Playing the “what-if” game with Alabama’s 2020 roster

 

By now, everyone has circled Jan. 6 on their calendars, because that’s when Alabama junior QB Tua Tagovailoa will publicly announce whether he’s staying for his senior season or going a year early to the NFL Draft.

Had Tagovailoa not been injured against Mississippi State, we wouldn’t be discussing such a scenario. Instead, at this moment, we’d probably be talking about the results of Alabama’s playoff semifinal rematch with LSU.

Tagovailoa’s decision will resonate far beyond Alabama’s quarterback position, too. It is thought that several other juniors are awaiting his decision, and could return for their own senior seasons as well, in some form of “one last push” for a national championship.

If every Alabama draft-eligible junior returned, Alabama would have as many as 10 senior starters on offense and 5 on defense. The only underclassman slated to start on offense in 2020 would be OL Evan Neal, who some already consider to be Alabama’s best all-around offensive lineman. Given what Alabama put on the field this year on offense, having 10 senior starters and a sophomore guard who may very well already be NFL-ready would make LSU’s record-setting offense look like the second string.

But such a scenario is not only highly unlikely, it’s already not going to happen. Linebacker/end Terrell Lewis skipped the Citrus Bowl to minimize injury risk to his draft status. Here are a few scenarios we’re watching as Tagovailoa’s decision looms on the horizon:

Gone: LB Terrell Lewis

Lewis had no reason to sit out the Citrus Bowl otherwise. He’ll officially be part of the 2020 NFL Draft class shortly. His replacement will likely be rising junior Christopher Allen, who had his best year by far as a spot reserve and who started against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. He has all the tools and the second half of the Citrus Bowl showed some of what he’s capable of doing as a starter. Ben Davis and King Mwikuta will be his main competition along with signee Will Anderson.

All but certainly gone: RB Najee Harris, WR Jerry Jeudy, OT Jedrick Wills

A potential 10 senior offensive starters drops to 7 very quickly with the loss of this trio. While none has officially announced, both Jeudy and Wills have all but signed the papers. Jeudy’s comments following the Citrus Bowl spoke of coming back to play the bowl with his team, not skipping the game, etc. Wills was rumored to have said similar things in the run-up to the game.

As for Harris, he hasn’t said much but his stock has shot up recently and there’s really nothing for him to prove with another year on campus. Plus, with the shorter career lifespan of running backs in the NFL, most any running back coming off a strong junior season is usually well-advised to make the jump. Had we been talking about Harris at the midpoint of the 2019 season, we might be talking about a Round 5-7 guy who would be better served to come back for his senior season. But once Tagovailoa was injured the first time, against Tennessee, Harris put the offense on his back. His bowl performance, especially Alabama’s final drive of the game, opened the eyes of any scout who hadn’t had them open already.

Jeudy’s replacement is the easiest pick on the board: Jaylen Waddle. Waddle will simply move into the starting lineup from his current spot as the fourth receiver (and only real reserve WR of note in 2019), with a big fight behind him to decide who’ll be the new fourth receiver. John Metchie was probably thought to be that guy coming into 2019, but he didn’t exactly light the world on fire as the fifth receiver. Slade Bolden and Xavier Williams will be in the mix, but the X-factor is Tyrell Shavers, a big target who would be in his fourth year on campus. Shavers has been rumored to be considering a transfer for playing time purposes, however, and Alabama has two heralded signees, Traeshon Holden and Thaiu Jones-Bell, waiting in the wings, along with a third, Javon Baker, who will make an impact if grades don’t become an issue.

For Wills, his departure would probably cause some reshuffling, perhaps moving Neal out to tackle. Scott Lashley will be a fifth-year senior and Tommy Brown was Wills’ capable backup in 2019, and Pierce Quick could get a look there as well. Bottom line, Alabama will be in good hands. In the case of running back, it’s next man up. Trey Sanders was probably going to be Harris’ backup before an injury in camp; Brian Robinson Jr. will be a senior with a lot of experience and Keilan Robinson would give Alabama a speed burner at the position. Roydell Williams, Kyle Edwards and Jase McClellan are true freshmen with bright futures. Bama will be fine here, but having Harris’ ability to completely take over games late was a luxury Alabama might not have again.

50/50: S Xavier McKinney, LB Dylan Moses, WR DeVonta Smith

We considered doing a category called “Leaning Toward Going” but no one’s really in that category. Alabama thought it had Dylan Moses’ decision in hand last week, but his father, an attorney, may have moved the needle back a bit. Basically Moses’ decision appears to be coming down to what options he has regarding insurance policies taken out, or to be taken out, regarding damage to his draft-day financial take due to past or future injuries. We still think Moses will be back.

For McKinney, we believe he’s leaning a bit away from returning, while for Smith, leaning a bit toward returning. Neither case is a certainty, however, which is why they join Moses in the big middle.

Should Moses return, he would probably push Shane Lee to the bench, and even with Lee’s limitations in regards to lateral pursuit and coverage, that would be quite a feat for Moses to do. Smith simply delays another young receiver’s march to the top of the depth chart, and you can read what we wrote about Jeudy above to get a feel for what’s going on at this position.

McKinney is the one guy who would clearly be head-and-shoulders above his probable replacement. Daniel Wright has been in and out of the depth chart for three years, with mixed results. Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams will already be competing for the other starting safety job, vacated by the Jared Mayden/Shyheim Carter tandem. It’s not out of possibility to think of either signee Brian Branch or a current cornerback, either Jalyn Armour-Davis or Brandon Turnage, moving into this spot to compete. Make no mistake, losing McKinney would be a real loss.

We think these guys come back: QB Tua Tagovailoa, WR Henry Ruggs III, OL Deonte Brown, LB Joshua McMillon

So yes, we’re picking Tua Tagovailoa to return. And once that happens – if it happens – it will probably trigger anyone on the fence to want to come back as well.

The rest of this group really isn’t on the fence. Henry Ruggs didn’t have a bad year at all but he was clearly overshadowed by Jeudy and especially the breakout season had by DeVonta Smith. With Jeudy likely to move on, Ruggs and Smith would probably never come off the field unless hurt or extremely fatigued. If Ruggs moves along, again, refer back to the passage on Jerry Jeudy.

Deonte Brown hasn’t said anything publicly, but guards aren’t usually early-entrant material and Brown didn’t play a full 2019 anyway. His conditioning … well, it works for him. But NFL scouts probably want to see him firm up a bit and quicken his feet in pass blocking. Josh McMillon is a special case; he was awarded a sixth year of eligibility due to injury, but he is a long shot to be a starter in 2020 if he does return. McMillon had a tenuous hold on the weakside linebacker spot in fall camp, with Christian Harris charging on him at the time of his injury. If McMillon comes back, his best chance at playing time might be to move to strongside linebacker, but that position is a 20-snap-a-game slot at best in a typical Bama defense. Harris’ potential coverage abilities, and better speed, make it unlikely for McMillon to unseat him; we could easily see McMillon hitting the transfer portal.

For Brown and McMillon, replacements are easy to spot: In McMillon’s case, it’s Harris, and then the same candidates (Brandon Ale Kaho, Markail Benton, Jalen Moody) that have been around for the last 2-3 years. In Brown’s case, Emil Ekiyor was never far behind either Brown or Neal this year and he would easily slot in. Or, Landon Dickerson could move over from center and Chris Owens or Darrian Dalcourt could take that slot.

But if Tua leaves for the NFL, all craziness breaks loose immediately. Would the new starter be Mac Jones, who threw for 1,500 yards in what felt like a single month, and who directed a dominant win over Michigan in the bowl game? Would it be Lia Tagovailoa, who brings some of the same excitement to the table as does his older brother, with even better running skills? Or would it be incoming freshman Bryce Young, who has found himself already being called the next Tua – or better?

Already announced/locks to come back: OL Landon Dickerson, OL Alex Leatherwood

Alabama got a huge boost when Leatherwood announced his intentions Thursday. Dickerson is also believed to be firmly in place for 2020.

In the event either player changed his mind late, though, replacing wouldn’t necessarily be easy from an ability standpoint, but at least the choices would be clear: Chris Owens and Darrian Dalcourt would stage a two-man war for Dickerson’s center slot. Leatherwood would probably be replaced by Neal, which would elevate Ekiyor to a starting guard position by default, or the same Lashley/Brown combo that is expected to be a part of the 2020 right tackle fight could spill over to left tackle.

And, if you’re wondering who the 10th offensive starter would be, it’s the lone senior not believed to have NFL options at this time: TE Miller Forristall. Forristall was sometimes over-tasked in 2019 but as the year went along and converted offensive lineman Kendall Randolph proved to be a capable option at the Y tight end spot, Forristall became more valuable as a flex tight end. He ended the year with by far his best performance of 2019, catching three passes (one for a touchdown) against Michigan and generally winning his blocking assignments.

When Forristall is the 10th of 10 guys to talk about, it’s easy to see what potential the 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide has, especially on offense.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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