Spring preview: Tide rebuilding its defense again, but talent is there

By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
March 5, 2016

Prior to the point at which Jonathan Allen and announced their intent to return to for their senior seasons, the defensive line was ’s most significant problem spot heading into practice.

With Allen and Williams back, however, attention turns to the other open positions for 2016 and Alabama’s options for filling them. Here’s a look at the job openings, who’s in play for those openings and what to look for as spring practice starts.

OFFENSE

Right Tackle
Out:
Dominick Jackson
Competing: Brandon Greene, Lester Cotton, Charles Baldwin, Jonah Williams, Matt Womack, Korren Kirven
Favorite: Charles Baldwin
Dark horse: Korren Kirven
Analysis: Dominick Jackson struggled at times with pass blocking – particularly in the national championship game against Clemson – but he was an effective blocker in the running game and had the attitude for the assignment. There is no shortage of options to replace Jackson, but experience is at a premium. Brandon Greene has by far the most snaps of anyone in Tuscaloosa, but most of them have come as a specialty tight end in blocking situations. With Mario Cristobal changing coaching assignments, Greene might have an edge. Cristobal will now coach offensive tackles and tight ends, meaning he’ll see Greene all day, every day and theoretically, it will be easier for Greene to find a role. The runaway favorite for the job heading into the spring, though, is Charles Baldwin, who was the nation’s No. 1 JUCO prospect at right tackle. He entered school early, and it would be a surprise if he doesn’t win a starting job given he’ll have the extra spring practice time with the team. But the same could have been said for Jackson prior to the 2014 season, and then injuries relegated him to a backup role. Lester Cotton was the top reserve tackle on both sides for much of 2015, but he might be a better fit at guard, competing with incumbent starter Alphonse Taylor. Matt Womack turned heads in fall practices while redshirting, and is also an option at guard. Jonah Williams is a five-star signee but with the amount of experience ahead of him at the moment, it’s hard to see him starting as a true freshman. That leaves converted defensive tackle Korren Kirven, who has quick feet and got a lot better from the start of 2015 to the end, his first year on the offensive side of the ball. Kirven looks the part but he’s a senior; if he’s going to make an impact, it has to be now.

Center
Out:
Ryan Kelly
Competing: J.C. Hassenauer, Brandon Kennedy, Josh Casher, Ross Pierschbacher, Bradley Bozeman
Favorite: J.C. Hassenauer
Dark horse: Ross Pierschbacher
Analysis: J.C. Hassenauer served as Ryan Kelly’s backup for all of 2015, but the drop-off from Kelly to Hassenauer was evident during the times Hassenauer was pressed into service. He’s still the most highly regarded, as a prospect, of any of the players fighting for the job, and he’s enough of a favorite that someone will have to knock him off. That someone could be Ross Pierschbacher, the starter at left guard for every game on the 2015 season. Pierschbacher has worked at center extensively in the past, and this battle could come down to whether the coaches feel better about Hassenauer at center or Lester Cotton at left guard. If Cotton’s a better LG option than Hassenauer is an option at center, the reshuffle could be on. Assuming Pierschbacher stays at guard and Hassenauer doesn’t improve, the fight could be wide-open between Brandon Kennedy, Josh Casher and Bradley Bozeman. Bozeman was Kelly’s backup in 2014 and can play any position on the line, but he’s probably best as a strongside guard, meaning his spring could be taken up with trying to unseat Alphonse Taylor. Josh Casher, physically, is the biggest underdog, reminding many of Franchione-era guard Marico Portis. He also has the least experience outside of Kennedy, who redshirted in 2015.

Quarterback
Out:
Jake Coker, Alec Morris
Competing: Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell, , Jalen Hurts
Favorite: Blake Barnett
Dark horse: David Cornwell
Analysis: For the first time since Nick Saban has been at Alabama, it would seem unlikely the backup quarterback will be elevated to the starting job now that the previous year’s starter has graduated. Cooper Bateman’s performance in his lone 2015 start did more than anything to affect confidence in his abilities going into 2016. Bateman already has the disadvantage of having the weakest throwing arm of the four players competing for the job, but he also misread several zone-read opportunities against Ole Miss and eventually got pulled from the game. Unless Bateman has improved dramatically since that game, he might not even finish the spring as the backup. Blake Barnett is the most buzz-worthy prospect Alabama has had at the position since Brodie Croyle, and perhaps even back to Richard Todd. He has capable arm strength, is mobile and already seems to have the confidence of his teammates. What he also has, however, is some mechanical issues with his windup and release, and last spring took too many chances at times in scrimmages. From a pure passing standpoint, David Cornwell is the clear leader. His lightning-quick release is perhaps the quickest of any Alabama quarterback in the last 30 years, and his raw arm strength is substantial. Cornwell looked like the presumptive leader for the position heading into fall camp last year, too, but had a rough August and then reportedly crossed wires with his position coach. If Cornwell loses out to Barnett this spring, it would not be a surprise to see him transfer in the interest of finding playing time. Jalen Hurts is a true freshman who reported in January, and while he has all the tools to be an effective passer both inside and outside the pocket, he’s well behind the other three at the moment.

Slot Receiver
Out:
Richard Mullaney, Chris Black, Parker Barrineau
Competing: , Daylon Charlot, ArDarius Stewart, Derek Kief
Favorite: Gehrig Dieter
Dark horse:
Daylon Charlot
Analysis: Alabama didn’t get eye-popping production out of Richard Mullaney, but the intangibles he brought to the position couldn’t be measured. Alabama asks that its slot receivers block, execute rubs and screens and sometimes line up in the backfield. Having said that, no one looks like an exact match for Mullaney’s skills. Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter is the closest, but he is more dynamic than Mullaney was and could find himself working outside instead. If that happens, Daylon Charlot, whose bid for heavy playing time in 2015 was hampered by a couple of minor injuries, could end up being the man. Charlot has impressive speed and is more dynamic than the player who ended up being Mullaney’s backup last year, Derek Kief. Kief took over the backup roll full-time after Chris Black and Charlot fell with injuries. An intriguing option is ArDarius Stewart, the starting flanker last year, who’ll be in a fight for his job with Robert Foster, who himself is coming back from a major shoulder injury.

Fullback/H-Back
Out:
Michael Nysewander, David D’Amico, Ty Flournoy-Smith
Competing: Ronnie Clark, Dakota Ball, Hunter Bryant, Jacob Parker, Derek Kief, Miller Forristall, Gussie Busch (?), Walker Jones (?)
Favorite: Ronnie Clark
Dark horse:
Derek Kief
Analysis: The problem with analyzing this position is that Alabama really doesn’t have anyone on the roster like the departed Michael Nysewander. Nysewander had a true fullback’s body but could also play near the line. No one else is in the same area code. Ronnie Clark came to Alabama as a safety/linebacker combo player, but was moved to offense early on and spent all of 2015 at running back. He isn’t considered a threat to compete for the starting job there, but he might end up a combo back in the same way Jalston Fowler served the team in 2014. Clark would be one of the fastest H-backs in recent memory, but he would need to add more weight for the role unless Alabama is going to treat the position as a second de facto tight end. At that point, O.J. Howard – who played H in 2015 when Alabama went with a two-tight-end look – is the hands-down favorite. If Alabama continues to treat this position as a lead blocker, Dakota Ball, who began last year as the starting tight end, would figure to be the best option if he can keep his weight in check. Walk-on tight ends Hunter Bryant and Jacob Parker appeared to have the physique to play the position last year, but as with any walk-on, Alabama fans will have to wait until practices begin to make sure they’re even still on the squad. Derek Kief played here when relieving Richard Mullaney and when Alabama was using the slot in the backfield. If Alabama transitions the H position to a receiver position, Kief could handle it, but he weighs less than 200 pounds and would not be a lead blocker. Miller Forristall will start out at tight end, but if he keeps his weight down he could make an impact here. Two possibilities coming from would be Walker Jones and Gussie Busch. Jones played a decent amount during high-margin victories in 2015; he would only move if he wants his total snap count to go up. Busch is almost a dead ringer for Nysewander in terms of body type, but it’s unclear how much experience he has on offense. It’s worth noting Nysewander played defensive tackle in high school.

Running Back
Out:
Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake
Competing: Damien Harris, , Derrick Gore, Ronnie Clark, Xavian Marks
Favorite: Bo Scarbrough
Dark horse:
Damien Harris
Analysis: This will be a two-man fight between Bo Scarbrough, the Derrick Henry clone, and Damien Harris, who was supposed to be the next Mark Ingram before his freshman season ended with somewhat of a whimper. Harris was billed as a shifty, powerful back with good speed who could both create and find holes. Instead, he looked indecisive and easy to bring down. Once Bo Scarbrough came back late in the year from a knee injury, it was clear who was the better fit in Alabama’s offense. The one concern hanging over Scarbrough is that he has already been injured multiple times in his football career, whereas Henry will enter the NFL pretty much unscathed. Harris has a speed advantage in this battle, but if the durability is there, Scarbrough looks like the better bet to start. There is a big gap back to Derrick Gore in third place on the depth chart. He’s a walk-on from a JUCO program who played well enough in the fall to get himself onto special teams by the end of the year, a feat in itself for a Nick Saban team. He arguably looked more effective than Harris toward the end. Ronnie Clark may move to H-back, while Xavian Marks is a pure scatback who will probably make his mark on kick returns and perhaps as a slot receiver or specialty player.

DEFENSE

Defensive tackle
Out:
, D.J. Pettway
Competing: Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Shawn Hand, Johnny Dwight, O.J. Smith, Anfernee Jennings, Josh Frazier
Favorite: Dalvin Tomlinson
Dark horse:
Josh Frazier
Analysis: Alabama has two premier players competing for the job in Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Shawn Hand. With the way Alabama rotates its defensive front, both players will be on the field at the same time for significant portions of the game. Tomlinson is probably Alabama’s best tackle against spread offenses thanks to his quickness and guile. Hand is more of an edge player and will probably end up backing up Jonathan Allen at Alabama’s tackle/end combo position. Assuming Alabama wants to stay “big” at this position – departed starter Jarran Reed was capable of playing nosetackle when needed – Josh Frazier would seem to be the favored candidate. He started his career out in the middle, but he has shown enough agility to get into the conversation at tackle. Johnny Dwight, who spent 2015 at tight end, moved back toward the end of the year but could go over to offense again. O.J. Smith had a strong showing in the spring of 2015 but didn’t quite break into the rotation, and then got hurt. Anfernee Jennings is a smaller player, similar to what D.J. Pettway looked like when he first reported to Alabama as a true freshman. Like Hand, he’s probably a better option on the other side. Alabama probably won’t make quite as many plays up front in 2016 as it did a year ago, but the cupboard isn’t bare.

Nosetackle
Out:
A’Shawn Robinson, Darren Lake
Competing: , Josh Frazier, O.J. Smith
Favorite: Daron Payne
Dark horse:
O.J. Smith
Analysis: Alabama stayed in nickel and dime sets so often in 2015 that it rarely used a three-man front with a true nose. When it did, Darren Lake was usually the one called upon. By the end of the year, he was basically being used only on the goal line. A’Shawn Robinson played both in and out, and Alabama would like his replacement to be able to do the same. It will almost certainly be Daron Payne, who was more than just a situational player as a true freshman. Both Josh Frazier and O.J. Smith can handle the job – and perhaps Johnny Dwight as well – but if anyone but Payne wins this job, it will be a shocker.

Jack Linebacker
Out:
Denzel Devall
Competing: Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, Christian Miller, Mekhi Brown, Anfernee Jennings, Christian Bell
Favorite: Ryan Anderson
Dark horse:
Christian Miller
Analysis: Despite the emergence of Tim Williams as something more than just a third-down pass rusher, Ryan Anderson’s ability to shut down the run as well as pressure the quarterback makes him the most likely candidate to take over for Denzel Devall. Devall closed out his college career by becoming a master at setting the edge against the running game. While he never developed into an elite pass rusher, his value was off the charts in 2015. Anderson is capable of doing the same things. Williams leans far to the other side, an elite first-step rusher with the strength necessary to battle against long-armed offensive tackles. He’s gotten better against the running game, but he needs to continue to improve in that regard. Christian Miller came on last year; along with RB Derrick Gore, he was one of two players who got more playing time on special teams as the season went along. He even started to get on the field as a situational rusher from the strongside position; he’ll continue to be in the mix for that job in 2016. Mekhi Brown is another quick rusher off the edge, while Jennings is another Duvall type. Christian Bell, who grayshirted in 2015 and joined the team this spring, will also be in the mix.

Weakside Linebacker
Out (as MLB):
Reggie Ragland
Competing: Shaun Dion Hamilton, Keith Holcombe, Keaton Anderson, Walker Jones, Adonis Thomas, Jamey Mosley, Josh McMillon,
Favorite: Shaun Dion Hamilton
Dark horse:
Rashaan Evans
Analysis: Reuben Foster actually held this job last year but is expected to move to middle linebacker, where Reggie Ragland played. That leaves the weakside position option, and Shaun Dion Hamilton has virtually all the returning experience at that slot. Keith Holcombe and Walker Jones both got in a few snaps last year, but Hamilton was the only one other than Foster called on when the game was on the line. Hamilton is one of Alabama’s smartest players and is tough against running games, but his coverage skills are lacking relative to some of the other players. Holcombe, a special teams stalwart, should get more playing time in 2016. He’s currently playing on the baseball team. Keaton Anderson seems more of a situational player right now, a coverage linebacker against spread teams. Adonis Thomas is probably the most talented of the newer players. Josh McMillon, outside of Hamilton, is the most prototypical in regards to size; he’ll likely be in the mix to replace Foster in the middle in 2017. That leaves walk-on Jamey Mosley, the brother of C.J. Mosley, and Rashaan Evans, who together with Jack linebacker Tim Williams made up the most feared pass-rushing twosome in the SEC last year. Evans will be underutilized if he stays at strongside linebacker, which is where Mosley also plays. Evans will get a long look at weakside linebacker in the spring to see if he can take the pounding. If he can, Alabama will have probably the most dynamic set of starting linebackers it’s had since the days when both Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas played on the same team. And in the fall, heralded true freshman is set to arrive and potentially upset the apple cart.

Strongside Linebacker
Out:
Dillon Lee
Competing: Rashaan Evans, Christian Miller, Jamey Mosley, Mekhi Brown, Walker Jones, Keaton Anderson
Favorite: Rashaan Evans
Dark horse:
Keaton Anderson
Analysis: If not for the expected experiment of moving Rashaan Evans inside this spring, this job would barely classify as “open.” If Evans does move, Christian Miller becomes the obvious choice to start, with Mekhi Brown likely the next option. Both players are good pass rushers off the corner. What’s missing at first blush is a player like the departed Dillon Lee, who was big enough to cause significant issues for opponents in the running game, especially in short-yardage situations. Walker Jones and Keaton Anderson might be options to play that role, particularly Jones. Jamey Mosley will also compete. The strongside position doesn’t get on the field much for Alabama these days, but when it is needed, it’s one of the most important on the team.

Right Cornerback
Out:
, Bradley Sylve
Competing: , Tony Brown, Kendall Sheffield, Anthony Averett, Maurice Smith, Cedric Powell
Favorite: Minkah Fitzpatrick
Dark horse:
Kendall Sheffield
Analysis: The loss of Jones stings not only because he was a key defender, but he also became one of the most effective punt returners in school history. Bradley Sylve was just born a year too early; if he had one more year of eligibility, he’d be the starter here. Instead, the big decision becomes how Alabama manages Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was a star at the Star safety position in 2015. If Fitzpatrick doesn’t outright move back to corner, he’ll play corner in base and then Star in nickel and dime, with Kendall Sheffield the most likely option to move then to cornerback. Fitzpatrick is a true corner/safety hybrid, with great ball skills and smarts. He isn’t as quick in transition as Jones was, but it’s more than good enough to get the job done. Sheffield drew raves while redshirting and looks like the next great, pure CB in Tuscaloosa. Of the others, both Tony Brown and Maurice Smith have all but moved now to safety, leaving Anthony Averett and walk-on Cedric Powell as the other options. Averett has the ability but has been trapped behind better players up to now. It will be critical for him to make a move forward this spring and not get lost in the shuffle.

Safety
Out:
Geno Matias-Smith, Jabriel Washington
Competing: , Maurice Smith, Shawn Burgess-Becker, Deionte Thompson, Laurence Jones, Tony Brown, Shawn Jennings
Favorite: Ronnie Harrison
Dark horse:
Deionte Thompson
Analysis: Other than right tackle, there probably isn’t this degree of depth anywhere else on the team, in terms of fighting for an open position. Any name on the above list, save for perhaps true freshman Shawn Jennings, could walk onto the field first this fall and no one would be surprised. Ronnie Harrison had a breakout freshman season and proved to be a hard hitter with ball skills. Maurice Smith is the most experienced of the bunch, able to play anything from field corner to strong safety. Shawn Burgess-Becker was a special teams standout and a hard hitter, and should find his way into the playing rotation. Tony Brown moved here from corner late in the year and showed promise. Deionte Thompson started out as a receiver last spring, somewhat surprisingly, before redshirting during the regular season. He has impressive height and speed and was mentioned prominently by his teammates as a possibility to have a breakout season in 2016. Laurence Jones needs to make a move forward and do it quickly; he was bypassed by several players in the fall and his window is closing fast. Jennings figures to be an important piece of the puzzle in future years but just has too many names in front of his at the moment.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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