Belue has drawn raves ever since his first day on campus. John Fulton had a strong spring and showed very capable of service as the third cornerback at worst.
Losing Dixon does change the depth situation, however. Bradley Sylve, Jabriel Washington and signee Geno Smith are all in the mix for playing time along with walk-on Ranzell Watkins, who played significantly at A-Day a year ago. Alabama rarely goes beyond its third corner in games that are close, so this group will likely only play against weaker competition. But Smith is getting a lot of work early in fall camp and may buck the trend.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Av; 5th SEC West, 6th overall)
Punter Cody Mandell looked much improved in the spring, thanks to work on his technique over the offseason. But even if Mandell simply repeats last year’s performance, it will be good enough to hold off Wilson Whorton, the only other punter on the roster.
Placekicker is a different matter. Jeremy Shelley will likely hold onto the short-yardage kicking duties regardless of what anyone else does, as he was fairly automatic from inside 40 yards in 2011. With kickoffs moving up to the 35-yard line, Cade Foster ought to be able to handle kickoff duties. Long field goals are another matter. Foster was erratic in 2011, and signee Adam Griffith has already displayed a powerful leg in fall camp. The coaches will have to decide whether to burn his redshirt for what essentially would be long field goal duty in 2012.
The return game no longer has Marquis Maze involved in it, but Alabama should be fine nonetheless. Christion Jones did good work in the BCS Championship Game, and Alabama signed several players who could make an impact, most notably Cyrus Jones. Others include Dee Hart and Bradley Sylve, along with DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell.
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