Spring preview: Not many holes, but tweaks are coming

Filed under: 2017 Football,Featured Slider,Football,Previews |

By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
March 19, 2017

Even as threatens to populate entire rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft, there aren’t many holes headed into spring camp.

But that doesn’t mean changes aren’t coming, especially in regards to Alabama’s offensive philosophy. Additionally, Alabama has work to do on its offensive line, and after a coaching-duty shuffle, there could be as many as four new starters on the line – either former starters working at new positions or completely new names.

Here’s a position-by-position look at where Alabama stands heading into spring camp. Only players coming in early for spring practice are included in the “new additions” category (*=denotes walk-on):

QUARTERBACK

Returning: Jalen Hurts, Montana Murphy*

New additions: Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones

Analysis: A lot of what happens here involves new offensive coordinator and his analyst staff. While Daboll has coached quarterbacks in the past (most notably Brett Favre during his time with the New York Jets), pure QB coaching is not Daboll’s long suit. He’s a tight ends coach and offensive schematics guy by trade and was brought in specifically to “toughen up” the offense. As such, Alabama is expected to go back to the offense it ran pre-Lane Kiffin, which was heavy on two-TE looks and direct, downhill running games. The New England Patriots, Daboll’s most recent employer, are not exempt from the spread phenomenon but in Boston, those concepts are confined mostly to the route trees and the draw game within the rushing attack. We say all that to say that Daboll’s wheelhouse is a different kind of offense from the one either Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa has most of their strengths banked. If anything, Mac Jones may have gone from a satellite’s orbit to right in the thick of things, at least for the backup job. It’s unlikely Tagovailoa or Jones will unseat Hurts, but competition for the second-string job will be fierce. Walk-on Montana Murphy has experience in the system, but the others have more raw skills. This will be an interesting position to watch during the spring, but ultimately, don’t look for a change at the top.

RUNNING BACK

Returning: Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs, B.J. Emmons, Ronnie Clark, Avery Reid*

New additions: Najee Harris, Brian Robinson, Chadarius Townsend

Analysis: While B.J. Emmons will miss at least a substantial part of spring practice while recovering from surgery, there still figures to be intense competition here, and it’s one of the biggest reasons Alabama is moving away from the spread and more toward a power offense. It’s easier almost to talk about who isn’t in the mix for the starting job: Avery Reid, a walk-on, played sparingly last year, while oft-injured Ronnie Clark may be ticketed more for an H-back role. True freshman Chadarius Townsend should also see work at wide receiver and defensive back, and typically players that are moved around a bit in their first camp tend to take longer to break into the playing rotation somewhere. Even with Emmons sidelined, that still leaves three talented holdovers (Scarbrough, Jacobs, Damien Harris) and two signees (Robinson, Najee Harris) to compete for the position. The darkhorse by far is Robinson, but at roughly 220 pounds and testing out faster than Najee Harris in drills last week, he wouldn’t be the first lesser-heralded running back to steal carries from a more hyped player. The big question is whether Bo Scarbrough can stay healthy, followed closely by whether Damien Harris can continue on the same upward track that took him from disappointing filler player as a true freshman to a solid all-around back on the league’s best team as a sophomore. It’s unlikely Alabama will make use of any two-back sets except perhaps as part of some kind of decoy look, but provided Alabama keeps the tempo part of its game intact, there should be enough carries for a true three-back rotation in 2017.

WIDE RECEIVER

Returning: Calvin Ridley, Cameron Sims, Trevon Diggs, T.J. Simmons, Derek Kief, Robert Foster, Xavian Marks

New additions: Jerry Jeudy, Tyrell Shavers

Analysis: With the somewhat unexpected early departure of ArDarius Stewart to the NFL, at least one starting position is wide open, perhaps two if Alabama keeps a three-WR base. Calvin Ridley becomes the unquestioned alpha of this group, with either Cameron Sims or Trevon Diggs the most likely options to take the off-receiver spot. Robert Foster is still hanging around and supposedly had a productive offseason, while Derek Kief has been on the cusp of getting into the main rotation at slot receiver for two years now. T.J. Simmons had a quiet freshman season, and Xavian Marks only contributed on special teams. There is certainly room for both Jerry Jeudy and Tyrell Shavers to make a mark. Jeudy has drawn comparisons to Amari Cooper but that comparison comes as a result of playing against other high school talent, but college players. Shavers, at 6’6”, gives Alabama another tall threat in addition to Sims and Kief, but he weighs less than 200 pounds and is probably a year away from optimally producing. If Sims stays healthy – which would be for the first time ever as a college player – Alabama probably doesn’t skip a beat compared to 2016. But all the receivers figure to see less action as Alabama transitions to more of a power team, and we’re not even sure yet of the formation alignments Daboll intends to install. At least in the early going, this unit could end up going through unexpected growing pains.

TIGHT END

Returning: Hale Hentges, Miller Forristall, Irv Smith Jr., Hunter Bryant*, Jacob Parker*, Cam Stewart*

New additions: Major Tennison

Analysis: There are actually several other new walk-ons in additions to the ones listed here, which calls into question whether Alabama is going to use the Ace package more often or even search for a true H-back in the mold of Travis McCall or Michael Nysewander. Assuming Alabama starts two tight ends (rather than three receivers) in an H/Y split, Miller Forristall will be the new H and the Y will likely come down to Hale Hentges or Irv Smith Jr. Hentges has a decided advantage in experience, but he has yet to develop as a receiver and Alabama can’t afford for the Y to be a dead position in a post-O.J. Howard world. Forristall showed tons of ability and promise as a receiving tight end last year and his blocking skills are better than average. He lacks the ideal bulk to play on the line but he’s not incapable of doing it. The key here will be the development of Smith, who has NFL bloodlines and who was good enough to get his redshirt burned at midseason. Major Tennison is sort of a tweener H/Y at the moment, and could use a year in the weight room, but Alabama might not be able to afford him that luxury. Of the walk-ons, Bryant has good height but not enough bulk, while Parker is a smaller, quicker player. Cam Stewart is sure to be this year’s fan-favorite freak, a former minor league baseball player who goes a whopping 6’8” and 260 pounds and would make an ideal Y tight end if the skill set proves as good as the measurables. Ronnie Clark is also an option at H if he is moved up from running back.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE

Returning: Jonah Williams, Scott Lashley, Matt Womack, Lester Cotton

New additions: Alex Leatherwood, Elliot Baker

Analysis: Competition will be fierce here, as Jonah Williams is expected to move to a new position (LT) and the rest compete for his vacated right tackle spot. Elliot Baker was expected to lead the competition there but a poor showing at Alabama’s recent underclassman pro day, where Baker’s 40-yard dash time was clocked at more than 6 seconds, has resulted in some concern. Scott Lashley is still a bit raw but he may be the best pure tackle prospect on the team, which would be quite a feat given that Williams is still around. Matt Womack and Lester Cotton both have the ideal body type and makeup for right tackle, but Cotton got things off to a bad start in 2017 by being arrested for drug possession in February. The other major question is how long can Alabama keep the redshirt on Alex Leatherwood, who figures to be in competition for both tackle and both guard jobs. Cotton’s arrest was for a very minor issue, so don’t expect his candidacy to be negatively impacted in any significant way. That makes the upcoming battle among the remaining five players one of the most entertaining of the spring.

OFFENSIVE INTERIOR LINE

Returning: Bradley Bozeman, Ross Pierschbacher, Josh Casher, J.C. Hassenauer, Dallas Warmack, Brandon Kennedy, Richie Petitbon, Chris Owens, Deonte Brown, Jacob Probasco*

New additions: None

Analysis: There’s a ton of talent here but aside from center Bradley Bozeman, consistency is lacking. Bozeman may end up being the only returning starter to hold onto his job or at least stay in the same position, despite the fact there are three starters returning to the line overall. At the end of last year, Ross Pierschbacher was back at left guard after beginning the season at right guard, and Josh Casher was pushing Korren Kirven at right guard before a broken foot during bowl practices ended his year. Assuming Bozeman holds onto center, Pierschbacher will fight primarily with Casher, Brandon Kennedy and Dallas Warmack for the two guard spots. Richie Petitbon is trying to rebound from injuries that slowed his early development, while redshirts Chris Owens and Deonte Brown are big, blue-collar maulers who have yet to get an opportunity. The wild card is reserve center J.C. Hassenauer, who probably hasn’t developed as much as was hoped, and suddenly finds himself a senior. If he comes on with a strong spring performance, he could shuffle Bozeman out to a guard spot and then the entire line might be new compared to 2016. Alabama needs another body to step up at center, and walk-on Jacob Probasco might fill that role. Casher is also a possibility there. Three of the tackles, Lester Cotton, Matt Womack and Alex Leatherwood, have varying degrees of potential as guards, and Cotton is a former starter at guard. The problem here, across the board, is that when Alabama struggled running the ball in 2016, it was typically because of inconsistency within the offensive line, and particularly from guard to guard. Expect to see a lot of movement and experimentation here before the coaches settle on a rotation.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Returning: Da’Shawn Hand, Da’Ron Payne, Joshua Frazier, Quinnen Williams, Raekwon Davis, Johnny Dwight, O.J. Smith, Jamar King

New additions: Isaiah Buggs

Analysis: This looks like a lot of names but in reality it’s just enough to complete a three-deep at three positions, and a handful of these names have yet to make an impact. All eyes this spring will be on JUCO signee Isaiah Buggs, who is almost a carbon copy of the now-departed Dalvin Tomlinson both is body type and ability. If Buggs follows through on that promise, Alabama will breathe a lot easier. Last year’s fourth man, Da’Shawn Hand, must become a productive starter. The only depth Alabama has is in the middle, where Da’Ron Payne and Joshua Frazier are a formidable 1-2 punch. Frazier came on strong late in 2016, going from a guy with tons of potential but no production, to a key part of Alabama’s interior run defense package. If Buggs or Hand can’t take the next step up, it’s not out of the discussion that either Payne or Frazier could move outside. Redshirt freshman Quinnen Williams and raw-as-free-range-eggs Raekwon Davis will be counted on to provide depth. Davis certainly looks the part but got a late start to his freshman year and never caught up. Williams’ value is probably based on how much “good” weight he can carry and not lose his other attributes. Of the rest, Jamar King tested off the charts at Alabama’s underclassman pro day, but played sparingly during the year. O.J. Smith looks like Josh Chapman; the key will be if Smith can learn to play like him, too. This is probably his last shot at making the rotation. Johnny Dwight moved back over from tight end last spring but looked overwhelmed then. There are several walk-on DLs in camp, which is notable simply for its novelty, but no one so far that would stand out. As with last year, keeping everyone healthy will be key.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

Returning: Anfernee Jennings, Terrell Hall, Christian Miller, Jamey Mosley, Mekhi Brown, Shawn Jennings

New additions: Dylan Moses

Analysis: The losses of Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson hurt more than just in ability, as Anderson in particular had turned into something demonic by the end of the year. Both players had become adept at being every-down linebackers, too, which may or may not describe many on this list. The most-watched of the potential replacements will be sophomore Terrell Hall, because he does possess the ability to be both a great pass rusher and run stuffer. Hall threatened to get into the 2016 playing rotation around midseason but seemed to fall out as the year closed. He, Anfernee Jennings and Miller are the favorites to take the two outside spots, but Jennings is not an elite pass rusher and Miller needs to get more consistent against the run. There’s a pretty significant line drawn after those three, with the others – former walk-on Jamey Mosley, Anfernee’s younger brother Shawn Jennings and Mekhi Brown – all question marks. Mosley might actually be the closest to getting playing time, while the younger Jennings may stay at his original position, safety. Mekhi Brown played a regular role on special teams down the stretch, but saw virtually no time at his position. Early entrant Dylan Moses might have a clean shot to get into the top rotation unless multiple people step up. Fellow signee VanDarius Cowan is no longer enrolling early. This position could become somewhat of a concern, particularly if an injury or two hits. Rashaan Evans, who is currently working with both inside and outside groups, could be forced to move back.

INSIDE LINEBACKER

Returning: Shaun Dion Hamilton, Rashaan Evans, Mack Wilson, Joshua McMillon, Ben Davis, Keith Holcombe, Keaton Anderson

New additions: None

Analysis: Provided Hamilton heals up from the knee injury he sustained against Florida in the SEC Championship Game, this should be a strong group. With Hamilton either out or limited for most of spring work, Rashaan Evans will probably be forced to work here exclusively, even though he may be needed worse on the outside. Mack Wilson has the chance to make the biggest move up, as he became an important two-way piece for Alabama last year, serving as the team’s situational fullback and backup middle linebacker, to say nothing of his prowess on kick coverage. Alabama badly needs a fourth reliable linebacker to step up, and Keith Holcombe probably has the best chance of doing it. Ben Davis and Joshua McMillon are bracketed at the next level, with hybrid safety/linebacker Keaton Anderson figuring to play more of a situational role.

DEFENSIVE BACK

Returning: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Anthony Averett, Ronnie Harrison, Tony Brown, Levi Wallace, Shyheim Carter, Laurence Jones, Deionte Thompson, Nigel Knott, Jared Mayden, Aaron Robinson

New additions: Xavier McKinney, Kyriq McDonald, Daniel Wright

Analysis: Depending on one’s point of view, either nothing is wrong with Alabama’s secondary, or everything is. Alabama got worked over against Clemson, but for the most part, the 2016 secondary played superbly as usual. The loss of Marlon Humphrey, though, was somewhat unexpected, and has left Alabama scrambling at the cornerback positions. Safety is in good hands, with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison as solid as any you’ll find in college ball. Depth behind them is also in good shape, with Laurence Jones, Deionte Thompson, Jared Mayden and hybrid safety/linebackers Shawn Jennings and Keaton Anderson all in the mix. Anthony Averett becomes the primary corner by default, and while he’s a stellar tactician, he’s not the biggest guy in the room and ultra-physical wide receivers give him trouble. Either Tony Brown or walk-on Levi Wallace figures to be the starter on the other side, with Brown probably having the edge because of his size and hitting ability. Unfortunately, Brown often plays as out-of-control as his wild-man reputation would suggest, and his high-strung nature doesn’t help. Still, he’s a superior athlete to any other Alabama DB, starter or not. If you’re into “heartstrings” stories, Wallace pulls at most of them, playing the role of the plucky walk-on who dared to join a -coached team and beat out several other more heralded players for a spot on the field. Even if Brown wins the starting corner job, he could end sliding to Star safety and Wallace coming onto the field as the third corner. Walk-on or not, Wallace has good length for a corner and is a high-IQ player after the snap. He lacks bulk, but held his own against rushing attacks last year. Shyheim Carter is probably the greatest threat to unseat Wallace from his spot, while Aaron Robinson and Nigel Knott are next in line. All three early entrants – Xavier McKinney, Kyriq McDonald and Daniel Wright – are safeties first, and McDonald is really the only one expected to have a chance to play on the edge. Getting the Brown-Wallace-Carter battle shaken out will be the top priority this spring.

KICKER/PUNTER

Returning: J.K. Scott, Brannon Satterfield*, Andy Pappanastos*

New additions: None

Analysis: Knowing exactly what Alabama has to work with from a walk-on standpoint likely won’t be known until the first practice; such is the way of things with kickers and punters. There’s no drama at punter, where Scott is a Ray Guy Award favorite headed into the year. The only question for Scott is will he also be Alabama’s kickoff man. Brannon Satterfield is listed as his backup. The drama comes at placekicker, where Ole Miss graduate transfer Andy Pappanastos displayed great accuracy as a short-distance kicker last year. He simply lacks the leg for long-distance kicking. Alabama is supposed to bring in a preferred walk-on this fall, Joseph Bulovas, but if Pappanastos proves automatic from inside 40 years he’s going to be tough to unseat. Scott can kick long field goals if needed.

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