Alabama won’t be retooling much of its offense, but with increased mobility from the projected starting quarterback – along with a handful of questions at offensive line and running back – look for a mixture of what Alabama did in 2019 and 2020 to take advantage of certain skill sets and hide potential problem spots, at least early on.
Predicted record: 12-0
SEC record: 8-0
SEC West record: 6-0
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Running Backs: Vg
Wide Receivers: Vg
Offensive Line: Vg
|Defensive Line: Vg
Defensive Backs: Vg
Special Teams: Vg
Bryce Young is the unquestioned starter heading into 2021 and he must stay healthy. Young’s arm strength is top-notch, and he has uncommon touch for a player with so little experience. But it is his mobility that might come into play early, as Alabama returns only two starters on the offensive line, and only one of them in the same spot he started during 2020, RG Emil Ekiyor Jr.
The backup appears set to be Paul Tyson, who is a traditional pocket passer with very little mobility and only average release speed. Tyson came in at the same time as Lia Tagovailoa, which seems like decades ago already, and most observers agreed he would be a long-term developmental player.
If Young gets hurt and Tyson has to assume the controls, Alabama will get significantly low-speed on offense until it can be determined that Tyson can read SEC defenses. Freshman Jalen Milroe is pushing Tyson and is a much better analog to Young’s skill set, but he has no game experience and true freshmen are always a gamble.
Walk-on Braxton Barker has gotten enough work in scrimmages now that him being on the team is certainly more than just a favor to his famous father. He has good athleticism and a surprisingly strong arm for a walk-on, but Alabama almost never gets to this level of the QB depth chart, willingly or otherwise.
Brian Robinson Jr. came back for his extra season in an attempt to improve his draft stock. He has shown a lot of potential in the past to be the next solid “big back” in the rotation, but in other games has failed to make any positive impact. He must display better consistency, both in running the ball and especially catching it. When he runs aggressively, Robinson punishes defenders at the line of scrimmage, but he doesn’t have the moves in the hole that the departed Najee Harris displayed. He also has struggled in the past going laterally.
The backup situation is a little up in the air. Trey Sanders’ career almost ended in a car accident during the 2020 season, just as he was starting to break away from the pack. His absence allowed Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams to get carries down the stretch, and both made the most of their opportunities, so now there’s a bit of a bunch-up behind Robinson. Sanders and McClellan are similar backs with active footwork, good power and the ability to cut at the second level. Williams is a bit smaller but has a lot of the same attributes.
True freshman Camar Wheaton is the next big thing in a lot of observers’ estimations, and he has made enough of an early impact with his speed that he might find himself returning kickoffs.
It’s hard to imagine losing DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle at the top of the 2021 NFL Draft and yet still looking at this unit as a potential strength, but that’s what Nick Saban’s recruiting has wrought. Alabama solidified the unit in a big way when it attracted Ohio State’s Jameson Williams to transfer in. He brings top-end speed – he’s rumored to be faster than the players he’s replacing – along with good height and hands.
The big pressure will be on John Metchie to continue to develop his hands. He is a physical receiver who plays as though he’s annoyed with people, a good quality to have for receivers who have to take on safeties in the middle of the field. What Metchie must do, though – and what Williams must prove – is that they can be as reliable as Waddle and Smith were in simply catching the ball, because as good as Bryce Young is going to be, he’s not going to be as accurate as Mac Jones was coming out of the gate.
Slade Bolden made a strong push at the very end of the 2020 season, once nagging injuries had healed, and because of his versatility he’ll almost certainly start in the slot. Depth is going to be an issue at the start of the year until some of the younger players establish themselves, though.
Xavier Williams was lost for the season with an injury in camp, taking the only semi-proven name off the board. Some combination of holdovers Javon Baker, Trasehon Holden and Thaiu Jones-Bell will compete with freshmen Agiye Hall, Jacorey Brooks, JoJo Earle and Christian Leary for snaps.
Alabama likes to use five receivers, sometimes six in its A-group, so only two or three of those names are going to be happy. Of the bunch, Holden, Baker and Hall are the most physical, while Jones-Bell, Earle and Leary are the quickest.
Tight end is another position facing turnover, but there’s experience here. Jahleel Billingsley will be a big part of the offense, but he’s going to need help blocking. Cameron Latu has been the story of camp, but he doesn’t have the prototypical body type for the Y spot despite what he’s listed at on the roster. Major Tennison will back up both spots along with physical true freshman Robbie Ouzts. Another freshman, Caden Clark, and one of the very few walk-ons set to get real playing time, Charlie Skehan, provide depth.
The biggest question mark on the offense is right tackle. Kendall Randolph played tight end and tackle last year and is apparently making a full-time move to the line, but he struggled at times playing the spot in 2020, and then missed the opening fall scrimmage with an injury. If he can’t go, or isn’t up to the task, Alabama’s depth at tackle isn’t as far along as its depth at guard and center.
True freshman J.C. Latham might end up being the guy, or it could be one of two sophomore reserves from a year ago, Damien George Jr. or Amari Kight. Tommy Brockermeyer, another true freshman, would also be in the mix. Evan Neal, last year’s right tackle, moves to the NFL money position, left tackle, and he’s probably the only guy on the team ready to handle that assignment.
Inside, Emil Ekiyor Jr. returns at right guard, where he developed into a dominant force last year alongside Neal. Chris Owens took his sixth-year exemption and came back; he has struggled at center before but came off the bench to replace and injured Landon Dickerson late in 2020 and played his best games in the playoffs. Left guard is currently in the possession of Javion Cohen, who observers rave about.
Tommy Brown, Tanner Bowles and Pierce Quick give Alabama uncommon depth at guard, along with true freshmen Terrence Ferguson and Jaeden Roberts. Center is backed up by Darrian Dalcourt, who might be the effective sixth man if there’s an injury to one of the middle three starters, spark plug Seth McLaughlin and true freshman James Brockermeyer.
Like the offense, the defense isn’t retooling so much as it’s simply reloading. The front seven returns largely intact, and will get an upgrade at middle linebacker. There are a couple of small questions at cornerback, but nothing major, and the talent is certainly there. Special teams might actually be a strength of the team for once, the only part of Nick Saban’s Alabama teams that have consistently had issues over the years. Incredible depth throughout the depth chart will make this a fun unit to watch.
Is this the year LaBryan Ray is finally healthy? It looked that way, right up to the first scrimmage of fall camp, which Ray missed with a groin injury. Fortunately, Alabama had plenty of time to develop Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe in Ray’s place in 2020, so Plan B is secured. Young had more or less a breakout year in 2021, and showed the ability to affect quarterbacks, which will be huge in 2021 given the loss of Christian Barmore, arguably Alabama’s most significant loss on defense given his unique impact.
Eboigbe needs to have the light come on. He has great potential, but Alabama began to develop Jamil Burroughs and Jah-Marien Latham toward the end of 2020 and Eboigbe might not get a long leash. Burroughs is a typical big-bodied masher, while Latham is a small-body, big-motor guy who can slide inside, reminiscent of Nick Gentry. Ray is the most well-rounded of the ends, as Young lost weight for 2020 and almost got too small at times to be effective against the run, so we’ll see how that storyline progresses in 2021.
Others competing for time include holdovers Stephon Wynn Jr. and Braylen Ingraham, along with true freshmen Damon Payne and Monkell Goodwine. Ingraham in particular is a name to watch. Inside, Phidarian Mathis will probably get most of the work replacing Barmore, but his ability to slide in or out depending on scheme is his greatest asset, along with his leadership.
D.J. Dale is effective against the run, but continues to struggle in the pass rush. Both players are probably looking backwards a bit to Tim Smith, who emerged late last year to become an important part of the rotation, and Smith’s skill set is the most like Barmore’s. True freshmen Tim Keenan and Anquin Barnes are also in the mix.
This is probably the deepest group of linebackers Alabama has had since the introduction of the 85-man scholarship limit. It goes a full four players deep at each of four spots, and five players deep at one of them. The big name, though, wasn’t part of this list until the summer: Tennessee transfer Henry To’o To’o figures to step into Dylan Moses’ shoes and may actually upgrade the spot in the process.
Moses’ final season was filled with injuries, and the end result of that was teams picked on him in the passing game. To’o To’o is probably an upgrade in that respect without factoring in injuries anyway. His arrival will allow Christian Harris to stay primarily on the weak side and wreak general havoc. Harris had developed into a force by the end of 2020 and observers say he has upped his game significantly over the offseason.
Jaylen Moody will also get some work, because he’s too good to sit. Alabama would have been fine with Harris and Moody as the starters had To’o To’o decided to remain a Volunteer, but now it’s a three-man fight. Then comes a parade of names: Shane Lee, Deontae Lawson, Jackson Bratton, Demouy Kennedy, Ian Jackson and Kendrick Blackshire. Alabama has suffered several injuries at linebacker during recent seasons; this is the best-equipped the Tide has been yet to weather an injury storm.
At outside linebacker, Christopher Allen and Will Anderson finished the year as good as any tandem in the country, against both run and pass. King Mwikuta flirted with the transfer portal over the offseason, returns and will be a primary backup along with Drew Sanders. Chris Braswell, Keanu Koht and Dallas Turner and walk-on Christian Johnson fill out the list.
The loss of Patrick Surtain II will be felt, but the competition to replace him has been spirited. Josh Jobe will be the primary cornerback in 2021, and his physical makeup tends to rub off on other defenders. The off corner will probably be Jalyn Armour-Davis, who like Jobe is a longer corner with a physical locus.
Junior college transfer Khyree Jackson will eventually make an impact somewhere, as will true freshman Ga’Quincy “Kool-Aid” McKinstry, both of whom are pushing Armour-Davis. Marcus Banks has been on the perimeter of the cornerback rotation for two years now, and is still close to breaking through, so Bama doesn’t have to give Armour-Davis unlimited chances.
The safety group is full of veterans, and competition continues for the starting free safety job, where DeMarcco Hellams more or less took it away mid-2020 from Daniel Wright. The loser of this battle figures to be the dime safety, so both will play a bunch. Malachi Moore and Brian Branch are fighting over the Star safety spot, with the loser of that battle thrown into the mix at dime. Kristian Story seems to have made a move forward after spending a year focusing on defense, after coming to campus as a two-way athlete without a position.
Will Reichard is coming off a well-publicized perfect year as Bama’s placekicker, although most of that work was of the one-point variety following Alabama’s copious collection of touchdowns. Chase Allen developed into a fairly reliable kickoff man, although Reichard also kicked off some; Alabama would prefer Allen win that job and keep Reichard out of harm’s way on kick coverage.
Bama finally broke down and got itself an Australian punter – James Burnip appears to be a lock to succeed Charlie Scott. He’ll be one of the biggest punters Alabama has had at 6’6” and nearly 220 pounds. Sam Johnson and Jack Martin are the competition there along with Ty Perine, who is also in the mix to be the backup placekicker.
Alabama will need a new longsnapper this year, with two walk-on true freshmen, Carter Short and Kneeland Hibbett, competing with holdovers Gabe Pugh and Jake Hall. With Jaylen Waddle gone, kickoff and punt returns are wide open, with freshmen Camar Wheaton, JoJo Earle, Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Christian Leary competing with Slade Bolden for those spots.
If Alabama holds true to form, the holder will be the backup quarterback, which would mean Paul Tyson, although Bryce Young, Slade Bolden or whoever wins the punting job would also be considered.
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