Previews 2017: Alabama Crimson Tide
by Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor in Chief
August 6, 2017
Defeated in the College Football National Championship Game in January, Alabama suddenly finds itself in uncharted territory: trying to avenge a loss in a trophy contest. It doesn’t happen often in Tuscaloosa. If the 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide intends to exact revenge for its defeat, it will have to do so with serious depth questions on the defensive line, an unknown quantity at placekicker, and an offensive line that has been erratic and perhaps even underachieving for several years.
Returning Offensive Starters: 7 (SE, LT, LG, C, QB, HB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 5 (NT, MLB, RCB, FS, SS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (P)
Projected Overall Record: 12-0
Projected SEC Record: 8-0
Projected SEC West Record: 6-0
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Vg Defensive Line: Vg
Running Backs: Ex Linebackers: Vg
Wide Receivers: Ex Defensive Backs: Ex
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Av
The arrival of Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator will shake things up considerably, as Lane Kiffin’s unpredictability will likely give way to a system that recalls Nick Saban’s second offensive coordinator, Jim McElwain. Talk of tight ends being more involved in the passing game has dominated offseason drills, and most expect Alabama’s running game to rediscover its downhill roots. The biggest question mark concerns the offensive line, which lost two starters and is again shuffling personnel to try to come up with the right fit heading into fall camp.
Take out the last two games of the 2016 season and the amount of hype surrounding Jalen Hurts would be on the same scale that measures the height of NASA booster rockets. But after a difficult (although effective) performance against Florida in the SEC Championship Game, Hurts struggled for all but a few minutes of Alabama’s loss to Clemson. That fact alone, plus the hysterical amount of hype behind true freshman signee Tua Tagovailoa, has created a pseudo-QB controversy heading into the fall. Tagovailoa’s strong showing in the first half of the A-Day game did nothing to tamp down the breathless praise heaped upon him, although Hurts had a more consistent game and did it against the first-string defense to boot. Nonetheless, both will play, and Tagovailoa’s superior raw passing ability at least guarantees Hurts can’t throw it into cruise control.
Another true freshman, Mac Jones, is available but if A-Day results mean much, it was clear Hurts and Tagovailoa were on a higher plane. Walk-on Montana Murphy has been around awhile and, along with newcomer walk-ons Kyle Edwards and Wheeler Harris, at least guarantee Alabama won’t run out of bodies at the position as the year moves along. If Hurts continues to improve as it appears he did over the spring and summer months, he should be able to keep a clear advantage over Tagovailoa – for now.
Even with the departure of B.J. Emmons over the summer, Alabama should be fine here. Co-starters Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough return from a rushing attack that was surprisingly effective for most of the year despite the struggles on the offensive line. Alabama will be looking for better stamina from both Harris and Scarbrough, who each missed significant snaps due to nagging injuries during the year, leading up to Scarbrough’s broken leg suffered during the Clemson game.
Joshua Jacobs would seem to be third back in the rotation, and his receiving ability certainly lifts him into a third-down role. Jacobs at times in 2016 looked to be on the verge of pressuring Harris or Scarbrough for some of their snaps; this year, he’ll mostly be trying to hold off true freshman phenom Najee Harris, who could end up being the best overall player in a strong freshman class. Harris has the size, speed and big-play ability top teams need in a featured back, and Harris, at least for now, looks like one of the best of that breed signed to an SEC roster in years. He’ll have fans calling for him all year. Brian Robinson was signed along with Harris, and while he seems like the forgotten man of the class because of it, he actually has the frame to put on more weight than Harris does and could fill a powerback role in short order.
Chadarius Townsend, a combination receiver/running back, doesn’t have the size of the others but isn’t a scatback, either. Whether he stays at running back long-term or not is another matter. It’s likely Townsend redshirts, and the book is probably still out on Robinson. Walk-on Zavier Mapp provides depth. At fullback, Ronnie Clark, who is listed on the roster as a tight end, is the closest thing Alabama has. Clark will likely draw H-back duties, and if a fullback is needed, one of the tight ends will move into the spot temporarily. Clark is a much better runner and receiver than on-line blocker, but he deserves special praise for not giving up after having two seasons cut short by leg injuries.
The two big questions here are can Calvin Ridley repeat his freshman-year magic, and just how good is signee Jerry Jeudy. Ridley slipped into almost a support role last year, as ArDarius Stewart became the featured receiver as the season went along. With Stewart heading to the NFL a year early, it’s back on Ridley to be a veteran leader for what could be a very young unit. At the end of the spring, the other two starters in Alabama’s typical three-wide set were seniors Robert Foster, who is trying to get a fresh start under the Daboll administration, and oft-injured Cameron Sims, whose size and vertical ability make him a mismatch threat if he can ever stay on the field long enough. But Jeudy, whose Amari Cooper-like build and natural ability wowed observers at A-Day, is the player drawing the most attention in fall camp. Due to Sims’ fragility issues, Alabama needs Jeudy to be able to be a regular from day one.
There is also the issue of depth, which took a hit when redshirt freshman T.J. Simmons, who had a strong spring, transferred to West Virginia over the summer. That leaves Derek Kief as the only veteran with real experience, along with kick returner Xavian Marks and walk-on Donnie Lee Jr., who found his way into the spring rotation. More likely, Kief will get most of his help from true freshmen Devonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III, both of whom have put on a show in offseason camp. Another true freshman, Tyrell Shavers, looks poised to compete for the role Sims has, but probably needs a year of weight training first.
Several other walk-ons are in camp, with Jonathan Rice probably the closest to the field of that group. The tight end group must cope with the loss of superstar O.J. Howard, but it’s a solid group left behind. Hale Hentges will have to work to keep Irv Smith from taking his job after a less-than-stellar 2016 campaign. At H-back, Miller Forristall seems to lead. His receiving skills could make him an interesting weapon in the retooled offensive scheme. Major Tennison will compete for time at both spots, and Smith could make an appearance or two as a fullback. Kedrick James figures to get a look both here and at defensive line.
There are a host of walk-ons competing to fill out the depth chart, with the most intriguing being 6’8” former professional pitcher Cam Stewart coming back for his sophomore year. Of the others, Hunter Bryant probably has the best shot of finding a role based on seniority alone. Ronnie Clark, although listed as a tight end, is more of an option as a fullback.
After a couple of seasons of flat-out failing to live up to expectations, it’s time for this unit to put up or shut up. Alabama said goodbye to Mario Cristobal after last season, and now the whole offensive line is the property of coach Brent Key. Unfortunately for Key and for Alabama, a definitive lineup couldn’t be found in the spring. The right-side positions are still in flux, and Alabama must hope that Jonah Williams, last year’s standout right tackle as a true freshman, can handle his new job on the left side. Left guard Ross Pierschbacher seems to have solidified his hold on that spot since the end of last year, and Bradley Bozeman, arguably Alabama’s most consistent lineman from a year ago aside from Williams, is back at center.
At the end of spring, Lester Cotton was running first-team at right guard and the blue-collar Matt Womack leading the way at right tackle. As the team reports for fall camp, it seems Cotton may have solidified his hold on the guard spot, but there may still be a battle at tackle between Womack, true freshman Alex Leatherwood, and holdovers Scott Lashley and Chris Owens. JUCO signee Elliot Baker, who was expected to compete for the starting job immediately, looked overwhelmed in the spring and doesn’t appear to be in the mix yet. Lashley and Leatherwood would seem to be the top competition for Womack, who can also play guard.
A second scenario has Cotton moving back out to tackle, with Owens, Womack, Leatherwood, Josh Casher and Deonte Brown competing for the starting right guard position. Dallas Warmack and Brandon Kennedy are both in the mix for backup guard spots along with Casher and Brown, and Kennedy is also a possibility at center, where senior J.C. Hassenauer backs up Bozeman for now. Others in the mix include Richie Petitbon, who can play guard or tackle, and true freshmen Kendall Randolph and Jedrick Wills, the latter one of the most overlooked prospects Alabama signed last spring. Hunter Brannon will most likely redshirt before competing for the center job next year after Bozeman and Hassenauer depart.