Spring preview: For once, identity will be determined by who wins certain jobs
By Jess Nicholas
March 19, 2018
In a typical season, Alabama’s identity is set by Nick Saban’s preference, and the personnel is then poured into the mold like a fine cake ready to be baked. Not in 2018.
Alabama has multiple dichotomies in play. There is the quarterback battle between Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts, a contrast of styles between a quarterback ideally suited for a pro spread passing game and one suited for a spread-option style attack. There is new offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, whose background promises more success the more misdirection and spread elements are inplay, but then there’s new QB coach Dan Enos, who made his bones largely on the back of more traditional sets with play-action and a quarterback under center.
One thing that won’t change is the commitment to defense, but the issue on that side of the ball is less about a dichotomy and more about simply whether Alabama’s new defensive coordinator, Tosh Lupoi, is ready for the job.
With basketball season winding down, it’s time to turn focus back to football and take a look at what positions are open as spring practice starts.
Returning starter: Jalen Hurts
Competing: Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones, Kyle Edwards (walk-on)
Analysis: Even though Hurts has started two years’ worth of games, most people probably consider Tagovailoa the returning starter based off the second half of January’s College Football Championship Game.
Now it falls to Saban and staff to either confirm the job changed hands permanently, or return Hurts to his familiar spot atop the depth chart. It’s a good bet nothing will be officially confirmed at the end of spring camp, which is typical for Saban, who usually chooses to say nothing about his quarterback depth chart until even 2-3 games into a regular season. He won’t have the same luxury this time, though, as it’s less than an even-money bet at the moment that both Tagovailoa and Hurts remain with the program once fall gets here.
Both are capable of starting – and winning – at multiple schools, and it’s unlikely one will want to back up the other as a long-term answer. That’s why Alabama added East Carolina graduate transfer Gardner Minshew to the mix, although Minshew won’t join the team until after spring ball has completed.
For now, it’s up to Mac Jones or talented walk-on Kyle Edwards to push for a spot as the likely 2018 backup. If Hurts wins the job, look for Alabama’s offense to trend back somewhat to Lane Kiffin’s style rather than Brian Daboll’s relatively straightforward interpretation of a pro-style attack. If Tagovailoa wins the job, any number of outcomes are in play.
Returning starter: Damien Harris
Competing: Joshua Jacobs, Najee Harris, Brian Robinson Jr.
Analysis: It’s rare when a unit gets more effective following the loss of a contributor, but that might just happen in 2018. Departed co-starter Bo Scarbrough, for whatever reason, did not have a good 2017, as either the new offensive style didn’t suit his strengths, or there was more to the recovery from a broken leg than he let on. Either way, by the end of the season, Scarbrough was mostly stealing carries from true freshman Najee Harris, who had a flurry of productive snaps against Georgia and may very well challenge Damien Harris for the starting job. Damien Harris had a solid season, but so far has yet to establish himself as a bellcow on level with former Tide stars like Trent Richardson or Eddie Lacy.
Joshua Jacobs could also threaten for the starting job if he can stay healthy. Unfortunately, his career so far has been one recovery period after another, and for now, he should be considered as limited to a third-down back role. The real player to watch in the spring is probably Brian Robinson Jr., who shifted between running back, H-back and fullback last year and has many observers pointing to Lacy as a good analog.
There are also several walk-ons in camp, with Zavier Mapp probably tops among those, but this is going to be a four-man race that will likely go on deep into the 2018 regular season.
Returning starters: None
Competing: Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith, Derek Kief, Tyrell Shavers, Chadarius Townsend, Xavian Marks, Slade Bolden, Mac Hereford (walk-on)
Analysis: Cameron Sims and Robert Foster both graduated, and Calvin Ridley jumped to the NFL a year early, leaving this group up for grabs. The easy answer here is to elevate the second unit, a trio of true freshmen in 2017 that were all electric any time they got on the field. Jerry Jeudy looks like the next in the Amari Cooper-Calvin Ridley line, a silky-smooth pass catcher with elite speed and the ability to get open.
Henry Ruggs III proved to be the downfield dagger, especially early in the year when his first five catches all went for touchdowns. Smith only caught 7 passes on the year, but none was bigger than the 41-yard touchdown strike he hauled in from Tua Tagovailoa to beat Georgia. He also led all Alabama receivers in yards per catch (22.9) and also put the final nail in Mississippi State during Alabama’s game in Starkville.
As much experience is present here, there is virtually none off the bench. Derek Kief has shown good hands in limited work his first three years, and would seem a good bet to get a prime bench position as a fifth-year senior. Most of the preseason talk has surrounded 6’6” Tyrell Shavers, who redshirted in 2017 but who could finally be the productive downfield big guy Alabama has lacked since Julio Jones’ career came to an end. Chadarius Townsend and Xavian Marks have value as slot receivers, and both are fast. True freshman Slade Bolden is somewhat thick-bodied for a receiver, but that physicality could pay off as a slot receiver early on.
Of the several walk-ons coming to camp, Mac Hereford looks the most game-ready, and like Bolden has some thickness to his game. Even while replacing three starters, Alabama would seem to be ahead of the curve.
Prediction: Jeudy, Ruggs, D.Smith
Returning starter: Hale Hentges
Competing: Irv Smith Jr., Miller Forristall, Kedrick James, Major Tennison, Ronnie Clark, Cam Stewart (walk-on), Giles Amos (walk-on)
Analysis: This could be the deepest single position on the team, but Alabama needs someone to break out as a trusted option in the passing game. Hale Hentges definitely improved in 2017, but he’s still viewed somewhat as an in-line blocker who is limited in the passing game. Irv Smith Jr. started at H-back, but he brought a physical game to that position that Alabama has lacked since the Travis McCall days. Of the rest, Miller Forristall is probably the best receiver out of all the tight ends, but he is recovering from a knee injury that ended his 2017 season prematurely.
Major Tennison showed soft hands in limited work, while Kedrick James is a massive, aggressive blocker who has better footwork as a receiver than one might initially think. Ronnie Clark will continue to work at both H-back and running back, but his lack of size makes his usefulness as a tight end somewhat borderline.
Alabama has two walk-ons of note here, led by 6’8” Cam Stewart, who before cutting his hair last year looked like Ron Perlman in “Beauty and the Beast” come to life on a football field. He’s a former minor league baseball player, and if Alabama can somehow find a role for him, he might be able to leverage his size into being a matchup issue for opposing defenses.
Prediction: Hentges (Y), I.Smith (H)
Returning starters: Jonah Williams, Ross Pierschbacher, Lester Cotton, Matt Womack
Competing: Alex Leatherwood, Scott Lashley, Josh Casher, Brandon Kennedy, Dallas Warmack, Richie Petitbon, Hunter Brannon, Deonte Brown, Elliot Baker, Chris Owens, Jedrick Wills, Kendall Randolph (injured)
Analysis: Even with four starters returning, no one is locked into a specific position. About the closest is Lester Cotton, who is a pure right guard, but Cotton is coming off an injury sustained at the end of the year. Matt Womack figures to return at right tackle, but he could also go to left guard, if Ross Pierschbacher were to move from left guard to the open center position. And then there’s Jonah Williams, who was injured in the national championship game, only to watch Alex Leatherwood come off the bench and outplay him. Williams has been mentioned as a possibility at left guard or center. Complicating matters is that Alabama has a very good natural center also coming off injury, Brandon Kennedy, and a fifth-year senior in Josh Casher who could work at either center or guard.
Of the rest, Scott Lashley will push Womack at right tackle, Dallas Warmack and Richie Petitbon at the guard slots, and Hunter Brannon and Chris Owens at center. Elliot Baker, a JUCO transfer who redshirted last year after clearly not being ready to compete in his first year, either needs to make a big move forward in the spring or probably look at other options this fall. Deonte Brown can work at several places across the line, but is also being considered for a move to noseguard. Kendall Randolph would be working with the guards had he not suffered an Achilles injury.
And finally, there’s Jedrick Wills, who at times looked better than Leatherwood in 2017 and is projected to compete at both tackle and both guard spots. This is clearly a case of too many riches, but given how Alabama has been foiled by offensive line injuries in the past, the Crimson Tide will take all the numbers it can get here.
Prediction: J.Williams (LT), Pierschbacher (LG), Kennedy (C) , Cotton (RG), Womack (RT)
Returning starters: Isaiah Buggs, Raekwon Davis
Competing: Phidarian Mathis, Johnny Dwight, LaBryan Ray, Stephon Wynn Jr., Quinnen Williams, Jarez Parks, Galen Richardson (walk-on)
Analysis: Alabama got a big boost when Isaiah Buggs decided to come back for his senior year. Buggs, who rotated as a starter first with Raekwon Davis and then later in the year with Da’Shawn Hand after Hand was hurt against Ole Miss, isn’t the biggest lineman in the game, but he can create major havoc especially at strongside end. His ability to use low leverage to his advantage is his calling card; he ability to step by offensive tackles is what allows him to be effective chasing quarterbacks.
Raekwon Davis emerged as a potential superstar down the stretch, and he may well be entering his last season in an Alabama uniform. There’s a huge hole in the middle where Da’Ron Payne used to be, and that’s probably the position causing the most heartburn to the coaches so far with the possible exception of off-cornerback.
Fifth-year senior Johnny Dwight will open with the 1s on the first day of camp, and his primary concern is to hold off redshirt freshman Phidarian Mathis, who needs maybe a bit more size for the nose position, but who is expected to compete mostly on athleticism. Quinnen Williams can play inside or out, but will probably be more at home as a reserve end along with LaBryan Ray. Stephon Wynn, an early-entrant signee, will compete at all three spots, but he probably needs a year in the weightroom first.
Of interest is walk-on Galen Richardson, whose body type and raw size (6’3”, 295) make him look like a scholarshipped player on the hoof, not a typical walk-on. Jarez Parks figures to be in competition for some snaps at end, although he was listed as a linebacker on the initial spring roster.
Prediction: Buggs (E), R.Davis (DT/E), Dwight (NT)
Returning starters: Anfernee Jennings, Christian Miller, Mack Wilson
Competing: Dylan Moses, Christopher Allen, Ben Davis, Jamey Mosley, Terrell Lewis, Markail Benton, Joshua McMillon, Keith Holcombe, VanDarius Cowan
Analysis: Despite a 2017 season so injury-filled that Alabama nearly ran out of healthy linebackers altogether, the Tide perservered and as a side benefit, got a lot of young players a lot of experience along the way. The real question heading into spring will be whether Anfernee Jennings is able to compete. Jennings’ injury against Clemson was much more serious than originally thought, and included some vascular damage along with the standard ligament tears and strains. If he can’t go, Terrell Lewis will ascend to full-time starter, at least until fall, bracketed on the outside by Christian Miller and with Mack Wilson playing middle linebacker. The key question outside of that is who will replace Rashaan Evans.
It may be foreshadowing, but Dylan Moses switched numbers (again) to 32 this time, Evans’ old coat. The most likely names to compete inside are Joshua McMillon, Keith Holcome and Markail Benton. McMillon played both inside and outside last year, sort of in the role Tana Patrick filled during his time in Tuscaloosa. Whether he has the lateral flexibility needed to play the position in this defense is another matter. Benton is a redshirt freshman with a lot of speed and athleticism, but is an unknown quantity at this point. Holcombe was in the primary rotation for about half the season in 2017, but is limited by medical issues and is focusing more on baseball this spring. If he’s going to win a job, he’ll probably do it in the fall.
Christopher Allen started a couple of games at outside linebacker, but the game was too big for him as a freshman. VanDarius Cowan and Ben Davis have ability to play both inside or outside, but are more likely to make an impact outside. Davis needs to make a move forward this spring. Jamey Mosley, a former walk-on, started at strongside linebacker for most of the season after Miller went down, but his best role is as a fresh pass rusher late in games.
Prediction: Jennings (JLB), Miller (SLB), Wilson (MLB), Moses (WLB)
Returning starters: None
Competing: Deionte Thompson, Daniel Wright, Shyheim Carter, Xavier McKinney, Nigel Knott, Jared Mayden, Kyriq McDonald, Trevon Diggs, Saivion Smith, Keaton Anderson, Rogria Lewis (walk-on), Donavan Mosley (walk-on)
Analysis: If Deionte Thompson hadn’t been forced into significant playing time when Hootie Jones went down late in 2017, this would be a four-position free-for-all. As it is, Thompson is chiseled in stone as a starting safety, likely in Ronnie Harrison’s slot. The other safety position will likely be a battle between Xavier McKinney – who briefly worked ahead of Thompson at one point in 2017 – and Daniel Wright. Shyheim Carter was signed as a cornerback, but now looks to be exclusively a Star safety, and should get Minkah Fitzpatrick’s old role.
The cornerback position got a lot stronger when Alabama landed JUCO transfer and former LSU defensive back Saivion Smith, who could find himself starting either opposite Trevon Diggs at corner, or at safety next to Thompson. Given Diggs’ slow, but steady rate of improvement, look for Smith to work first at corner, allowing Diggs to not be the guy always working against the opposition’s best receiver. Jared Mayden, another player with the body mass necessary to double at safety, and Kyriq McDonald, who was impressive as an early entrant during spring 2017, will be the next men up. Nigel Knott is also in the mix, but he is noticeably smaller than the other players at the position.
Two walk-ons, Rogria Lewis and Donavan Mosley, are good enough to get in the mix at several spots. Keaton Anderson could also work at safety or maybe even slide down into a rover linebacker position in some alignments. This all could change again once Patrick Surtain Jr. arrives on campus.
Prediction: Diggs (CB), S.Smith (CB), Thompson (S), McKinney (S)
Returning starters: Thomas Fletcher (SN), Scott Meyer (SN)
Competing: Joseph Bulovas, Skyler DeLong, Brannon Satterfield (walk-on), Mike Bernier (walk-on), Preston Knight (walk-on)
Analysis: Alabama brought Thomas Fletcher in on scholarship last year as a long-snapper, only to find the job being split between Fletcher and walk-on Scott Meyer. One will handle kicks and the other punts. But given both did their jobs superbly, there will be absolutely no fan attention spent there, and plenty spent on the placekicker (Joseph Bulovas) and punter (Skyler DeLong, Mike Bernier, Brannon Satterfield, Preston Knight) competitions.
There are no other placekickers besides Bulovas listed on the roster at the moment, but that figures to change as spring camp starts. Still, this looks like a case of Bulovas getting the job by default at least until Temple transfer Austin Jones gets to campus. Like Gardner Minshew, Jones won’t be on campus for spring ball. Therefore, the biggest source of potential drama is at punter, where Alabama hopes DeLong lives up to the hype as the best punter available, just as J.K. Scott did when he was signed four years ago. If not, the best option among the walk-ons is probably Mike Bernier, who transferred from Eastern Illinois and displayed a decent leg last year in practices. He’ll need to get more consistent, though.
Prediction: Bulovas (PK), DeLong (P), Fletcher/Meyer (SN)
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN