Previews 2018: Alabama Crimson Tide

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Returning Offensive Starters: 7 (QB, RB, TE, LT, LG, RG, RT)
Returning Defensive Starters: 4 (E, DT/E, MLB, JLB)
Returning Specialists: 0

Projected Overall Record: 12-0
Projected SEC Record: 8-0
Projected SEC West Record: 6-0

Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Ex Defensive Line: Vg
Running Backs: Ex Linebackers: Vg
Wide Receivers: Vg Defensive Backs: Vg
Offensive Line: Vg Special Teams: Fr

As has become customary for a -led team, finds itself winning a title and then losing most of the core of that title-winning team, forcing a heart transplant headed into the next year. Despite this evergreen concern, always seems to come out fine on the other side. The team needs to completely rebuild the back seven of the defense, but it’s a testament to Saban’s recruiting that despite having just two starters returning among the linebackers and defensive backs, every unit rates as “Very Good” with the potential to be much more than that. Offensively, Alabama must decide who it is and who it wants to be, as not only is there a full-blown quarterback controversy afoot, but also a significant change in offensive coordinator leadership.

OFFENSE

Brian Daboll had just one year on Alabama’s sidelines, but it was a memorable one. Most notably, after Alabama made a quarterback change at the half of the College Football Playoff championship game, Bama fans saw what Daboll was capable of as a playcaller without a leash. Heading into 2018, though, Daboll is back in the pros, and Alabama will turn to Mike Locksley, with help from Dan Enos. Locksley’s track record is spotty, and while he was originally brought to Alabama to help meld in elements of the spread, he’s being asked to adapt to a pro-style attack. Enos, the Tide’s new QB coach, comes from Arkansas with an extensive pro-style background and should be a help during the transition.

QUARTERBACKS

Every day Alabama continues with both Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts on the roster is a surprise to many around the program, because two-year starters typically don’t get sent to the bench – or, if sent there, stay there. But it’s hard to defend letting Hurts go into camp as an incumbent given the way the season ended. After a solid, if not flashy performance against Clemson, Hurts was exposed against Georgia for his lack of downfield passing ability and pre-snap read skills. Tagovailoa shined in both of those attributes, and aside from the propensity to try to occasionally go unnecessarily risk-on, had a fairly solid true freshman campaign bereft of crippling errors. Hurts, meanwhile, had just 1 interception all year; Tagovailoa had 2 despite accumulating less than a third of the passing attempts that Hurts had. In addition, Hurts ran for 8 touchdowns and averaged nearly 6 yards per carry despite playing behind an offensive line that, at times, let too much pressure into the backfield. Assuming Tagovailoa wins the starting job – which is TideFans.com’s prediction – the question will be whether Hurts chooses to stay for the 2018 season, stay for the season and then transfer, change positions, or simply play out his career behind Tagovailoa. About the only scenario absent from the list of available choices at the moment seems to be Hurts holding onto the starting job, but his lack of critical errors is something Saban values highly. Regardless, third-teamer Mac Jones proved in the spring that he’s more than roster filler. Jones outperformed Hurts at A-Day and showed a lot of similarities to former Tider A.J. McCarron, in both arm strength and ability to get the ball downfield. Perhaps anticipating a transfer after fall camp, Alabama added Lane Hatcher late in the recruiting process. Hatcher doesn’t look like the long-term answer, but anything can happen given a few years in the program. Walk-on Kyle Edwards has more talent than most are aware of, but it would take injuries to get past Jones to any of the other QBs on the roster.

RUNNING BACKS

It’s a bit crazy that losing an NFL running back (Bo Scarbrough) might help smooth out the playing rotation, but that’s what Alabama has become. Scarbrough seemed to be a square peg in Daboll’s round holes last year, with Alabama failing to draw up the plays to make the best use of his strengths. The job is now primarily in the hands of senior Damien Harris, who surprised many by returning for his senior year. Harris still has some improvement to make in the passing game, but his 1,000-yard season ended any criticism of his running abilities. Either dynamic sophomore Najee Harris or Swiss Army knife junior Joshua Jacobs will be the primary backup. Jacobs’ greatest competition for playing time might not be either Harris, but rather his own medical sheet. Jacobs has been unable to stack together more than 2 or 3 games in either of his first two seasons before injuries took over. When he’s completely healthy, he is the most dangerous of any Alabama back due to his flexibility as a receiver. The best pure runner on the team might be Brian Robinson, who looked a bit like final-year Eddie Lacy as a true freshman. Both Robinson and senior Ronnie Clark are possibilities to play fullback when one is needed. Clark, whose career was curtailed by numerous leg injuries, is also listed at H-back. True freshman Jerome Ford is from the Jacobs school of multi-capability backs, but his high school numbers weren’t overwhelming and he has something to prove. Walk-on DeMarquise Lockridge might get some time during blowouts.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Despite losing three starters, Alabama should be in fine shape here and perhaps better shape than in 2017, when Tide QBs were too quick to focus fire on Calvin Ridley. Supporting players Cameron Sims and Robert Foster are also gone, but Foster never lived up to expectations in Tuscaloosa and Sims suffered from worse durability than Josh Jacobs. Jerry Jeudy is expected to be the new alpha among the receivers, as his game is somewhat in between that of Ridley and another recent Tide great, Amari Cooper. Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith were Alabama’s home run threats in 2017 and are expected to elevate their games in 2018 to be come more well-rounded receivers overall. Smith, who caught late game-winners against both Georgia and Mississippi State, is the one we’ll be watching the most. Off the bench, fifth-year senior Derek Kief got a lot of action in the spring and is expected to anchor the reserves, while tall tree Tyrell Shavers and slot receiver Chadarius Townsend both look to get significant playing time in their redshirt freshman years. The final slot in the A-rotation will probably come down to senior spark plug Xavian Marks, or one of a pair of true freshmen, Jaylen Waddle or Xavier Williams. Marks had a strong spring and is a threat to score any time he gets into the open field, but his diminutive size sometimes leads to ball-security issues. Waddle will almost certainly play early as a kick returner, and from the slot could be one of Alabama’s most explosive players in years. That would seem to leave Williams, a traditional receiver, as the odd man out, along with fellow signee Slade Bolden, who spent the spring at safety but who is clearly an offensive player at this level. The other question is how much, if any, walk-on Mac Hereford will play. Hereford has a thick build and good athleticism for a walk-on, and could get some spot work here and there. The tight end positions will be hugely competitive going into 2018, with the returning starter, Hale Hentges, again being forced to continually compete for his job. Hentges made huge leaps forward from his sophomore to junior seasons, both as a blocker and a route-runner. But literally every other tight end on the roster brings potentially more to the table. Irv Smith Jr. is the likely starter when Alabama uses its twin-TE package, and his ability to get out on lead blocks makes him a valuable multi-purpose tool. He’s also got plus hands and good speed in the open. Miller Forristall is the best pure receiver of the lot, but is coming off a serious knee injury. If he continues to develop, he might force a move by Smith from H to Y, which would make Hentges the odd man out. Major Tennison and Kedrick James both deserve more field time than they got as true freshmen, but who does Saban sit instead? James has an NFL body, while Tennison and Forristall are practically the same player. Signee Michael Parker will probably redshirt to add weight and blocking strength, but his receiving skills are already in plus territory. He’s also pushing 6’7” and could be a red zone threat.

OFFENSIVE LINE

This group continues to be talented, deep … and lacking in consistency week to week. Four starters return, with only center Bradley Bozeman departing, but Alabama will need to find the right mix fast. The key question is what to do with Matt Womack, who quietly became Alabama’s second-most consistent lineman down the stretch before getting injured at the end of the year. Womack played right tackle, but due to Alex Leatherwood‘s ascension in the national title game (and superior raw athleticism compared to Womack), Womack finds himself potentially in a swingman role in 2018. Jonah Williams will start again at left tackle, but it’s worth noting that Williams did not play well against Georgia before injuring his knee and being replaced by Leatherwood. Jedrick Wills is another possibility at tackle, but it seems he’ll be moved to right guard for now to compete there with Womack and, potentially, popular fifth-year senior Josh Casher. Last year’s right guard, Ross Pierschbacher, moved to center in the spring and the move seemed to fit him well. Lester Cotton is the starting left guard for now, but his hold on the starting job is not absolute. Either Chris Owens or Hunter Brannon will back up Pierschbacher at center, while Deonte Brown and Richie Petitbon will battle to be the other reserve guard. At tackle, Scott Lashley will probably relieve Williams at left tackle, while Elliot Baker took a redshirt after transferring from junior college and is also in the mix. Kendall Randolph‘s eventual availability following a spring knee injury is not known. Signee Tommy Brown figures to start out at tackle but could move to guard.

DEFENSE

Although Alabama also changes coordinators on this side of the ball – Tosh Lupoi (with help from Pete Golding) replaces Jeremy Pruitt, who took the top job at Tennessee – the impact will be felt far less given Saban’s unofficial second title as defensive coordinator in the shadows. Lupoi and Saban will be challenged to replace depth in the linebacker group and especially the secondary, but open the hood and you’ll find the same 3-4 over/under scheme that has destroyed Alabama’s rivals for a decade now.

DEFENSIVE LINE

How much you worry about the defensive line mostly comes down to how sturdy you think returning edge players Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis will prove to be. Buggs played all over the place for Alabama in 2017 and will still slide inside on a lot of sub packages, while Davis has emerged from being a very raw true freshman into the most feared defensive lineman in the SEC at the moment. His explosion during the 2017 postseason didn’t go unnoticed. It’s not often that you find edge players clocking in at 6’7” and close to 320 pounds. Enjoy him while you have him, because the NFL will most certainly come calling in April. The key here is how to replace Da’Ron Payne at the nose, because Alabama didn’t seem to have an answer for it in the spring. Sophomore Quinnen Williams is undersized compared to Payne, but seemed to be the most consistent. Senior Johnny Dwight has made substantial improvement over the past two seasons, but whether he has value beyond being a first-down run plugger remains to be seen. He’s the only returning pure nose Alabama has on the team at the moment, however, so it may be him or nothing. Redshirt freshman Phidarian Mathis can also play the point but, like Williams, his size would seem to fit better at Alabama’s combo tackle/end slot that Buggs will hold down. Sophomore LaBryan Ray came on late in the year and had the season lasted another month, he would probably have been stealing snaps from the veterans by the time it ended. He’ll apprentice behind Davis and Buggs and then start somewhere next year. Freshmen Christian Barmore and Stephon Wynn have a chance to grab early playing time, and both have the ability to slide inside if needed. Wynn’s stock seemed to fall during the recruiting process, but he entered school early and stood out in the spring. Barmore is a potential difference-maker in the middle. JUCO transfer Tevita Musika will push Williams and Dwight at nose, but he’ll need to work on his burst in order to be thought of anything more than a run defender. Alabama reached for him late after coming out second on most of its interior DL targets. A couple of walk-ons are worth mentioning, notably Galen Richardson, who played a bit at A-Day and has a rare frame for a walk-on lineman (6’3”, 295). Mario Osborne, who transferred in from Louisiana-Lafayette, has potential as an end. The key is to find an answer for the gaping, Da’Ron Payne-sized hole in the middle.

LINEBACKERS

The position that had a baffling amount of attrition last year continued to bleed off players over the summer. Keith Holcombe gave up football to concentrate on a future in baseball, while VanDarius Cowan was kicked off the team following an off-field incident. Then, Terrell Lewis tore an ACL, which could theoretically end his Alabama career given that he’ll be draft-eligible in April. With good news at a premium, it’s worth making specific note of Anfernee Jennings ahead-of-schedule return from a devastating knee injury suffered against Clemson. He’ll start at Jack linebacker with Lewis out of the picture, while fifth-year senior Christian Miller will start on the strongside. Both players will move around a bit, and Miller has gotten pre-camp work at inside linebacker. Another fifth-year senior, former walk-on Jamey Mosley, figures to be the chief backup at both outside slots, along with Christopher Allen, who like Miller will also work with the inside backers at times. True freshmen Jarez Parks, Eyabi Anoma and Cameron Latu will fill in the depth chart at outside linebacker. Parks will also play inside. The name to watch out of that group is Anoma, who will almost certainly get late-game snaps as a fresh rabbit rusher much the way Lewis, Tim Williams and Courtney Upshaw once did. The key in the middle is to keep MLB Mack Wilson healthy, because Alabama doesn’t really have a backup at that position. Dylan Moses will start on the weakside. With the loss of Holcombe, who could flex between the two positions depending on the down, Alabama has to build a competent depth situation out of the likes of veteran journeyman Josh McMillon, redshirt freshman Markail Benton and lightly-regarded recruit Jalen Moody. McMillon played situationally as a stand-up outside linebacker in 2017, a role Tana Patrick used to shine in. Benton would seem to be more of a weakside-only option due to lack of bulk, while Moody reported to campus in the best shape of his young life and may end up playing sooner rather than later. Sophomore Ben Davis, who has yet to find a role despite his substantial prep pedigree, may find himself in McMillon’s old role until he can get comfortable. The intriguing name to watch here is Brandon Ale Kaho, a Washington commitment from the previous recruiting class who has apparently decided to instead enroll at Alabama. He’ll be far behind his teammates, as he won’t report until the second week of camp, but he is a prototype inside banger and if this move works out it could be what puts Alabama over at linebacker for 2018 after all.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The Bama Nation’s collective breath was on hold status in the spring, thanks to the need to replace four starting positions (or three-and-a-half, depending on how you wanted to classify Deionte Thompson, who ended up with an expanded role in the last few games of the year), but if spring ball was any indication, this will be more a reload than a retool. Thompson is the new bellcow for Alabama defensive backs, a devastating hitter who has developed ball skills to complement his enforcer personality. In the spring, Alabama managed to find a pair of cornerbacks (Trevon Diggs, Saivion Smith) who appear ready to step in immediately for departed starters Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace. The off-safety and Star positions are another matter. Shyheim Carter appears to have the early lead for Bama’s nickel safety spot, but the other base safety position remains up in the air, with Xavier McKinney, Daniel Wright and Jared Mayden all in the running. At corner, Kyriq McDonald looks like the top backup for now, but signee Patrick Surtain Jr. will have something to say about that once he gets up to speed in fall camp. Holdover Nigel Knott had a good spring, but is on the small side. Eddie Smith, Jalyn Armour-Davis and Josh Jobe all have a shot at early playing time. Veteran special-teamer Keaton Anderson continues to flex between safety and linebacker, appearing to have an issue finding the correct position for his body type, or vice versa. Walk-on Donavan Mosley returned for his senior year – fellow walk-on Rogria Lewis apparently did not – and Mosley has a decent shot at playing time this fall. This is a young group that will make more than its share of mistakes, but figures to be more athletic than the group that played last year, overall.

SPECIAL TEAMS

There is significant worry here, particularly at both kicking positions. Alabama might have even drawn a rating of “Poor” were it not for the success of coverage teams in 2017. The return game figures to get better, with a healthy Joshua Jacobs joining Xavian Marks and Jaylen Waddle as possibilities. There is a strong temptation to use Trevon Diggs in a return role as well, but Eddie Jackson’s torn ACL while returning a punt is still a too-fresh, ugly memory. Coverage teams will be fine. The real question is how placekickers Joseph Bulovas and Austin Jones will perform, along with punter Skyler DeLong. Bulovas did not flash as a true freshman, but the addition of an actual kicking coach in Jeff Banks appeared to make a difference in the spring. Jones, a graduate transfer, has a reputation for accuracy in close, but a limited range. Bulovas is a lock for kickoff duties, so some kind of long-short split between him and Jones might be in the works. At punter, DeLong gets the ball off more quickly than did J.K. Scott, but Scott tops DeLong in all other categories. Eastern Illinois transfer Mike Bernier was expected to push DeLong in the spring, but it didn’t materialize. He and Preston Knight will battle for the backup job in fall camp with an eye on the starting position should DeLong falter. Scott Meyer and Thomas Fletcher return at long snapper, with good depth behind them, but Alabama will need to find a new holder. Tua Tagovailoa could be called upon to handle that role, or it could fall to Mac Jones or a wide receiver. There is enough uncertainty here to make everyone involved a bit a nervous heading into the opener.

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