Previews 2016: Alabama Crimson Tide

 Mar 2, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; An Alabama Crimson Tide football helmet and an honorary game ball, gifts for President Barack Obama (not pictured), rest on a table prior to a ceremony honoring the 2015 national champion Alabama Crimson Tide in the East Room at the White House. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 2, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; An Alabama Crimson Tide football helmet and an honorary game ball rest on a table prior to a ceremony honoring the 2015 national champion Alabama Crimson Tide in the East Room at the White House. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

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Previews 2016: Alabama Crimson Tide

Defending national champions once again, Alabama looks even better on paper heading into 2016 than it did before the 2015 season started. But like last year, Alabama must replace key cogs in the machine, most notably quarterback, along with the core of its defense. Attrition that was heavy even by Alabama standards could play a factor in the team’s season outlook.

Returning Offensive Starters:
6 (SE, FL, TE, LT, C, RG)
Returning Defensive Starters:
5 (DT/E, MLB, RCB, LCB, SS)
Returning Specialists:
2 (PK, P)

Projected Overall Record: 11-1
Projected SEC Record: 7-1 (LSU)
Projected SEC West Record: 5-1

Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Vg
Running Backs: Vg Linebackers: Ex
Wide Receivers: Ex Defensive Backs: Ex
Offensive Line: Vg Special Teams: Vg

OFFENSE

Alabama will continue to base from its multiple, pro-style attack, but given the lack of a proven talent at running back and the ever-increasing need for points in the modern game, look for Alabama to take more chances and be more free-wheeling on offense. A peerless receiver corps and an offensive line that is expected to improve upon 2015’s performances means Alabama might be more high-flying in its approach.

QUARTERBACKS

Alabama effectively has a three-man race for the job that finds incumbent backup Cooper Bateman attempting to hold off a pair of freshmen, Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts. Bateman started a single, but fateful game in 2015, getting the surprise call against Ole Miss in Tuscaloosa. The entire team’s performance was lackluster, highlighted by five turnovers, but Bateman proved he wasn’t ready for the spotlight. His night ended after an interception that was followed by getting clock-cleaned while not paying attention during the ensuing interception return.

In the spring, however, Bateman looked the most composed, and spent A-Day showing that he had indeed learned an important QB skill: throwing the ball away rather than into trouble. Bateman is fast in a straight line but seems to play smaller than his listed height/weight. His arm strength is also the least of the group. But he’s the only candidate with game experience and his dual-threat abilities are intriguing.

Blake Barnett was the presumptive starter – last year – for a large portion of the fan base wooed by his high school tapes and reputation among recruiting analysts. Instead, Barnett suffered through a tough first year on campus and he slid backward rather than move forward in fall camp. The trend looked to be continuing this spring, as Barnett failed to impress early on, but he ended the spring on a high note and has continued to improve over the summer.

The real question here is whether Barnett can hold off Hurts for second place. Hurts put on a show at A-Day and has athleticism that is off the charts. He’s at least the athlete Blake Sims was for Alabama, perhaps more, and his passing skills are already more polished. It’s unlikely both Barnett and Hurts elect to finish their careers at Alabama, so this competition already has the feel of an elimination round.

David Cornwell has the biggest arm of the bunch, but fell behind late in the spring and then suffered a foot injury over the summer. He’s slowly working his way back, but camp will be over by the time he’s able to make a move, most likely.

RUNNING BACKS

As many eyes are tuned to this battle as they are on the quarterbacks. Alabama will be trading one big back for another, but the devil is in the details. Most specifically, Alabama loses a workhorse back who was never injured (Derrick Henry) for a potential game-changer (Bo Scarbrough) who has had trouble staying healthy for a full season at any level. It’s for that reason that the emergence of Damien Harris in the spring was such a big deal. Harris ran third-team behind Henry and Kenyan Drake for most of 2015, but fell behind Scarbrough at the end due to his indecisiveness and inability to move the pile. But while Scarbrough struggled at A-Day, Harris established himself as an every-down contender.

The real question is who will back these two up, and how much time they’ll get. If B.J. Emmons’ academic situation is indeed settled, he appears to have the inside track for the job. Emmons is a rare combination of speed and power, but there were rumblings heading into fall camp that his eligibility hadn’t been fully assured yet. If Emmons can’t go, the job will fall to either fellow true freshman Joshua Jacobs, or walk-on junior Derrick Gore, who has much better ability than his unscholarshipped pedigree would suggest. Jacobs signed late in the process with Alabama over concerns about his low weight, which Jacobs promptly took care of over the offseason, putting on 20-plus pounds and showing up at approximately the same size as Emmons.

Gore looked as good or better than Damien Harris in his limited work in 2015, then followed that up with a strong spring. Gore is a compact, powerful back that would easily make the playing rotation at most other schools. Other long-time fixtures like walk-on scatback Lawrence Erikosima and kick-return specialist Xavian Marks could get in the picture, but only in packages. Marks is also a possibility at receiver. There is no pure fullback on the roster, so the role will have to be filled by tight ends and H-backs.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Top to bottom, this is likely the most talented collection of receivers Alabama has ever had, and for once, the Tide’s self-imposed limit of six receivers in the A-group rotation might be challenged. Calvin Ridley isn’t as big as Julio Jones, or even Amari Cooper, but he’s threatening to be even more effective as a deep threat. He’s certainly in the conversation as the fastest of that group. ArDarius Stewart isn’t the most consistent receiver in the world, but he was money in every big moment in which he found himself in 2015, and few know how to position their body better than he.

The third receiver spot will come down to Robert Foster, a big-bodied receiver who suffered an untimely halt to his 2015 season when he suffered a major shoulder injury – an injury that, ironically, launched Ridley’s career – and Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter, who is a taller, faster version of last year’s transfer sensation, Richard Mullaney. Foster had a super spring while Dieter has been tearing up offseason workouts. And then there’s Cameron Sims, who finally emerged in the spring as the physical, rip-the-ball-away receiver Alabama lacked at times last year.

Those five are locks to play, but the transfer of Daylon Charlot was not expected and it leaves wide-open the sixth spot in the lineup. Derek Kief has the best chance to grab that spot given that he played some in close games last year as Mullaney’s backup in the slot, and there are no other slot-focused receivers competing. But if junior Raheem Falkins is finally healthy, he could end up being the man. Falkins is one of the Crimson Tide’s thickest bodies at the position. True freshmen Trevon Diggs (if he doesn’t move to safety) and T.J. Simmons are also vying for a spot, and walk-on Armani Purifoye has been on the verge of seeing some action at times in the past.

At tight end, O.J. Howard gives Alabama the rare option of a tight end who can move like a wideout. He’ll likely move up to the Y spot this year from H, with Hale Hentges backing him up and Brandon Greene available as a blocking specialist. When Hentges and Howard are both in the game, look for Howard to move to H. Otherwise, true freshman Miller Forristall will battle fifth-year senior Dakota Ball and fellow true freshman Irv Smith Jr. for the spot. Forristall was a minor sensation in spring practice, catching everything sent his way.

The most intriguing name on the roster, though, is 6’8”, 254-pound walk-on and former minor league baseball player Cam Stewart, who pitched three years in the San Diego Padres organization. You can’t teach height.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Only one starter appears set to return to his 2015 post, but Alabama may actually be better here in 2016 than in 2015. Left tackle Cam Robinson will get the call again in 2016 after off-field troubles in Louisiana were cleared up. Robinson has the potential to go at the top of the first round of next April’s NFL Draft if he has a strong season, and observers say Robinson is motivated. The rest of the line is a shuffle. Ross Pierschbacher will move from left guard to center, a position he took to like a natural in the spring.

While there will undoubtedly be a drop-off from the departed Ryan Kelly, Pierschbacher put together a sound spring and he could be the line’s best overall player. Incumbent right guard Alphonse Taylor is not expected to start the season atop the depth chart, after weight issues and then off-field issues made for a cloudy summer.

Super-sub Bradley Bozeman appears ready to take over for now. Last year’s left tackle backup, Lester Cotton, will get the starting nod at left guard, while right tackle will be either Bozeman or a true freshman, Jonah Williams, who entered school early this spring as the Tide’s top 2016 recruit and subsequently lived up to billing. If Bozeman starts at right tackle, look for Williams to swap to right guard ahead of Taylor, who will need to quickly re-prove himself in his senior season.

Depth is solid up the middle, with Brandon Kennedy, J.C. Hassenauer and Dallas Warmack all possibilities at guard. Hassenauer and Josh Casher will battle for the reserve center spot. The question mark comes at tackle, where Korren Kirven and Matt Womack are unproven. Kirven turned heads in the spring at right tackle, but was asked to play A-Day at left tackle and performed poorly. Womack looks like a prototype at right tackle but is an unknown on the blind side.

True freshmen Scott Lashley and Chris Owens will push Womack and Kirven, while Deonte Brown adds to the depth at guard along with walk-on Will Davis. Richie Petitbon is battling injury and likely won’t play in 2016.

DEFENSE

Although Jeremy Pruitt has returned as defensive coordinator in relief of Kirby Smart, the new head coach at Georgia, nothing substantive will change about Alabama’s base strategies. This is still Nick Saban’s defense, a 3-4 over/under scheme meant to pressure quarterbacks into unwise actions while shutting down opposing running games. Expect more of the same in 2016.

DEFENSIVE LINE

If Alabama has a weakness in 2016, it’s here, the result of depth that decidedly took a step back after the end of the 2015 season. There’s nothing wrong with Alabama’s starting three, which consists of Daron Payne in the middle, flanked by Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen outside. Having Da’Shawn Hand coming off the bench is a luxury few other teams can claim. But that’s really the extent of the good news, without resorting to trying to measure potential rather than proven performance.

Alabama needs to find a backup nosetackle quickly, which will come from either holdovers Joshua Frazier or O.J. Smith, or signees Raekwon Davis, Quinnen Williams or JUCO Jamar King. Only Smith has the look of a pure nosetackle; the others have the flexibility to play inside or outside but may not be ready. The pressure is truly on for Frazier to take a step up, as his potential is limitless. Davis, whose monstrous build and height makes him look like a high-school kid playing with the junior high team, will likely stay outside to create matchup problems.

Dakota Ball, who came to Alabama as a defensive tackle, could move back over from tight end. On the outside, look for King and Davis to battle Johnny Dwight for playing time. There are enough bodies here, but spring ball exposed the need for playmakers not named Hand, Payne, Allen or Tomlinson.

LINEBACKERS

Alabama hasn’t been this deep in years, maybe ever, with several players able to play multiple positions. In a straight-up 3-4 alignment, look for the starting four to be Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams outside, with Shaun Dion Hamilton and Reuben Foster inside. The problem is, the alignment will almost never look this way.

Anderson and Williams will get help from Christian Miller outside, while Anfernee Jennings looks set to take over Denzel Devall’s role as a edge-setting DE in a four-down alignment. Besides Tim Williams, the player all fans want to see is Rashaan Evans, who is listed at both strongside linebacker and as Hamilton’s backup at weakside linebacker.

Evans has speed to burn, is good in coverage and has the knack for blowing by even better-than-average offensive tackles with regularity. Other backups fighting for attention include Keith Holcombe and Keaton Anderson inside, with Mekhi Brown and Terrell Hall outside. Josh McMillon could make some noise at inside linebacker, or bulk up and move down to defensive end. The primary attribute for all the starters is speed, with Evans and Williams having almost-unfair levels of it. So overwhelming is their speed that Foster and his hitting ability threaten to go overlooked.

And then there are signees Lyndell Wilson and Ben Davis, both of whom would be making huge splashes at just about any other school right now. Walk-on Jamey Mosley has the build and speed to get on the field, at least on special teams. There is no weakness here and depth is superlative.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Alabama continues to deal with the distraction provided by Maurice Smith, who was set to start as either the Star safety or the dimeback in Alabama’s secondary, but the Crimson Tide should be fine without him. Smith still has a path to return to Tuscaloosa, but to say the situation is dim and getting dimmer would be a vast understatement. Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick are already set to start at the corner positions, with Fitzpatrick potentially moving to Star when Alabama is in a nickel set.

Strong safety Eddie Jackson elected to come back for his senior season, a pleasant surprise. That leaves Ronnie Harrison, last year’s dime safety, as the new starter at free safety. While Jackson is more of a ballhawk, Harrison is a patrolman across the middle and will lay big hits. The question now, with Smith seemingly out of the picture and Tony Brown looking at a suspension for an unspecified matter for at least the first couple of games of the year, is who handles the support roles. Anthony Averett made a big move forward at corner in the spring, and could play there with Fitzpatrick going to a safety role. Kendall Sheffield came to campus with huge expectations at cornerback, but hasn’t taken a step forward yet.

True freshmen Shyheim Carter and Nigel Knott are next up, with Carter making the bigger impact so far. Safety depth is now a concern, as Smith’s absence means redshirt freshman Deionte Thompson and little-used junior Laurence Jones will now elevate to key roles. True freshmen Jared Mayden and Aaron Robinson will also get long looks; both can play either corner or safety. Walk-on junior Levi Wallace played some with the 2s at A-Day, and Saban is not afraid to play walk-ons in his secondary if they show a grasp of the scheme. Alabama needs to avoid the injury bug here until some of the younger players gain experience.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Provided Adam Griffith improves his mid-range accuracy at placekicker, Alabama should have one of the best special teams units in the country. Unfortunately, Griffith’s accuracy comes and goes, and he had a rough spring. Punter J.K. Scott, on the other hand, appeared to continue his strong finish to the 2015 season through spring camp.

There really is no challenger to Scott; sophomore walk-on Brannon Satterfield will be his token backup, while walk-ons Gunnar Raborn and Andy Pappanastos, both juniors, will back up Griffith. Raborn has kicked in live action before and Griffith won’t have an unlimited leash.

Cole Mazza returns as the snapper with walk-on Ryan Parris his backup, while Cooper Bateman will probably retain holder duties. The question marks are in the return game, where Cyrus Jones must be replaced. Some combination of Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and Xavian Marks would seem to most likely to handle both punt return and kickoff return duties.

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