2013 Fall Previews: Alabama Crimson Tide

 

 Alabama Crimson Tide left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio (71) on the line of scrimmage during the second quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Cowboys Stadium. Alabama beat Michigan 41-14. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Crimson Tide left tackle (71) on the line of scrimmage during the second quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Cowboys Stadium. beat Michigan 41-14. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama Crimson Tide: Team Overview

 

Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (SE, FL, WR, LT, RG, QB )

Returning Defensive Starters: 7 (RDE, JACK, MLB, WLB, SLB, RCB, SS)

Returning Specialists: 1 (P)

 

Projected Overall Record: 13-0

Projected SEC Record: 8-0

Projected Record: 8-0

 

Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Ex Defensive Line: Vg

Running Backs: Ex Linebackers: Ex

Wide Receivers: Ex Defensive Backs: Vg

Offensive Line: Vg Special Teams: Av

 

Alabama finds itself in the unique and enviable position of two-time as the 2013 season starts. While almost every team must replace departed players from one year to the next, the 2013 edition of the Alabama Crimson Tide retains a veteran presence throughout its roster, as well as returning its star quarterback and most of its playmakers on both sides of the ball.

 

OFFENSE

Alabama’s offense in 2012 didn’t change much from previous incarnations, despite a new offensive coordinator on the job. It isn’t expected to change much going forward, either, with the possible exception of more reliance on three-wide sets and less use of Ace packages in order to take advantage of the depth at wide receiver. Replacing three starters along the offensive line will be the team’s greatest challenge.

 

QUARTERBACKS

returns for his fifth year in , and if he continues to progress forward, could find himself the first Alabama quarterback to go high in the NFL Draft in ages. McCarron grew as a leader in 2012, in addition to polishing the physical tools of his game. He has good size, a strong arm and his leadership skills are off the charts. Like in 2012, the biggest concern is keeping him healthy, given the state of the depth chart behind him.

 

Blake Sims settled into the backup role in 2012, but the offense must change drastically when he’s in the game. Sims is a read-option quarterback before all else. His performance in the A-Day this spring was disappointing, especially given the fact he’d had a strong spring up to that point. He’ll be pushed by redshirt freshman Alec Morris for the job. Morris has a linebacker’s build and a strong arm, but no experience yet in a game situation. His performance at A-Day hinted at a bright future, and he clearly separated himself from the three true freshmen on the roster.

 

Parker McLeod, Cooper Bateman and Luke Del Rio are the others fighting for playing time. Bateman was the most highly regarded as a recruit, but McLeod and Del Rio, the latter a walk-on, seemed to outshine him this spring. It’s a longshot for any of the three to play in 2013.

 

RUNNING BACKS

Even without returning for his senior year, there is plenty to like at this position. Notably T.J. Yeldon, who exploded onto the scene as a true freshman, and who would be a high-level draft pick next April if he were eligible for it. Yeldon isn’t as bruising as Lacy was, but he is faster, a better weapon in the passing game and has excellent hole recognition. He also proved to be durable in 2012 and figures to get a larger share of the starter’s load this year than Lacy did last year. Yeldon could be in Heisman Trophy contention along with McCarron if he has a strong year.

 

Kenyan Drake will take over Yeldon’s backup role. Ball security and a little bit of missing bulk were Drake’s biggest issues as a freshman. The bulk issue has been corrected, and time will tell if ball security has been addressed. Drake has elite speed and is a good receiver, but must work on his pass protection skills. He supposedly had a strong summer program, and if that’s true, Alabama will have the most pure speed at the running back position that it’s had since the days of Gene Jelks and Bobby Humphrey.

 

and Dee Hart both suffered serious knee injuries in 2012, but both are back for another go-around. Fowler will likely do the lion’s share of his work at fullback and H-back in 2013, and could wind up as the team’s short-yardage specialist. He’s a decent receiver and a load as a straight-ahead runner, but isn’t particularly elusive. Hart’s entire game is based around speed, and given he’s had severe injuries to both legs now, only time will tell if he’s still a viable option. He looked a bit tentative in spring work. Expect to see plenty of Hart in special teams.

 

Alabama’s incoming freshman group is probably the best in the country. Derrick Henry is likely the team’s No. 3 back at the moment, provided an ankle injury doesn’t drop him behind Fowler and Hart. At 6’4”, 235 pounds, Henry is unlike the typical college running back. He frequently draws comparisons as a runner to Cam Newton, and despite the coaching staff’s insistence that he is indeed a tailback, speculation on him moving to H-back or linebacker refuses to abate. We think he sticks at running back. The rest of the group – Altee Tenpenny, Tyren Jones and Alvin Kamara – could work their way onto special teams at some point, but getting carries this year will be difficult. The depth of talent at this position is overwhelming.

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

Alabama hasn’t been known, consistency, as the go-to school in the SEC for wide receivers. That’s typically Florida or Tennessee territory. But for 2013, Alabama has by far the deepest and most talented group of wideouts in the SEC. The discussion starts with the amazing , who had a breakout freshman season in 2012 and became on of the most feared outside receivers in the country – despite not starting until the halfway point of the season. Cooper has elite speed and route-running ability, as well as glue for hands.

 

Kevin Norwood seems to come up biggest when the game is on the line, and LSU in particular is probably seething at the prospect of having to face him again this year. While not as fast as Cooper, he runs crisp routes and can catch the ball in traffic. The biggest move forward of the spring was arguably the one taken by , who started ahead of Cooper last year until a knee injury forced him to the sidelines. White rivals Cooper for his ability to adjust to the ball while it’s in the air. Kenny Bell and will push Norwood and White for starting jobs throughout the year. Jones is physical in the slot, although his hands can be inconsistent. Bell showed no holdover signs of the broken leg he suffered against Auburn, and he has the best straight-line speed of any Tide receiver.

 

The biggest buzz over the offseason was reserved for either redshirt freshman Chris Black, who nearly worked himself into a debut at the SEC Championship Game last year, or true freshman Raheem Falkins, who went through spring practice with the team and played with the poise of a veteran. Black is similar in build to former Tider Darius Hanks, while Falkins has height and speed and should be an effective outside receiver.

 

ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster joined the team in the fall. Stewart will likely need a redshirt year, but Foster has a good shot at playing time if the NCAA gives final clearance to his transcript. It hasn’t been finalized yet, but school officials expect it to be. Alabama also has at least one or two walk-ons with the chance to contribute on special teams or late in games. Parker Barrineau has excellent hands and decent physical measurables. Ty Reed started at A-Day.

 

If there’s a weakness, it’s at tight end due to lack of experience. Brian Vogler will start at the primary tight end position, while Harrison Jones appears to lead O.J. Howard and Jalston Fowler at H-back. Vogler has good height and hands, and figures to have a higher ceiling than the man he replaced, Michael Williams. But he isn’t the dominating blocker Williams was. Jones gives Alabama a more traditional twin-tight-end look over the Y/H combo of recent years. Fowler would be more like what Alabama has had there recently, similar to Preston Dial or Brad Smelley. Howard is the wild card. He needs to continue to bulk up in order to avoid being pigeonholed as a receiver playing tight end, but his speed and hands are remarkable.

 

Malcolm Faciane is suspended at the moment, but is expected back on the team. Alabama would seem to need him, given that he’s the only pure on-the-line tight end among the reserves. Kurt Freitag is a Y/H tweener who figures to be Vogler’s backup for now. If Faciane is out for any extended length of time, look for walk-ons Corey McCarron or Michael Nysewander to possibly see the field. Nysewander played in a game last year, while McCarron saw significant work at A-Day.

 

The most interesting development of the summer so far is defensive lineman LaMichael Fanning spending time with the tight ends. Fanning might stick there if Faciane doesn’t come back.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

All eyes will be focused here until Alabama locks down left guard at right tackle. As far as returning players go, left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and right guard are at the top of all-SEC lists at the moment, and Kouandjio is expected to go early to the NFL after this year and could be one of the top two or three players taken. Kouandjio’s first year as the starter at left tackle was a complete success, while Steen is an old-school grinder at guard who can be counted on in the running game.

 

Sophomore Ryan Kelly separated himself from the pack at center, and many observers feel Alabama won’t miss a step at the position despite the fact former starter Barrett Jones was one of the best Tide linemen of all time. At left guard, appeared to pull slightly away from others late in the spring, and an all-Kouandjio left side of the line is intriguing. Right tackle appears to be the property of Austin Shepherd, who could also play guard if needed. Kouandjio has immense potential but a history of knee problems, while Shepherd is a blue-collar worker with good technique.

 

Kellen Williams is Arie Kouandjio’s biggest competition at guard, and he can also play tackle. Given Kouandjio’s health issues, it would not be a surprise to see some sort of rotation there. Junior college transfer Leon Brown did report with the team after a choppy spring and offseason, and is likely Shepherd’s backup at right tackle. He has all the physical tools to be successful.

 

The other primary backups are currently Brandon Greene at left tackle, Chad Lindsey at center and either Isaac Luatua or Brandon Hill at right guard. Greene is being groomed to step in for Cyrus Kouandjio in 2014, while Lindsey can also play both guard spots if needed. The massive Hill (reportedly more than 400 pounds when he reported) showed surprising athleticism in spring work, but will probably redshirt unless injuries demand otherwise. Luatua comes from the Marico Portis school of linemen, sawed-off and stout, but looked much better in spring work than he had previously. Because he has already redshirted, look for him to be slotted above Hill if competition is close.

 

True freshmen Grant Hill and Bradley Bozeman join the others in providing depth and competition. Hill has drawn favorable comments already as a tackle, while Bozeman will likely redshirt as the result of a knee injury he suffered as a high school senior. The Tide has several walk-ons on the roster, but the one highest up the depth chart is Paul Waldrop because of his ability to play center.

 

DEFENSE

 

Alabama’s 3-4 over/under scheme is being copied all across the country now, the result of watching the -led unit thoroughly dominate most opponents over the past six years. There aren’t many holes to fill in 2013, although the secondary could become a problem spot if the cornerback position proves slow to come around.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE

Alabama must replace two starters from the 2012 team, including Jesse Williams, who made the whole show work when he was healthy. Senior Ed Stinson returns and will be counted on to lead the group. Stinson worked his way from a tweener Jack linebacker to an effective, quick defensive end in Alabama’s three-man front. He still lacks the pure size of the typical SEC lineman, but his experience and quickness are invaluable.

 

Brandon Ivory will take over in the middle for Williams. Ivory’s sophomore season showed steady improvement, and by year’s end he was an important part of the line rotation. Ivory is somewhere between Williams and former starter Terrence Cody in pure size. The biggest challenge for Ivory will be avoiding the ankle injuries that plagued him at times last year. The other side is the property of Jeoffrey Pagan at the moment, and Pagan could be the best of the bunch altogether. He has the raw size to go along with plus-plus strength and impressive quickness. It would not be a surprise to see Pagan take off for the pros a year early.

 

Depth is in a decent spot at the moment. In addition to LaMichael Fanning, who opened fall camp working with the tight ends but who is expected to come back to defense at some point, redshirt freshman Dalvin Tomlinson had a breakout spring and is pushing both Pagan and Stinson hard. Tomlinson is the ideal 3-4 defensive end, with a strong motor and good strength. Fellow redshirt freshman Korren Kirven needed to get in shape last year, but has since done so and is said to have had a good summer program. Darren Lake will back up Ivory in the middle. He is strong and compact, but looked overmatched at times as a true freshman. Dakota Ball and Wilson Love can play either tackle or end. Ball got plenty of work in the spring. One of them figures to be the third-team nosetackle when camp breaks.

 

Alabama is also bringing in a talented group of true freshmen, although numbers shrunk by one when Darius Paige was medically disqualified after his incoming physical. Such drastic action would seem to suggest a cardiac condition or some other serious ailment. That leaves Alabama with Dee Liner, A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen. Robinson looks the most ready to play early, and can play either tackle or end. Allen and Liner are pure ends, although Allen could also get some work at Jack. Allen in particular is being looked to as an early contributor.

 

LINEBACKERS

Here’s how you know Alabama’s depth at linebacker has been stellar: Nico Johnson, a part-time starter in 2012, will likely be the starting middle linebacker this year for the Kansas City Chiefs.

 

Johnson was an important cog in the Alabama defense last year, but his two co-starters at inside linebacker, C.J. Mosley and , return. Mosley is expected to dominate the competition this season after having done a pretty good job of it already the last two years. Mosley is the very definition of inside linebacker in the Spread Offense Era of college football. He is fleet, strong, instinctive and a weapon in pass defense. He plays the pass like a safety but can also stick his nose in the pile. DePriest trimmed down nicely over the summer, and is being counted on to give Alabama a strong physical presence on running downs. He isn’t the player in pass coverage that Mosley is, but he holds his own.

 

The most interesting development to watch won’t concern Mosley or DePriest, but rather their backups. At the end of spring, Reggie Ragland and Tana Patrick were considered the top choices. But true freshman Reuben Foster is expected to make noise early in camp. Patrick and Ragland, more so Patrick, might be better options at an outside linebacker position than inside, but both will play. Foster, though, could become the top backup at the position early on if he shows aptitude at picking up the defense. Walk-on Josh Dickerson has gotten quite a bit of work in practices the last couple of seasons and might become an option.

 

Xzavier Dickson, Denzel Devall and Adrian Hubbard will split the strongside and Jack positions. Hubbard is considered a virtual lock to leave school after this season for the pros, while Dickson could also skip out early. But Devall might be the best overall prospect of the three. All three players can play from either a standing position or with their hands down, making matchups an issue for opposing offenses. Hubbard and Dickson, though, both need to improve their consistency in order to take their games to the next level.

 

Dillon Lee and Ryan Anderson will likely be the two top backups, although both players can also work inside. Anderson looks like a future prototype at Jack. Anthony Orr could work his way into some playing time, either at linebacker or defensive end. He started with the first team at A-Day and has some talent, but has yet to see any action in games yet. Orr, a fourth-year junior, needs to make a move quickly in order to avoid getting passed by.

 

Walker Jones and Tim Williams are other options at outside linebacker, and Jones could possibly play inside as well. Jonathan Allen figures to be in the mix at Jack in certain situations as well. Williams, one of the lesser-talked-about signees of this year’s recruiting class, is thought to have an especially bright future.

 

DEFENSIVE BACKS

This is probably going to be the most-scrutinized unit on the team in 2013, even more so than the offensive line. The departure of at cornerback will force Deion Belue to step up into a leadership role. Belue finished the season strong, playing well from the LSU game forward, but his lack of size is something over which he has little control. When Belue can match up physically with a receiver, his speed and coverage skills make him a tough out, and he’s a better tackler than his size would suggest.

 

The other cornerback position will come down to competition between John Fulton, Geno Smith and . Fulton, a senior, had never fulfilled his potential until an injury to Milliner forced him into a crucial role against Texas A&M last year, and he shined. Fulton missed spring practice with injury, but if he’s healthy, he will be no worse than the third cornerback this fall. Smith played at corner as a true freshman last year, a feat in a Nick Saban defense. He’s a smart player with good physical skills, and can also play inside at Star safety. Jones played wideout as a true freshman and needs polish and consistency, but was impressive in the spring.

 

Bradley Sylve and Jabriel Washington have both played roles on special teams but have yet to get into the mix at corner. True freshmen Jonathan Cook, Maurice Smith and Anthony Averett have joined them now and it would not be a surprise to see the leader of this group of five get some minutes, although Alabama has typically stayed to seven or eight DBs in the top rotation under Saban. Washington lacks bulk, while Sylve’s cover skills need improvement.

 

Alabama should be better at safety despite losing Robert Lester. Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix is poised for a breakout season at strong safety, while Nick Perry, Landon Collins and are battling for the other slot. All four will play copious amounts this season. Collins and Sunseri are the likely contenders to start, while Perry will work situationally, mostly on running downs. Fellow veteran Jarrick Williams, coming off a major knee injury, is also an option, especially when Alabama needs to go large.

 

Major League Baseball castoff Jai Miller joined the team in the spring at age 28. He has plenty of size and looked surprisingly fluid and comfortable this spring despite being away from the sport for nearly a decade. He’ll offer depth at safety along with newcomer Eddie Jackson, who is also in the mix at cornerback.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

The loss of short-distance kicker Jeremy Shelley is one of the more overlooked elements of the team heading into 2013. Alabama has competition at the placekicker position in the form of Cade Foster and Adam Griffith, but both players have a ways to go to replicate Shelley’s consistency. Foster, Alabama’s kickoff specialist the last three years, looked good at A-Day, but not so good in the weeks leading up to the game. His consistency has always been an issue. Whoever wins the job initially figures to have short leash. Both players are about the same from long distances, so accuracy inside 40 yards will probably decide this job.

 

There is no such drama at punter, where Cody Mandell returns. Because of Mandell’s prowess on short and directional punts, he is probably now the best all-around punter in the SEC. As for a backup, Worth Gregory punted with the team in the spring but was not one of the players brought in on fall camp’s first day. Spare kickers are often left off the initial reporting figures, so this is not necessarily a surprise. But with Alabama taking a commitment from a punter for 2014, the Tide might find itself with no interested walk-on backup for 2013. It’s not clear who would punt in the event of an injury to Mandell.

 

Likewise, M.K. Taylor’s name being absent from the fall roster was also a surprise. Taylor did a good job in the spring at snapper, but the job is apparently Cole Mazza‘s now by default. Like Gregory, Taylor could wind up joining the team at a later date.

 

Alabama will be looking to improve its kick return units. The Tide mishandled too many punts last year, especially after an injury to Dee Hart. Hart is back in the mix for the job along with a dozen others. If his knee will allow it, expect Hart back on punts and to share kickoff return duties with either Cyrus Jones or a wide receiver.

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