By Jess Nicholas
March 29, 2015
The arrests of Alabama starting safety Geno Smith and presumptive starting nosetackle Jonathan Taylor over the weekend have cast a shadow on the school’s athletic program – just as Alabama was about to grab the spotlight for a much more positive reason.
Alabama is in the middle of a coaching search to name a replacement for former basketball head coach Anthony Grant, and with Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall leading the pack of potential hires, Alabama fans were looking forward to an exciting pre-Easter week in Tuscaloosa.
Instead, Nick Saban will undoubtedly be called upon to defend his decision to extend a scholarship offer to Taylor, who was already facing accusations of similar crimes stemming from his previous stop with the Georgia Bulldogs.
Taylor’s signing was heavily criticized in the national media, an understandable after-effect of the Ray Rice domestic violence case in the NFL. Alabama as much as hid the signing until the last possible moment, made the customary public comments about second chances and short leashes, and then turned Taylor loose on the football field, where it became evident early on to practice observers that he was that rare guy in the middle of a defense who could change games.
Late Saturday, however, Taylor was arrested on charges that he assaulted a woman and punched a hole in a closet door, and presumably only the late time of day kept someone from The University of Alabama from going to a microphone and announcing that Taylor’s short leash had snapped and his second chance was over.
Saban’s biggest critics in the national media will be lined up at the talk radio starting line tomorrow morning like it was the start of the Boston Marathon, and Saban would be well advised to issue remarks that are as non-confrontational as possible and move on to the next task. The Taylor story threatens to become more than static only if Saban were to become defensive, or worse, if he were to attempt to keep Taylor around the program.
As such, the statement releasing Taylor will probably come from university administration or at least the athletic director’s office – and it should. Bringing Taylor to Tuscaloosa now looks like a mistake, and Alabama needs to show that there is a chain of command in place to fix mistakes. Much is made of whether high-profile coaches are blessed with “full control” of their programs, but in order for there to be institutional control in place, the head coach cannot always have the final word – or even the most public word. This is one of those times.
The decision to release Taylor is an easy one; what to do with Geno Smith, however, is much more complex.
Smith was arrested on a DUI charge Saturday morning. By itself, even as serious as the charge of driving while impaired can be, this was something that could have been solved in-house with little fuss. But this is Smith’s second go-round with a DUI arrest, as he was also arrested for the same offense in 2013 and received a one-game suspension as part of his punishment then.
Alabama fans will probably forever reference David “Deuce” Palmer’s two DUI arrests in 1992, which eventually cost him three games but did not result in his removal from the team. Then-head coach Gene Stallings most memorably said that Palmer needed the structure of the Alabama program more than Alabama needed Palmer – which might have been true, but if it was, it was just barely so. Palmer’s 1992 season was relatively quiet overall, but he scored Alabama’s only touchdown against Louisiana Tech that season and, more importantly, set the tone for the 1993 Sugar Bowl with an early (and long) punt return against Miami. Without Palmer on the 1992 team, Alabama would probably be short one national championship.
Stallings, though, did not have to deal with the Internet when he made his decision, or even the court of public opinion. There was some grousing from local media, but by and large Palmer’s traffic offenses were overshadowed by his football offense in relatively short order.
Smith’s situation is made worse by timing, which is unfair to him but relevant nonetheless. Because of the allegations against Taylor, Smith will be lumped in with a lot of the criticism Alabama will receive this week. And then there’s the issue that Smith may have a problem larger than the arrest itself, given he has already been down this road – no pun intended – once before.
The caveat that both men are innocent until proven guilty certainly applies, but unfortunately for Taylor, at least, the benefit of the doubt won’t apply. Smith’s situation might turn out differently, but Saban’s judgment will be on the table for debate this week given the Taylor matter and it’s too early to say what university administration might decide to do in regards to Smith. There’s also a practical concern for Smith, who is entering his senior season: If he is suspended, it will likely be for more than one game, which will not only shorten his senior season, it will put him behind the 8-ball in the competition for the open free safety position, which he previously led.
Basketball coaching search may be wrapping up
Most unfortunate for Alabama at this time, is that the discussion of off-field problems in the football program is taking attention away from the basketball program, which appears poised to hire a true difference-maker as its head coach.
By now, most Alabama fans understand that Gregg Marshall is Alabama’s top target. Until Texas fired Rick Barnes over the weekend, most believed Marshall would either take the Alabama job or return to Wichita State – with a move to Alabama being the heavy favorite. But with Barnes out in Austin, the tables have been flipped. Texas’ program, while not as big as Texas fans wish it were, is a better job than Alabama at the moment, thanks mostly to the state of basketball recruiting in Texas market versus the Southeast. While unlikely given the presence of Kansas, it is also plausible that Texas could one day become the Big 12’s top basketball school, something Alabama will never be in the SEC as long as Kentucky fields a team.
If Marshall opts for Texas over Alabama – and Alabama should know something by Tuesday at the latest – then Dayton’s Archie Miller probably becomes the target, even though Miller recently received a contract extension. Miller is certainly a hot name in the industry, but is not on the same tier as Marshall. Sources tell TideFans.com that Indiana’s Tom Crean remains a possibility, albeit a very slim one. Minnesota’s Richard Pitino, Buffalo’s Bobby Hurley and Murray State’s Steve Prohm – another coach who recently received a contract extension – would be considered if Marshall, Miller and Crean all reject the Crimson Tide.
Spring football flying under the radar
Mostly due to the basketball coaching search, Alabama’s early spring practices have operated outside the public interest. But there are several positions still up for grabs.
Due to a continuing illness, offensive tackle Grant Hill has missed practices thus far and his return is uncertain. With Hill out, and with LT Cam Robinson slowed by a leg injury, Brandon Greene has moved back to tackle from tight end. With Greene playing offensive line again, and with Malcolm Faciane no longer with the program, the tight end position essentially comes down to a pair of large receivers (O.J. Howard, Ty Flournoy-Smith) and a couple of converted defensive linemen (Dakota Ball, Johnny Dwight). Howard and Flournoy-Smith are largely expected to head the depth chart going into the fall, but incoming freshman Hale Hentges’ chances at playing time never looked better.
With Geno Smith all but certain to be suspended – assuming the DUI charges are legitimate – the free safety position suddenly opens wide, while Laurence Jones becomes all but locked into the strong safety slot. Maurice Smith and Jabriel Washington now become the co-leaders at free safety, while true freshmen Ronnie Harrison and Deionte Thompson now become more than just intriguing newcomers to watch at A-Day.
Wide receiver may have taken a hit Saturday with news that Cam Sims had injured a knee. Coaches have yet to make a statement about the injury, but even without an injury to Sims, this position group has gotten plenty of attention so far – thanks to the semi-move of running back Kenyan Drake to the position. Drake will likely continue to line up in the backfield, but Derrick Henry, Bo Scarbrough and Ronnie Clark have seen most of the reps at that position so far. Robert Foster, Chris Black and ArDarius Stewart now become the top three names at receiver, with Raheem Falkins, Derek Kief and converted cornerback Anthony Averett next up, along with walk-ons Parker Barrineau and Armani Purifoye. Lots of bodies, precious little experience here.
But the most intriguing of all could be the quarterback position, where Jake Coker is receiving a push from Alec Morris and others. While Alabama fans tend to write off Morris, due to his lower profile compared to the other competitors at the position, Morris’ arm strength and knowledge of the offense may allow him to break away from the pack to become Coker’s backup, or even push for the starting job himself. Performances in upcoming scrimmages will tell a lot.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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