Previews 2015: Alabama Crimson Tide

Jan 1, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry (27) runs past Ohio State Buckeyes defensive lineman Steve Miller (88) during the first quarter of the 2015 Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 1, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry (27) runs past Ohio State Buckeyes defensive lineman Steve Miller (88) during the first quarter of the 2015 Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Previews 2015: Alabama Crimson Tide

Returning Offensive Starters: 2 (LT, C)

Returning Defensive Starters: 7 (DE, NT, DT/E, WLB, SLB, RCB, FS)

Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Projected Overall Record: 11-1

Projected SEC Record: 7-1 (UGA)

Projected SEC West Record: 6-0

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

Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Ex

Running Backs: Vg Linebackers: Ex

Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Vg

Offensive Line: Vg Special Teams: Vg

The Crimson Tide is hoping to ride a defense that might have 11 upperclassman starters to a title in 2015, but doing so will require a fast rebuild on the offensive side of the ball, not to mention navigating a schedule that many deem to be the most difficult in the nation. Other challenges include a spotty situation at placekicker and the shuffling of coaching personnel, primarily on defense.

OFFENSE

Alabama will continue to utilize a pro-style attack based mostly around multiple receivers and tight ends. Because of the uncertainty at quarterback in 2015, expect Alabama to be more conservative offensively, use more Ace package alignments (i.e., two tight ends) and feed the running game. The development of Alabama’s tight ends will be crucial.

QUARTERBACKS

Once Ohio State’s Braxton Miller decided not to transfer to Alabama this summer, it recast all focus back to the fact that absolutely nothing got solved this spring regarding Alabama’s quarterback battle. Although most thought senior Jake Coker would simply waltz into the job, that turned out not to be the case after a spring that saw both redshirt freshman David Cornwell and junior Alec Morris get close enough to turn this into a real battle. While Coker is still the odds-on favorite to win the job, it could be argued he was the odds-on favorite to win it last fall, too, before Blake Sims erupted into some kind of superhero. Coker and Cornwell are probably ahead of Morris, although all three of them are significantly ahead of both sophomore Cooper Bateman and true freshman Blake Barnett.

What Barnett needs the most is an additional 20 pounds or so, as he was clearly not ready physically for the job this spring. Bateman, who started for one of the two squads at A-Day, appears to have plateaued in regards to arm strength. Morris’ arm strength is his best asset, but the stout junior is a liability when the play breaks down. Both Coker and Cornwell have good scrambling skills. Coker has the decided advantage in regards to experience, but Cornwell’s release is significantly quicker and he showed a better natural feel for the position through most of spring drills. Whoever wins the job is unlikely to be given the amount of leash afforded Sims in 2014, who made as many plays with his legs as he did his arm. Cornwell and Barnett have the best upsides, while Morris is probably ahead of Coker in terms of knowledge of the offense and its personnel. The first couple of weeks of fall camp will tell the tale.

RUNNING BACKS

Alabama is accustomed to having a full stable of backs, but not this year. Injuries have compressed the list to just two, at least until true freshman Damien Harris has a chance to establish himself. Starter Derrick Henry had a better year statistically than departed starter T.J. Yeldon in 2014, but Henry isn’t as versatile as Yeldon was. Henry is best with a head of steam, but much of Alabama’s running game last season came from standing handoffs out of a shotgun formation. Backup Kenyan Drake is coming off a broken leg, but if he’s healthy he has the potential to be special. Drake has elite speed for a running back, exemplary receiving skills and can be highly effective even as an interior rusher. But he must improve his ball security, which he was on his way to doing in 2014 before the injury.

Depth took a hit in the spring when Bo Scarbrough went down with a knee injury, but he might recover in time to be a factor in the second half of the season. Scarbrough is a full-bore banger; Harris, who will play the third-team role until Scarbrough returns, is more of a traditional power-and-speed back. Walk-ons Buddy Pell and Lawrence Erekosima might find playing time during blowouts. At press time, there was a question about the availability of one player, Xavian Marks. Marks claims to have signed a football scholarship, but there’s a possibility he’ll be involved with the track team instead. Marks is a 155-pound waterbug and would have a limited role at best in 2015. Michael Nysewander will fill the fullback role this season, but unlike Jalston Fowler in 2014, Nysewander will have a role limited by package.

Alabama is more likely to go with an Ace look rather than a traditional I-formation. If Alabama uses a true H-back, look for Ronnie Clark to get the first shot. He backed up the running back position in the spring out of necessity, but is more of a fit at H – although he didn’t do a bad job at tailback, all things considered.

WIDE RECEIVERS

There is precious little experience here. Only slot receiver Chris Black has played significant time with games on the line, although ArDarius Stewart was on the verge of breaking into the rotation late last year before suffering an injury. Both will be heavily counted on in 2015 along with Robert Foster, who was arguably the breakout player of spring camp. Oregon State transfer Richard Mullaney announced over the summer that he would join the Crimson Tide, and with Cameron Sims likely out for the year with a knee injury, Mullaney could be a starter from day one. True freshman Calvin Ridley is expected to compete early along with holdovers Raheem Falkins, Parker Barrineau and Derek Kief. Walk-on Armani Purifoye was close enough to the playing rotation in spring to get a mention here, but Alabama has rarely expanded its primary playing rotation beyond six or seven players. Another signee, Daylon Charlot, is expected to compete for time. Deionte Thompson, who was recruited as a safety, played mostly receiver in the spring and could also compete for time.

The tight end position, though, is the spot of real concern. O.J. Howard will start at one of the two tight end slots, but he needs to improve his game beyond just being a tall, fast receiving target. Howard was largely shut out of the offense in the spring game, but senior Ty Flournoy-Smith took a step forward and probably worked himself into the mix as a result. Both Howard and Flournoy-Smith are thinner tight ends, however, so look for a pair of converted defensive linemen, Dakota Ball and Johnny Dwight, to get in the mix as situational blockers at least. Ball, though, presented himself as a legitimate receiving threat in the spring, and some observers believe he’ll hold onto the role throughout the fall. Signee Hale Hentges should get a look, while walk-on Truett Harris might also be in the mix.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Alabama will be replacing three starters and also top backup Grant Hill, who left the team to deal with an undisclosed medical condition. Hill’s departure was unexpected and not what Alabama needed, as he was probably in line to start at right tackle. That job now goes to senior Dominick Jackson, who might be better-suited to play guard. Returning starters Cam Robinson (left tackle) and Ryan Kelly (center) are both all-America candidates, while Bradley Bozeman, last year’s backup center, will slide into one of the two open guard spots. If Hill were still with the team, Jackson would get the other guard spot, but now redshirt freshman Ross Pierschbacher has it. Depth is in good shape inside, as J.C. Hassenauer and signee Brandon Kennedy have center locked up. Alphonse Taylor leads the way at guard along with Isaac Luatua, Josh Casher and Dallas Warmack.

Things aren’t nearly as rosy at tackle, where Hill’s absence causes a critical situation. Brandon Greene moved back from tight end, while Korren Kirven moved across from the defensive line. Walk-ons held down the third-team positions coming out of spring, but signee Lester Cotton is expected to quickly jump into the mix, probably ahead of Kirven as well. Two other signees, Matt Womack and Richie Petitbon, could also compete for time. Provided the starters stay healthy, Alabama should be fine here, but any damage at all to the tackles could cause a cascade failure.

DEFENSE

Alabama will continue to utilize the 3-4 over/under scheme it has employed since Nick Saban’s arrival, although Alabama plays with five or six defensive backs the majority of the time these days. The proliferation of spread offenses has dictated it. Alabama was soft in the back end of the defense in 2014 and that must be corrected if the Crimson Tide has plans on returning to the college football playoff.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Alabama should have the best line in the SEC, if not the country. The presence of Jonathan Taylor would have cinched it, but he was released from the team after the spring following an arrest. With Taylor gone, A’Shawn Robinson slides back to nose, where he is hard to handle thanks to his speed and quickness. Outside, Jarran Reed, another combo player, and Jonathan Allen, a prototypical 3-4 end, combine to wreak havoc. All three should be drafted next spring. Depth behind them is also excellent; Darren Lake and Josh Frazier back up the nose, while D.J. Pettway, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Shawn Hand are in the rotation at end. Redshirt freshman O.J. Smith had somewhat of a breakout performance at A-Day and is in the mix both inside and outside. Signee Daron Payne will also be fighting to get into the rotation this fall. Payne is another inside player. No team can equal or even come close to Alabama’s depth.

LINEBACKERS

Provided Alabama can get better production from its outside linebackers, this unit can be dominating. Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster appear to have the inside nailed down. Ragland was one of the best linebackers in the SEC last year and Foster’s lights finally seemed to go on in the spring. Depth isn’t bad; Shaun Dion Hamilton got some experience as a true freshman and is a smart player, while Keith Holcombe can be left on the field during passing downs. The question are the outside players. Ryan Anderson steps into Xzavier Dickson’s old role, while Denzel Devall returns at strongside linebacker. Dickson had become a solid edge-sealer, so Anderson will have big shoes to fill.

The real question mark is Devall, who has tons of experience but hasn’t made a lot of big plays. If he continues to struggle, Dillon Lee, Rashaan Evans and Tim Williams are all possibilities to take over. Lee can play inside or outside and is good against passing games, while Evans and Williams are top-level speed rushers who frustrate quarterbacks but are just average against the run. Christian Miller is another cut from the Evans-Williams mold and he figures to get a look this fall. Walker Jones and walk-on Jamey Mosley provide depth. Signees Adonis Thomas, Keaton Anderson and Joshua McMillon are all possibilities to play inside (Thomas can also play on the edge), while fellow signee Anfernee Jennings will miss the season following neck surgery. Mekhi Brown is the next speed rusher in training.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Alabama is looking for improvement here more than anywhere else on the team. By the end of the 2014 season, the Tide’s secondary had regressed into a liability. Poor safety play from anyone not named Landon Collins was the primary issue, but Alabama never found a cornerback to play opposite Cyrus Jones. Jones is back, the leader of this unit, and should be an all-SEC player at year’s end. He’s not a big guy, but receivers don’t get much separation when going against him and he’s better than his size would suggest against the run. Opposite him will be either Tony Brown or Bradley Sylve. Sylve started the 2014 season as Jones’ partner, got burned by West Virginia’s Kevin White a couple of times in the opener, and was benched.

It took most people a couple of months to realize that White was the real deal for the Mountaineers, and Sylve finally got a second chance against Auburn and came up big. He’s the fastest player on the team, but he is slight in build and struggles sometimes against the run. Brown is big, fast and stout, but doesn’t have the experience Saban would prefer. Marlon Humphrey had a standout spring and figures to be in the mix for time at several different positions.

Cornerback should be fine; it’s the safety positions that have people concerned. Eddie Jackson moves over from cornerback, to a safety position where he’s a more natural fit. His knee injury cut into his top-end speed, but he was solid in the spring against the run. Geno Smith may be the key to it all. He has the natural talent, but hasn’t been able to stay away from off-field trouble. Laurence Jones and Ronnie Harrison, the latter a true freshman, were pushing Jackson and Smith in the spring. Harrison looks like a fourth-year junior already and should be the next star – if Jones doesn’t get there first. Jabriel Washington is an experienced ballhawk off the bench, although he lacks size. He’ll probably be the dime safety for the year. Maurice Smith adds depth at safety and could push for the Star role. Anthony Averett adds depth at cornerback. Deionte Thompson worked here some in the spring before eventually moving to receiver. Signees Minkah Fitzpatrick and Shawn Burgess-Becker figure to get a long look in fall camp along with cornerback Kendall Sheffield.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Alabama went from abject panic in the punting game to tops in the nation thanks to J.K. Scott, who should only continue to get better. It’s the kicking game that worries folks. Adam Griffith has the job and no real competition, although walk-on Gunnar Raborn is capable on short kicks. Kickoff duties could go to either Griffith or Scott. Adrian Lamothe will back up Scott at punter. Cooper Bateman will hold and Cole Mazza will continue to snap, but Alabama must find new kick returners. Cyrus Jones is a good bet to get the punt-return duties, while any one of fifteen or so players could get the kickoff roles.

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