By Jess Nicholas
April 11, 2016
With Alabama’s second scrimmage in the books, positions that are up for grabs this spring are slowly coming into focus.
Five players in particular need to post a solid A-Day performance Saturday in order to mark themselves as the starter heading into fall camp. As QB David Cornwell showed last spring, leading (or even being in the mix) at the end of spring isn’t a guarantee of holding onto a job throughout fall camp, but it certainly makes it tougher for other competitors to get a foothold.
1. WR Robert Foster
Foster’s strong spring last year was a key factor in him being placed at the head of the split end depth chart in front of Calvin Ridley, until a shoulder injury ended Foster’s year. With Richard Mullaney exiting the program and Alabama expected to use more three-wide sets than in the past, Foster should get a starting job back, with ArDarius Stewart and Ridley holding down the other two. But Alabama will add Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter in the fall, which will reshuffle the playing rotation. Foster has battled injuries large and small since coming to Alabama and Stewart has continued his strong finish to the 2015 season into spring practice, meaning Foster needs to stay sharp to keep Dieter on the bench.
2. RG Alphonse Taylor
Not many returning senior starters lose their starting jobs under Nick Saban. You might have to go all the way back to Nick Saban’s first season, when a scheme change resulted in MLB Matt Collins moving to defensive end and going to the bench after Alabama transitioned from a 3-3-5 to a 3-4 over/under. It’s hard to tell exactly where Taylor is in the current depth chart, but the coaches are obviously looking at other options, or perhaps just trying to push Taylor to not be complacent. Taylor’s straightline run blocking was fine in 2015; his pass blocking was not. If Taylor doesn’t trot out with the 1s on Saturday, he’ll need a good offseason in the weight room to get back in the mix come August.
3. QB Cooper Bateman
Alabama’s quarterback competition may be wide open right now, but Bateman and David Cornwell continue to get the lion’s share of the praise from practice observers. Bateman’s scrambling skills may be the best on the team, although true freshman Jalen Hurts is competitive in that regard. Bateman is accurate and is starting his fourth season in the program. Cornwell isn’t as mobile, although he’s not a bad athlete. The main challenge to Bateman’s spot atop the depth chart, though, comes thanks to Cornwell’s arm talent. Cornwell is the most talented pure passer Alabama has had since Brodie Croyle, and perhaps even further back in its history. Watching Cornwell snap passes off with his quick-as-a-hiccup release makes quarterback coaches drool. But Cornwell needs to continue to do the little things, and mostly, to mature – the latter being the reason he fell down the depth chart in 2015 fall camp. Other than in footspeed, Bateman doesn’t stand out, which is why he needs to be sharp at A-Day and continue to win friends on the team over the offseason. Alabama can win with Bateman, and win big. He just needs to solidify his hold on the job and going forward rather than backward at A-Day is the first step.
4. CB Anthony Averett
One of Alabama’s fastest players, Averett may be on the verge of claiming the cornerback position left open by the departure of Cyrus Jones. Doing so would allow Minkah Fitzpatrick to stay at the Star position, where he turned into a pick-six machine as a true freshman. Safety Eddie Jackson has been on the mend throughout the spring, and Maurice Smith moved into his place from Star, thus drawing Fitzpatrick to Star from cornerback and putting Averett on the field with the 1s. So far, he has responded adroitly and has managed to stay ahead of the much more-ballyhooed Kendall Sheffield. A-Day will be a prime opportunity for Averett to prove his value and claim a spot heading into the fall that someone else will have to come and take. It appears the competition will be between Averett (as a CB) or Maurice Smith (as the starting Star), with Fitzpatrick going wherever he’s needed.
5. DL Josh Frazier
Frazier originally came to Alabama as solely an inside player, but toward the end of 2015, was tried as a defensive end. He has worked hard over the offseason to reshape his body, and with Alabama thin in regards to players who can shift from inside (in a four-man front) to outside (in a three-man front), Frazier could end up with a key role in the 2016 defense even if he doesn’t start. With Da’Shawn Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson both fighting injuries this spring, Frazier will get plenty of playing time Saturday to state his case. If he’s able to get off blocks from an end position and not get powered out, he ought to stick with the first wave of reserves once the season begins. Defensive line won’t be a weakness for Alabama in 2016, but there are some challenges there that many have chosen to ignore (specifically, Alabama is ill-equipped to sustain an injury or two to key people) and developing quality depth, such as in the person of Josh Frazier, is necessary.