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By Jess Nicholas
April 17, 2017
With A-Day less than a week away, here’s a recap of the position battles we’re following heading into the spring’s final work:
Nothing much new here: Jalen Hurts is Alabama’s starter. The battle is to see who backs him up – is the holder’s job part of this deal? – in the event Hurts’ development stalls out in its second season. Nothing Hurts has done in any of Alabama’s scrimmages so far portends disaster, and as good as Tua Tagovailoa has looked, Hurts would have to do something to lose the job at this point. Starting a true freshman in the SEC two years in a row is almost more tempting of fates than anyone cares to do. Still, someone will have to be a relief pitcher, and it’s either Tagovailoa or fellow true freshman Mac Jones, who has also impressed. It’s very possible Alabama goes into the season with a better quarterback situation than it had a year ago despite losing a whole lot of seniority.
Injuries have stunted this competition, and it looks like Alabama could play A-Day with true freshmen Najee Harris and Brian Robinson starting ahead of a collection of walk-ons. Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and B.J. Emmons have all been stuck in black jerseys for injuries big and small, and there’s no need to risk losing any of the three to a truly major injury at the tail end of spring practice. Both true freshmen have been impressive – Najee Harris probably a bit more so – and both could see playing time this fall, but nothing is going to get solved this week so long as three-fifths of the competition is on the shelf.
The names to watch here on Saturday are probably Robert Foster and Jerry Jeudy. Foster, a senior, has one last chance to impress before time runs out. Jeudy, a freshman, has reminded more than a few people of former Tide star Amari Cooper. Presuming Alabama starts three receivers, Foster certainly looks like one of them right now along with Calvin Ridley. The third starter could be Jeudy, senior Cameron Sims or another player like Derek Kief or T.J. Simmons. If it’s Sims, Alabama will have a 6’5” receiver starting in the slot, and linebackers everywhere are already muttering obscenities under their breath. Fair warning: Foster has been impressive in past springs, then the fire goes out sometime over the summer. It’s now or never, and Sims is right on his heels as it is.
Quietly, this position was sending up red flags after the loss of O.J. Howard, because Alabama didn’t have an all-around replacement. It might still not, but Irv Smith Jr. and Major Tennison have both stepped up to give Hale Hentges motivation. Miller Forristall will probably stay an H tight end, but plans could change if Ronnie Clark continues to improve at H-back, which might allow Alabama to reformulate some of its base alignments. It’s hard to imagine Forristall not being a significant part of Alabama’s offense in the fall, so this one will probably wait to shake itself out in August.
Combining two categories we talked about at the start of spring, the left side looks solidified (T Jonah Williams, G Ross Pierschbacher) and center is the property of Bradley Bozeman. Three players, primarily, are in the mix for the other two spots, and one of them (Lester Cotton) seems a lock to start at one of the two. Either Cotton starts at right guard with Matt Womack at right tackle, or Cotton starts at tackle with Deonte Brown at right guard. The real question is whether the post-spring alignment holds throughout fall camp. It wasn’t that long ago that Ross Pierschbacher was Alabama’s center, right up until about two days before opening-day kickoff. Brown is the X-factor here because of his potential, but his weight is an issue and Alabama needs to have Plans B, C and D in place if the same struggles that befell last year’s unit rise again.
The starting unit looks to be fairly settled (Da’Shawn Hand, Da’Ron Payne, Isaiah Buggs) but the real question is what is the second team going to look like. Thus, the unit to watch will be the Crimson DL, which will consist of the current second team. Joshua Frazier hasn’t flashed as much as hoped this spring, but Quinnen Williams and Raekwon Davis have had their moments. Jamar King, O.J. Smith and Johnny Dwight will also get a chance to state their case for playing time, because Alabama still needs at least one of them to become a contributor in the fall. Alabama won’t play nine in the rotation, so a couple of these guys will be on the outside looking in soon.
There’s been some minor shuffling around, with the biggest news nugget being Ben Davis moving over from inside linebacker and making an impact. Alabama appears ready to start Anfernee Jennings at Jack, which would foretell a move back to the way the position was played when Denzel Devall was the starter there: more emphasis on stopping the run first, at the expensive of the pass rush. Watching how Terrell Hall figures into the mix will be the most interesting aspect of A-Day. Davis is battling Christian Miller and Jamey Mosley for playing time, primarily at SLB. Whether Alabama can overcome the loss of Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson will go a long way to telling if this defense is ready to carry a rebuilding offense.
Few surprises here, as Shaun Dion Hamilton and a noticeably beefier Rashaan Evans appear likely to hold onto starting jobs ahead of Mack Wilson and Keith Holcombe. Dylan Moses has gotten a lot of press for his play as a true freshman, and there’s still time for Joshua McMillon to make an impact. But this is one case where a position group that could have seen a lot of fireworks in the spring appears set for a ho-hum transition from Reuben Foster’s heroics to the steady, cerebral leadership of Hamilton.
To be blunt, this hasn’t been a good spring so far for Alabama’s defensive backfield. If you’re looking for positives, the story of camp so far has been Trevon Diggs moving over from receiver to become the presumptive starter at left cornerback ahead of walk-on Levi Wallace. Diggs is raw, but his skills are top-notch and corners with his size and ball skills aren’t found just walking around campus waiting to be discovered. Ronnie Harrison has one of the safety spots nailed down, and Anthony Averett has right cornerback in his hip pocket. What Alabama has to figure out – and quickly – is whether Minkah Fitzpatrick is a safety, a corner or a nickel specialist, because everything else is going to revolve around that decision. It didn’t help matters any when Deionte Thompson was hit with a felony arrest warrant for an alleged assault over spring break. As a result, Laurence Jones and a host of younger, inexperienced players now have to pick up the slack at dime safety and as reserves. Tony Brown appears locked into the Star position for now, but that could change with Fitzpatrick moving around. The offense has abused the secondary on multiple occasions this spring, which is not good news. The defense should be ahead of the offense at this point.
There’s no drama at punter, where J.K. Scott returns. The question mark is placekicker. It appears Scott may end up doing both jobs, at least until walk-on Joseph Bulovas arrives in the fall. Ole Miss transfer Andy Pappanastos could wind up kicking short field goals in the interim. Kickoffs will almost certainly be Bulovas’ domain in the fall, as Scott has never been consistent enough and Pappanastos doesn’t have the leg for it. An annual tradition under Nick Saban – the biting of fingernails during kicks – will continue, at least until someone steps forward from the pack and lays claim to the job.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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