By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
April 4, 2014
Typically, questions surrounding a Nick Saban-coached program in the spring have to do simply with new starters at positions vacated by seniors who have graduated or underclassmen headed to the NFL Draft.
But the 2014 Alabama team will have a more complex set of questions facing it than simply the shuffling of the depth chart. While position changes are a concern, some questions go much deeper than that.
Question #1: Can Blake Sims secure the QB job?
Answer: Probably not – yet.
Sims’ top competition for the job is still awaiting his college graduation day in Tallahassee, Fla. Jacob Coker backed up Jameis Winston for Florida State last year, but will transfer to Alabama to compete for the job in fall camp. Coker will have two years left to play. For Blake Sims, the closest thing Alabama has to an incumbent, time is much shorter. Sims is entering his senior season, and if he has any hope at holding off Coker, he’ll need to have a breakout spring and put some distance between himself and Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod.
Sims has put in quite a bit of time trying to become the quarterback Alabama requires for its offense. Nick Saban bluntly said in an interview this winter that Alabama would continue to be a pro-style offensive team and would not switch to a spread offense. If Sims wants to be the starting quarterback in 2014, he’ll have to conform to that plan. Parts of Sims’ passing, particularly his intermediate route management and judgment, have been his most vulnerable areas, along with overall accuracy. He also has had problems pulling the trigger following mistakes. He’ll need to show more confidence and conviction in order to win the confidence of his coaches.
On the other hand, Coker’s Florida State tapes also suggest a work in progress. While Coker has a unique skill set – great size, good arm strength, and high mobility – he is not polished. This battle could go well into the regular season, and either way, bet on Sims playing in every game in at least a package-type plan. If he has a breakout spring and A-Day performance, however, Coker will have to work to beat him in August.
Question #2: Can the offensive line rebound from a so-so season?
Answer: Depends on the left-side positions
Alabama’s offensive line got a gentleman’s B-minus for its work in 2013, then lost its two best players and a key backup after the season ended. Simply replacing Cyrus Kouandjio, Anthony Steen and Chad Lindsay won’t be enough – the line needs to improve. Right tackle Austin Shepherd will be the leader of this group and, now that Steen is gone, is the only returning lineman who didn’t have a truly bad game in 2013. Center Ryan Kelly returns, and he looked better at the end of the year after coming back from injury, but the rest of the line is suspect.
The big key is whether Arie Kouandjio can stay healthy at left guard. Kouandjio was a liability at times in 2013 and simply being above-average in 2014 would be considered a victory. The left tackle job has four or five competitors, while right guard has three or four players fighting for time. Alphonse Taylor or Leon Brown should get the right guard spot, but left tackle could be Brown, Grant Hill, Brandon Greene, Brandon Hill, Bradley Bozeman or true freshman Cameron Robinson. Robinson got off to a bit of a slow start this spring, but he has plenty of time and talent to improve before fall.
If the line doesn’t come together quickly, the QB situation almost becomes a moot point.
Question #3: Who will take over for C.J. Mosley in the linebacking corps?
Answer: Trey DePriest or bust
Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster figure to stage a spirited battle for Mosley’s starting job that could go longer than the battle at quarterback. But the real question is who will become the leader of the defense. Having Mosley on the field was tantamount to cheating, an extra coach stationed in front of the line of scrimmage reading plays and formations. No one else in the linebacker group has shown anywhere near the mental ability Mosley brought to the game.
Trey DePriest will get first crack at it, and he’ll need to show he can handle more coverage responsibilities if he wants to stay on the field all the time. Otherwise, Dillon Lee, one of the chief competitors for the strongside linebacker position, might find himself playing Cory Reamer’s old role of outside linebacker in base, then inside linebacker on passing downs. As for the leadership question, that won’t be fully answered until Alabama faces some real, in-game adversity and makes it out the other side.
Question #4: How will Lane Kiffin integrate into the Alabama staff?
Answer: Depends on Kiffin’s maturity
Being blunt about it, Lane Kiffin, even after becoming a head coach, still had a lot of growing up to do. His departure from the Oakland Raiders still comes across as one of the strangest front office-level events in recent American sports history, and then his decision to bolt Tennessee after one year (and a bevy of complaints lodged against him over recruiting tactics) looked like “strike two” to much of the sports world. Now, Kiffin finds himself working under someone again for the first time in several years, and not only that, he’s working under a guy with the most well-defined, detailed process-oriented systems in all of football.
In his favor, Kiffin’s preferred offensive style doesn’t deviate much from what Nick Saban himself likes. If anything, Kiffin might bring Alabama back to a more traditional look, as he favors tight ends and fullbacks over five wideouts and soft blocking schemes. From an Xs and Os standpoint, Kiffin looks like a great fit. The key will be if he can subjugate his own ego and allow someone else to lead. If he can do that, and learn something from Saban at the same time, Kiffin could come out the other side of this arrangement much better and more highly sought-after than he ever was before.
Question #5: Was Alabama’s offseason personnel shuffling evidence of a feeling of urgency?
Answer: Looks that way
Alabama has long been a school that develops assistant coaches, and most of the turnover on Nick Saban’s staff from 2007 until 2012 involved coaches getting promotions and moving up the ladder. Not so in 2013. Alabama never officially fired offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, but Michigan is not a step up and Alabama made no discernible effort to keep him. Nussmeier’s tweets after the fact seemed to suggest the parting wasn’t entirely amicable.
Then, Alabama and defensive line coach Chris Rumph parted ways, followed by secondary coach Greg Brown. Neither got promotions at their respective new schools. And if moving Kirby Smart back to the secondary and bringing back Kevin Steele as a coach wasn’t enough evidence, the fact Alabama added ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi to its personnel department ought to send a message that Saban isn’t ready to rest on his laurels. Whether it was Saban’s intention or not, the atmosphere around the program right now is one of perform, or move along. Neither the defensive line nor the defensive backs showed much consistency in 2013. It remains to be seen how successful this approach will be in the short-term; long-term, it raises questions of whether the program was feeling increased heat from some of its competitors.
Question #6: What’s the future of the kicking game?
Answer: It may rest on the shoulders of an incoming freshman
If Alabama’s kicking game made people nervous before, it might scare them to death now. The transition from Cade Foster to Adam Griffith at placekicker should go smoothly; the real questions concern the punting position, and whether Alabama will have a backup plan if either Griffith or incoming freshman J.K. Scott get hurt.
Currently, quarterback Alec Morris is competing with a handful of walk-ons at punter, and perhaps Griffith as well. Scott will join the team for fall camp. The coaches seem to be comfortable waiting on Scott to get to Tuscaloosa, but if he can’t assume the duties right away – or, gets hurt during a game – the wheels might really come off. Scott is also expected to be Griffith’s backup at kicker.
Special teams at Alabama have run hot and cold for almost the entirety of Saban’s Alabama tenure. The last time Alabama showed dependable consistency in the kicking game was when Ron Middleton had responsibility for coordinating special teams at the front end of the Saban era. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility in the least that special teams cost Alabama another national championship in 2013.
Question #7: Can the defensive line become more of a force, especially in regards to pass rush?
Answer: Check back in October
While special teams were frustrating, there is a certain lack of … certainty … that comes with any discussion of kickers and punters in the game of football. The performance of the defensive line, however, is another matter entirely. A defensive line is, for most contenders, made up of highly-recruited superstars who are on the field for 70-80 plays a game, not a handful of specialists who get five or six shots per game to make their mark.
Alabama’s defensive line seemed to regress in 2013, and by the end of the year, just wasn’t a factor at all. Making the situation even more maddening to consider was the fact that in the upcoming draft, Alabama figures to put two more defensive tackles into the NFL, and in 2013, had one of the most impressive true freshman tackles in the nation in A’Shawn Robinson. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact problem, but softness in the middle of the line is a good place to start. Brandon Ivory must stay healthy and be more consistent. JUCO transfer Jarran Reed needs to be a force in the rotation from day one. Robinson has to avoid a sophomore slump, and whoever wins the other tackle/end job – be it Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson, D.J. Pettway or someone else – needs to become an immediate presence. Coupled with Alabama’s Jack linebackers in 2013, the Crimson Tide consistently lost edge containment against spread offenses, failed to get upfield against pocket teams and let too many matador plays go through the middle.
Whether it’s a personnel issue, a scheme issue, an aggressiveness issue, an attitude issue or a combination of these and others, if Alabama doesn’t get a little old-school in its approach to line play in 2014, winning the division becomes just as questionable as winning a championship.