By Jess Nicholas
April 12, 2015
Lost in the midst of a basketball coaching search and the Jonathan Taylor media saga has been this small, insignificant fact: Oh by the way, Bama fans, spring camp is winding down and there’s a full-blown quarterback battle in full swing.
Alabama enters its last week of spring football, many of the same questions that faced the Crimson Tide at the start of camp remain just as big at the end of camp, if not more so. Injuries to RB Bo Scarbrough, WR Cameron Sims and DL A’Shawn Robinson have further muddied the waters, not to mention the DUI arrest of S Geno Smith, whose current playing status remains unknown at this point.
But the biggest set of questions is arising at the quarterback position, where senior Jake Coker was thought to have a solid handle on the job at the start of camp, only to see his lead vanish and the battle descend into a four-way tug-of-war between Coker, unheralded junior Alec Morris, erstwhile top prospect and current starting holder Cooper Bateman, and a redshirt freshman coming off major knee surgery, David Cornwell. There’s also true freshman phenom Blake Barnett, who could become a legitimate contender for the job in the fall if offseason conditioning work goes as expected.
Here are a few individual battles and scenarios for Alabama fans to focus upon as spring camp winds down:
1. The wide receiver position needs work. This is not necessarily the fault of the players at the position, since the injury to Sims removed an effective tool from the Tide’s toolbox. But everyone knew this was going to be a numbers crunch in the making coming into the spring – specifically, Alabama didn’t have enough numbers. Alabama is primarily a three-wide team now, meaning the Crimson Tide needs a minimum of six SEC-level receivers in order to make the system work. Even with Sims available, Alabama would have had a walk-on, Parker Barrineau, in that top six. The other four are ArDarius Stewart, Robert Foster, Raheem Falkins and Chris Black. Redshirt freshman Derek Kief is also in the mix, but he wasn’t likely to crack the top six until Sims went down. Alabama first moved cornerback Anthony Averett, then finally true freshman safety Deionte Thompson over to wideout to supplement the depth chart. Averett is back on defense, so depth behind the top six consists of Thompson and a handful of walk-ons. The additions of Calvin Ridley and Daylon Charlot in the fall will help, but Alabama doesn’t just need six receivers who can play – it needs six receivers who can play well.
2. The offensive line isn’t working as a cohesive unit yet. Alabama already had a tough task on its hands, replacing starters Austin Shepherd, Leon Brown and Arie Kouandjio, but then arguably its top rising prospect, Grant Hill, has missed the whole of spring camp while continuing to deal with a lingering, as-yet-unspecified illness. With Hill out, Dominick Jackson becomes the only scholarshipped right tackle on the squad, meaning an injury to a tackle would be devastating. An injury happened earlier in camp, when LT Cam Robinson got banged up, but he has since returned. If Alabama had to start a game tomorrow, Ryan Kelly would be the center, with Bradley Bozeman and redshirt freshman Ross Pierschbacher at the guards. Jackson and Robinson would start at tackle, with former tight end (and former tackle before that) Brandon Greene backing up both spots along with walk-on Will Davis. Alabama is in better shape inside, numbers-wise, with Alphonse Taylor, Brandon Kennedy, Isaac Luatua, Dallas Warmack, J.C. Hassenauer and Josh Casher all on scholarship. Alabama has some flexibility, as both Pierschbacher and Bozeman can play a bit at tackle, in the event of further injury. But incoming signee Lester Cotton will probably be a top backup from day one of fall camp.
3. Safety battles are still top-of-mind. With Geno Smith’s status in limbo, it appears Laurence Jones and former cornerback Eddie Jackson are in line to start. Jabriel Washington, Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and true freshman Ronnie Harrison become the backups, although both Smith and Washington seem certain to play significant roles. The issue here is not that there isn’t another Landon Collins to be found, it’s that all the returning players had significant weaknesses in 2014 other than perhaps Jones, whose sin was simply that he was green. Neither Smith was consistent enough, especially Maurice Smith, who frequently took the wrong man in coverage. Cook didn’t play much and Washington, who may be Alabama’s best pure downfield ballhawk, just isn’t big enough to play against most SEC running games. The move of Jackson to safety gives Alabama some attitude there and also some physical upside that several of the other competitors didn’t have. The most intriguing player to watch, though, is Harrison, whose physical presence is unmatched even by Jackson. Alabama needs to find two starters and at least two reliable second-line players (Star safety, dime) from this group.
4. Injuries, suspensions cut into running back depth. The transfer of Altee Tenpenny and the arrest of Tyren Jones, which proved to be fatal to his career prospects in Tuscaloosa, had already cut into Alabama’s running back depth. Then, Bo Scarbrough tore an ACL. While Nick Saban seemed hopeful that Scarbrough could still play in 2015, any ACL-related injury can’t help but have at least a short-term effect: Witness the problems both DeQuan Menzie and Eddie Jackson had trying to play the same season as their injuries. Perhaps the worst short-term effect of Scarbrough’s injury, though, was that it forced Alabama to move Kenyan Drake – himself coming off an ugly leg injury against Ole Miss last year – back to running back full-time after using him as primarily a receiver early on in spring camp. Derrick Henry remains the starter, with Drake his backup, but now the depth chart is rounded out either by H-back Ronnie Clark or true freshman DeSherrius Flowers, the latter of whom probably needs a redshirt year. The arrival of Damien Harris in the fall will settle a lot of nerves, but this is a position at which Alabama can afford no further injuries. If Alabama does have further problems here, walk-ons Buddy Pell and Lawrence Erekosima will have to step into a role.
5. Quarterback race gets muddier, not clearer. Jake Coker started the spring getting most of the reps with the starters, but as practice has gone by, the coaches have increasingly turned to the backups. As there was already a fight ongoing for Coker’s backup’s position, keeping track of all the movement at this position requires a scorecard and instant replay. At the moment, Coker is probably still the starter, although the width of the gap between him and his backup has substantially narrowed. Barring a major shock this week, Coker will probably start with the 1s at A-Day. His backup now appears to be redshirt freshman David Cornwell, which is in itself one of the major surprises of spring. Cooper Bateman and Alec Morris seem to be bracketed third, but both remain close to Cornwell. In other words, this one won’t be decided until fall camp, especially since Blake Barnett will be a more viable candidate then.
As far as the skill sets of the four players at the top of the depth chart, Coker, Bateman and Cornwell all share somewhat similar characteristics – good athleticism, arm strength that is adequate at worst, a decent understanding of the offense. Depending on the day, each of the three has looked the best for that particular practice. Alec Morris is a much more traditional pro-style quarterback in the sense that he relies much more on his arm than pure athletic ability.
The winner of this competition will be the player that picks up the nuances of the offense the quickest. Under Nick Saban, having a total understanding of the offense is the No. 1 requirement for the starting quarterback. It will be difficult to tell anything by A-Day performances – witness Blake Sims’ two mediocre performances there in 2013 and 2014 – but fans would be keen to pay attention to which quarterback(s) have the most mental struggles during the game. The one(s) that has/have the hardest time grasping the flow of the offense will likely be out of the running come August.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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