Alabama 2021: Returning players, new signees battle to keep the dynasty going

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DEFENSE/SPECIAL TEAMS

Defensive Line
In: (scholarship): , Phidarian Mathis, Justin Eboigbe, D.J. Dale, Tim Smith, Byron Young, Jamil Burroughs, Braylen Ingraham, , Jah-Marien Latham
In: (walk-on): L.T. Ikner, Kyle Mann, Gavin Reeder, Landon Bothwell
Out: , Ishmael Sopsher
Signed: Monkell Goodwine, Anquin Barnes, Damon Payne, Tim Keenan
Committed: None
Analysis: Ishmael Sopsher could have had a decent shot at increased playing time, but never seemed to completely buy in to the Alabama program. Christian Barmore eventually did, but it took a couple of seasons and several trips up and down the chart to do it. In the end, though, Barmore was the best defensive player on the field in Alabama’s defeat of Ohio State, and he’ll be missed, if for no other reason than the current roster doesn’t have anyone like him on it.

Alabama has parts of Barmore, at least – Byron Young has his pass-rush ability, but lacks his ability to play inside. Tim Smith is disruptive against finesse schemes and attacks running backs, but hasn’t developed consistent pass-rush moves from the edge yet. In the spring, all eyes will be on LaBryan Ray – if he chooses to come back – because if Ray can ever keep the injury gremlins at bay, he is a strong pass rusher and a disruptive force on the line in general.

Aside from Young, Phidarian Mathis probably came the furthest along in , going from a useful spare part to a run-stopping tackle who clogged passing lanes, batted passes and brought energy to his teammates when he was in the game. D.J. Dale, who started most of 2019 as a true freshman, wasn’t bad in 2020, but others seemed to pass him. He’s limited physically, especially on passing downs. Jamil Burroughs played quite a bit around the season’s midpoint, and he’s got the right combination of speed and size to be an all-downs option in the rotation. Jah-Marien Latham got into a couple of games, as did Braylen Ingraham, but both will need strong springs to avoid getting passed up by one or more of Alabama’s new signees. Of those, Monkell Goodwine is a tackle/end tweener who needs to have his role set before he crafts his body to fit it. The others – Anquin Barnes, Tim Keenan and Damon Payne – are all inside players with highly-regarded reputations.

Alabama also needs to see another leap forward from Justin Eboigbe, who improved upon a pedestrian 2019 freshman season, but not by enough to take over Barmore’s role. When Alabama got into the playoffs, Eboigbe frequently sat on key downs in favor of Barmore or Mathis. As for the walk-ons, L.T. Ikner probably has the best pedigree of the bunch, but it’s going to be hard even for all the scholarshipped players to find a role.
Projected depth chart: DT/E – Ray, Young, Ingraham, Goodwine; NT – Mathis, Smith, Dale, Keenan/Barnes; E – Eboigbe, Burroughs, Payne, Wynn, Latham

Linebacker
In: (scholarship): Will Anderson, , Christian Harris, Jaylen Moody, , Quandarrius Robinson, Shane Lee, Demouy Kennedy, , Jarez Parks, Chris Braswell, Jackson Bratton
In: (walk-on): Robert Ellis, Clark Griffin, Jordan Smith, Julian Lowenstein, Matthew Barnhill, Charlie Skehan, Bennett Whisenhunt
Out: Dylan Moses, Kevin Harris II, Ben Davis*, Josh McMillon*, Brandon Ale Kaho*, Kyle Flood Jr.*
Signed: Dallas Turner, Kendrick Blackshire, Deontae Lawson, Ian Jackson, Keanu Koht
Committed: None
Analysis: There’s a lot of experience potentially walking out the door, but Alabama has to feel happy about what remains. Alabama is still waiting on final decisions from seniors Ben Davis and Josh McMillon, but Davis’ path to a starting job was blocked when Christopher Allen decided to come back for his senior year, and McMillon’s path to starting at middle linebacker in 2021 seemed to evaporate a bit when Jaylen Moody came out of nowhere down the stretch, stepping in for an injured Christian Harris against Arkansas and leading the team in tackles. If McMillon were to come back, 2021 would be his seventh collegiate season, having already received a sixth-year exemption due to previous knee injuries.

Walk-on Kyle Flood Jr. is also expected to at least give a hard look at transferring to Texas to follow his father, now on Steve Sarkisian’s staff there. Dylan Moses is going to the NFL, while Kevin Harris, who could not break through the logjam at outside linebacker, is headed to Georgia Tech. Brandon Ale Kaho, a standout on special teams the last two years, struggled to gain enough weight to play inside linebacker in Alabama’s scheme. He is believed to be entering the portal imminently, although his name was not officially in it at last report. Alabama hauled in a spectacular group in the early signing period, with one frontline outside linebacker (Keanu Koht) and four others who are primarily ticketed for inside spots.

Will Anderson, Christopher Allen and Christian Harris are expected to retain their starting jobs, although Harris might move from weakside to middle linebacker, with Moody taking the vacated spot. Moody’s spot will be the only one up for grabs in the spring, with Demouy Kennedy or Shane Lee the most likely combatants. Quandarrius Robinson, Drew Sanders, Jarez Parks, King Mwikuta and Chris Braswell will be competing for limited snaps behind Anderson and Allen; Sanders split those roughly 33/66 with Ben Davis last year and is expected to be the primary reserve OLB this year. Mwikuta was ahead of the rest at last check. Jackson Bratton could be a factor anywhere in the group.

As for the inside signees, Kendrick Blackshire has the most ready physique, but true freshmen linebackers in Nick Saban’s intricate scheme tend to , and with so many veterans coming back, it’s hard to believe Alabama will entertain much struggling before simply picking from a pool of experienced veterans. None of the walk-ons appear ready to challenge for a role.
Projected depth chart: JLB – Anderson, Mwikuta, Robinson/Koht; WLB – Moody, Kennedy, Bratton, Jackson/Lawson; MLB – Harris, Lee, Blackshire, Turner; SLB – Allen, Sanders, Parks/Braswell

Defensive Backs
In: (scholarship): Josh Jobe, , Daniel Wright, , Malachi Moore, Brian Branch, Jalyn Armour-Davis, Ronald Williams Jr., Marcus Banks, Kristian Story, Brandon Turnage, Jahquez Robinson
In: (walk-on): D.J. Douglas, Jalen Edwards, Jacobi McBride, Joshua Robinson, Sam Willoughby, Carson Ware
Out: Patrick Surtain II, Eddie Smith, Christian Swann
Signed: Kaine Williams, , Devonta Smith, Khyree Jackson, Ga’Quincy McKinstry
Committed: None
Analysis: What began the 2020 season as the weakness of the defense may end up being one of the best secondaries in heading into 2021. Alabama got a big boost when CB Josh Jobe announced he would return for his senior season, meaning the entire focus of the DB coaches will be centered on replacing Alabama’s primary cornerback, Patrick Surtain II. Safety Eddie Smith went into the transfer portal, but Alabama has a logjam at safety anyway. Jobe will start at the primary corner slot in 2021, while the likely safety starters are Jordan Battle at strong safety, DeMarcco Hellams or Daniel Wright at free safety, and Malachi Moore and Brian Branch at Star and dime, respectively. There was a pitched battle down the stretch between Hellams and Wright for the free safety spot, and Wright ended up playing a good bit of dime safety as well. Bottom line is it’s nice to have options, and Alabama has them.

The biggest question seems to be whether Alabama will try Moore or Branch at the off-corner spot. Neither seems to have quite the speed needed for that position, but Levi Wallace didn’t, either, and he’s still starting in the NFL. If the safety group remains intact, the new cornerback will likely be either Jalyn Armour-Davis, Ronald Williams Jr., Marcus Banks or incoming JUCO transfer Khyree Jackson, Alabama’s lone non-HS signee this winter. Williams was in the mix at Star before breaking his arm late in fall camp. He technically redshirted, as he only played in three games. He didn’t look quite twitchy enough for corner when he did get on the field, but it could have been the aftereffects of the injury coming through.

Marcus Banks has quietly hung around the middle of the depth chart for two years, and has good ball skills. Jalyn Armour-Davis was next-man-up a couple of times in 2020, including getting on the field against Ohio State when Jobe was briefly sidelined. He’s a bigger corner, more physical and potentially suited to a safety role. Jobe essentially beat out Armour-Davis for the off-corner job at the end of 2019 when Trevon Diggs opted out of a game, and has held it ever since.

The darkhorse in all of this is Brandon Turnage, who has drawn raves for making eye-popping plays in practice. If he can be more consistent, he’s in the mix too. Kristian Story more or less spent his first year of college-level completely concentrating on defense in 2020 – he was a two-way player in high school – while Jahquez Robinson is down the depth chart a bit at corner. Both need to move up before they’re caught from behind, because in addition to JUCO star Khyree Jackson, Alabama added top-flight talent Ga’Quincy McKinstry, who can play either safety or corner, and a fast cornerback named Devonta Smith, so let the name confusion begin now. Kaine Williams and Kadarius Calloway are safety prospects with longer timelines.

It’s always worth noting who the walk-ons are at defensive back, because former walk-on Nick Saban seems to find a way to get at least one of them ready to play every year – or in the case of Levi Wallace, turn him into a star. Last year it was D.J. Douglas, who will enter 2021 with a decent chance to make the depth chart at strong safety. None of the rest have shown out yet, but keep watch nonetheless.
Projected depth chart: RCB – Jobe, R.Williams, Jackson, Ja.Robinson; FS – Hellams/Wright, Douglas, K.Williams; S – Moore, Branch, McKinstry; SS – Battle, Story, Calloway; LCB – Armor-Davis, Banks, Turnage, Smith

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Special Teams
In: (scholarship):
PK Will Reichard
In: (walk-on): P/PK Ty Perine, PK Chase Allen, P , P Jack Martin, P/PK Tripp Slyman, SN Gabe Pugh, SN Jake Hall
Out: PK Joseph Bulovas, P Skyler DeLong*, P/HLD *, SN Thomas Fletcher, HLD Mac Jones
Signed: None
Committed: SN Carter Short, SN Kneeland Hibbet
Analysis: Will Reichard finally plugged the holes at placekicker, making every kick he attempted in 2020. Headed into 2021, though, he’s the only certainty Alabama has. Punter Charlie Scott, who was at Alabama for a year on graduate deferment from the U.S. Air Force Academy, appears to be headed back to finish up his military responsibilities.

It would also appear that Skyler DeLong, the only scholarshipped punter on the team, will not be returning, although his name had not yet appeared officially in the transfer portal at the time of this writing. Placekicker Joseph Bulovas, also on scholarship, will not be coming back.

Alabama must also replace one of the best long-snappers it has ever had, Thomas Fletcher, along with holder Mac Jones, who was superior at the job. Chase Allen was Alabama’s kickoff man on an off-and-on basis in 2020, mostly in an attempt to keep Reichard shielded from contact. It will be interesting to see whether Reichard, who is also a good punter, will be allowed to compete for that job as well this spring. His freshman season ended after a misfire on a kickoff followed by another injury suffered while punting, so Alabama will have to weigh the risk.

If Reichard sticks to placement kicks and kickoffs only, Allen will have to go into the pool of punters that also includes Ty Perine, Sam Johnson and Jack Martin. Perine punted a few times in 2019 and did well, but a dropped snap against effectively ended the experiement. Sam Johnson began 2020 as Alabama’s punter, but didn’t impress, and Scott eventually displaced him. Martin and Slyman have yet to kick in a game.

The long-snapper spot will come down to a battle of walk-ons, either holdovers Jake Hall and Gabe Pugh, or expected true freshmen Carter Short and Kneeland Hibbet. Alabama typically uses quarterbacks and punters for the holder’s spot; Mac Jones was backed up by Charlie Scott in 2020. Alabama will also have a new special teams coordinator for 2021, so a lot will come down to the opinions of the new coach, whoever that will be. Finding a punter as consistent as Scott – who may have not been a boomer, but he never hit a bad kick, either – will be crucial.
Projected depth chart: PK – Reichard, Allen, Slyman/Perine; P – Perine/Johnson, Martin/Slyman; SN – Pugh/Hall/Hibbet, Short; HLD – Unknown

Return to the 2021 Offense Teams Overview

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN


 

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