Previews 2019: Alabama Crimson Tide

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Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (SE, FL, WR, LT, RT, QB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (E, JLB, WLB, RCB, LCB, FS)
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: Ex    Defensive Line: Vg
Running Backs: Vg   Linebackers: Vg
Wide Receivers: Ex   Defensive Backs: Ex
Offensive Line: Vg     Special Teams: Av

Offense Overview: It’s a new day for Alabama – somewhat. Nick Saban has brought back one-time, one-game offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to oversee what many believe will be a return to the offense of 2017, based more in power and vertical passing than last year’s RPO-heavy, spread-forward attack. The RPOs will still be here, and so will the spread elements and the option elements, but Alabama football’s identity is tough defense and a downhill running game. It wasn’t lost on Saban that Clemson took the physical fight to Alabama in the College Football Championship – and won.

QUARTERBACKS

The loss of Jalen Hurts to Oklahoma will be felt in several ways. Gone are the two-QB formations, but more importantly, gone is the best backup quarterback in college football. While Hurts deserves a team of his own to run, he wasn’t going to get the chance in Tuscaloosa unless Tua Tagovailoa had been lost to injury. Tagovailoa’s numbers from 2018 – an otherworldly 3,966 yards passing, 43 touchdowns and 6 interceptions – will likely never be eclipsed, not even by Tagovailoa himself this year, unless college football retools itself as a 7-on-7 sport down the road. It’s possible he could break the 4,000-yard mark this year – Tagovailoa averaged just 23.6 attempts per game in 2018, highlighting his unchartable efficiency – but the real question is whether Alabama will expose him to the contact that comes with those attempts.

Without Hurts to back him up, the fight is between sophomore Mac Jones and true freshman Lia Tagovailoa to see who will get some of the most frequent cleanup duty in all of sports. Jones had a good spring, but insiders question whether his game will melt under the adversity that Tagovailoa and Hurts both seemed to thrive upon. The younger Tagovailoa has the most physical tools of any of Bama’s backup quarterbacks – which includes Paul “Bear” Bryant’s grandson, Paul Tyson – but no experience. Still, Tua’s ability is so far above that of most quarterbacks that it’s hard not to rate Alabama so highly here.

RUNNING BACKS

It’s not getting talked about much, but teams don’t typically lose both a Josh Jacobs and a Damien Harris and hold serve at the position. Provided Najee Harris remains focused in 2019, there won’t be a drop-off at the starter position, but the backup situation is a little mixed. Brian Robinson Jr. has the body for it, but hasn’t been as much of a force after contact as people would think just by looking at his physique. Jacobs’ role as a switchblade out of the backfield will fall either to Jerome Ford, Chadarius Townsend or to newcomer Trey Sanders. Ford, like Jacobs, didn’t have much hype around him in high school, but the coaches like his versatility.

Townsend has tons of athletic ability but has struggled to find a home on the field. He’s been tried at receiver and safety in addition to running back. He showed out in the spring, but he is slight of build and would have to be managed carefully in the name of durability. Sanders is the next super-stud running back recruit, on some boards the top recruit available during the last cycle. He has a build more like Mark Ingram did coming out of high school, rather than the taller backs like Harris and Robinson. Another scatback, Keilan Robinson, is probably a year away from helping.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Simply put, the best group in the country and one of the best wide receiver corps ever assembled. Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle terrorized defenses last year. They’re too quick for most defensive backs, too physical at the catch point, and too precise on their routes to have many peers. So what did Alabama do in the offseason? It added John Metchie to the group. A true freshman from Canada, Metchie is an uber-physical, sure-handed possession receiver with too much speed to really wear the “possession” label. Alabama also saw development in the spring from 6’6” sophomore Tyrell Shavers, who gives Bama a tall option to go with all the 6’1”, 190-pound dynamos already peppering the roster.

Other holdovers – Xavier Williams, Slade Bolden and walk-ons Mac Hereford and Drew Kobayashi, the latter a Washington State transfer and former high school classmate of Tua Tagovailoa – fill out the roster. The only hiccup here is at tight end. Miller Forristall had a solid spring but can’t seem to shake the injury bug, and will start fall camp on the sideline. Kedrick James, whose physicality drew raves, ran afoul of team rules and is no longer on the squad. Down its two best tight end prospects, Alabama will lean heavily on Major Tennison and converted linebacker Cameron Latu. Tennison isn’t as dynamic a route runner as Forristall, but is a shade bigger and more suited to the Y position on the line. Latu is somewhat of a sideshow-act-gone-successful: After failing to make a dent at outside linebacker as a true freshman, he switched positions and had a solid spring. His upper-body strength needs an upgrade if he is going to be an effective blocker, but Latu picked up tight end quickly and by the end of the spring was arguably Bama’s best option at H.

True freshman Jahleel Billingsley needs weight, too, but runs good routes, has good speed and displays solid base technique as a blocker. A pair of others – redshirt freshman Michael Parker and walk-on senior Giles Amos – are also in the mix. Amos, especially, could wind up being a story if he continues to improve as much as he has headed into fall camp.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The depth is amazing, which is good because the results from last year frequently weren’t. Alabama ranked just 42nd in rushing offense and a large part of that was the line’s inability to translate ability to power. Jedrick Wills returns at right tackle, and guard Alex Leatherwood moves back to his natural position of left tackle. The two had a solid spring and did nothing but lock down their respective positions. The question marks are up the middle, where there are numerous options. Florida State transfer Landon Dickerson could end up with the starting center job. Chris Owens was consistent during the spring but Dickerson is a better tactician.

The guard positions are somewhat unsettled. Matt Womack is a popular senior who led at right guard coming out of spring, while left guard was a battle involving redshirt freshman Emil Ekiyor Jr., true freshman Evan Neal and holdover Deonte Brown, who won’t be available for the first four games due to a suspension. Owens will join this battle if Dickerson wins the center job. Tommy Brown and Scott Lashley look like the likely reserves at tackle, while Hunter Brannon and true freshman Darrian Dalcourt will battle for time at center. Kendall Randolph can play guard or center. Others of note include Amari Kight, Tanner Bowles and Pierce Quick. That’s almost three full platoons of offensive linemen; Alabama just needs to find the right five.

Defense Overview: Pete Golding moves from co-defensive coordinator to the same role, minus the “co-”. The departure of Tosh Lupoi after a mediocre (for Bama fans, anyway) 2018 campaign was not unexpected. Naming Golding as his no-co-replacement, however, was a mild surprise to many. Alabama needs to improve upon its pass defense numbers, which got the Tide in trouble in the postseason. Alabama also has to retool its defensive line, not just in personnel, but in approach, as former DL coach Craig Kuligowski was not retained.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Fans approached the spring game with trepidation, as Alabama’s defensive line was hit hard by graduation and early departures to the NFL. What they got, though, was a big plate of optimism, served up hot. True freshman D.J. Dale was not Alabama’s most highly-recruited defensive lineman by far, but he came to campus and wrested the starting nosetackle job away from sophomore Phidarian Mathis in the spring. Both will play a bunch in the fall, but a true freshman starting at nose for Alabama doesn’t happen often. Raekwon Davis is the lone holdover from a year ago. He grabbed the strongside end position opposite LaBryan Ray, but Ray is reporting to fall camp with an injury and may not be able to go.

Two other true freshmen, Justin Eboigbe and Antonio Alfano, will likely compete for that spot along with Stephon Wynn Jr. and Christian Barmore. Senior Tevita Musika adds depth in the middle along with another heralded signee, Ishmael Sopsher. Byron Young and Braylen Ingraham, signees both, add depth outside. Alabama signed what many believe to be one of the best defensive line classes ever, and the increased competition this spring seemed to support that notion. The biggest practical concern is replacing Isaiah Buggs’ 9.5 sacks, which led the team. The young player that can best approximate Buggs’ pass-rush abilities from a down position will be the one who wins that starting job.

LINEBACKERS

In a nod to how many SEC teams are rebuilding their linebacker corps this fall, Alabama was ranked as the best LB unit in the conference in TideFans.com/NARCAS’ preseason previews – despite replacing two of its four starters, and then losing perhaps its most dynamic player on top of it all. Eyabi Anoma was released from his scholarship and subsequently left the team over undisclosed issues. Anoma’s performance this spring underlined how deadly he could be off the edge chasing quarterbacks, but his reticence to bulk up to better stop the run was also clear.

With Anoma gone, Alabama’s outside linebacker group will basically consist of three players, Anfernee Jennings, Christopher Allen and the oft-injured Terrell Lewis. Lewis could be a special player if he could stop losing time to season-ending injuries. He hasn’t been full-speed in two years, and Alabama needs him to stay out of the trainer’s tent. Allen appeared stronger and quicker this spring, a welcome sight given his true freshman season was disappointing. Jennings is Alabama’s most dependable linebacker, but he has broken down at the end of the last two seasons due to injury and/or overuse. With Anoma gone, there may be room for a fourth outside linebacker to step in.

Redshirt freshman Jarez Parks and true freshman King Mwikuta have the best chances there. Ben Davis and signee Kevin Harris are also in the mix, Harris probably more so than Davis. Inside linebacker is also a bit of a mystery. Dylan Moses will start in the middle, but at weakside, the spring was spent mostly with fans asking when someone was going to displace little-used fifth-year senior Joshua McMillon, and yet it never happened. McMillon seems poised to go from basically no snaps in his first four years to being a key part of the defense. True freshman Shane Lee is his biggest competition at the moment, with Jaylen Moody, Brandon Ale Kaho and Markail Benton also competing for time. Another signee, Christian Harris, is expected to make an impact. Walk-on Wes Baumhower got into the back end of the depth chart at the end of spring camp.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Alabama went from a collection of talented, but sometimes lost youngsters to one of the best secondaries in the country over the spring and summer. The emergence of cornerback Josh Jobe, who was called into the Clemson game to replace the somewhat-injured Saivion Smith, has allowed Alabama to reshuffle its personnel both at corner and Star safety. Trevon Diggs and Patrick Surtain II return at corner, but one of them is going to move to Star when Jobe is in the game. Diggs is Bama’s best defensive back by a long shot and one of the best in the country, but he has got to find a way to stay healthy.

At safety, Xavier McKinney, Jared Mayden and Shyheim Carter all return, and there just aren’t enough snaps for them all. Carter and Mayden are seniors. Daniel Wright took a big step forward there this spring as well. Jalyn Armour-Davis will provide depth at cornerback along with true freshmen Jeffery Carter, Brandon Turnage and Marcus Banks. Eddie Smith and signees DeMarcco Hellams and Jordan Battle round out the depth chart at safety. Nigel Knott did not begin fall camp with the team due to undisclosed medical issues. Top to bottom, this is one of the deepest secondaries Alabama has ever had.

SPECIAL TEAMS

It’s hard to tell exactly what Alabama has, but spring work was promising. The addition of punter/placekicker Will Reichard figures to pay immediate dividends. He pushed both placekicker Joseph Bulovas and punter Skyler DeLong incessantly during spring camp and may come out the leader at both positions. More likely, Alabama will give DeLong a second shot at the job. He held it for half of 2018 before yielding to senior walk-on Mike Bernier. In the spring, Bulovas appeared to have gotten a bit more consistent, but the improvement might not be enough to hold off the talented Reichard. The return game should be in good hands with Jaylen Waddle, but Alabama coaches will have to decide whether they want to expose Trevon Diggs to more contact by including him on special teams. Several players could contribute on kickoff returns. As for coverage units, Alabama has so much team speed that fielding a competent return unit should be no issue.

Overall: A case could be made that this will be the most talented Alabama team ever fielded. But the difference between Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and two or three other teams at the top of the college football world is not so much that losses are off the table. Alabama’s defense showed improvement in the spring, but that was under controlled circumstances. And even though many are overlooking it, the hole at tight end is substantial and must be filled. Most programs would love to have Alabama’s “problems” right now, though. Bottom line, this is a team of immense potential that will probably be favored in every game it plays.

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