For probably the first time since Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, there is a sense of urgency regarding the comparative status of the Alabama program against one of its SEC rivals.
Georgia’s national championship win in January wasn’t the first by an SEC school since Nick Saban took over in Tuscaloosa, but the Bulldogs have been the first team other than Alabama to build a team with a power-core mindset, and continue to build and improve that team through consistent, year-in/year-out recruiting.
LSU was particularly strong at the outset of Saban’s Alabama tenure, thanks largely to Nick Saban himself. Saban set up the LSU program for long-term success, and Les Miles’ conservative-but-aggressive style coupled with his unique personality and fiery demeanor proved to be a perfect fit (for a few years, at least) as LSU extended its Saban-wrought success. However, Miles eventually either couldn’t, or simply refused, to modernize his offense, and ultimately failings in his personal and professional life caught up to him.
Florida’s Urban Meyer was laid low by the loss to graduation of Tim Tebow, and then suffered some degree of health concerns that led to his early retirement in Gainesville. Auburn’s 2010 success felt far too tied to a handful of players – QB Cam Newton especially, but also a stout interior defense largely recruited by the prior staff. When Auburn made a return to the championship in 2013, it felt like a fluke, triggered by the infamous Kick Six play, and Florida State exposed Auburn as a pretender — in SEC terms, at least.
LSU then went back to the top under Ed Orgeron, but Orgeron was fired in record time after (again, for an LSU coach) failings both on the field and off it.
The Georgia program, comparatively, has been a steady rock. Previous coach Mark Richt was a solid, consistent recruiter, and Kirby Smart took over a program that was already set up perfectly for transition. Smart had to do very little in regard to changing offensive and defensive systems, and so far, Georgia appears to be the best candidate yet to displace, or at least compete with on a regular basis, Alabama for the SEC’s top slot. Only Florida under Meyer has had a chance that looked this good, and Alabama can’t bet on Smart having the same issues Meyer had.
Going into 2022, Georgia would seem poised to take a definite step backward, as this will be the second consecutive year in which the Bulldog roster will be robbed of its best players in the NFL Draft. But as Alabama fans have come to learn – and Bama’s rivals have come to fear – just because the NFL comes calling doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare once the new guys take their steps up. Indeed, Georgia is expected to once again run away with the SEC East.
Alabama’s 2022 spring practice will be focused on replacing several key losses and upgrading a handful of positions that simply didn’t cut it in 2021, at least not in comparison to Georgia and other top contenders. Alabama does, however, seem to be the odds-on favorite to win the conference again, as no team in the league will have a better situation at quarterback than Alabama does, assuming no further transfers.
In our first spring preview, we’ll take a look at the five greatest position groups of need, as we believe finding the right mix in those groups will be the most critical to Alabama’s success in 2022.
1. Offensive tackle
If the season opened tomorrow, Alabama’s starting offensive tackles would likely be Amari Kight on the left and J.C. Latham on the right, simply using the principle of Next Man Up. Kight ended the 2021 season as the swing tackle behind Chris Owens and Evan Neal, but he never really pushed Owens for a job in 2021 despite Owens’ frequent struggles. Kight, in fact, may get his main look this spring at guard, as Alabama moves from Doug Marrone to Eric Wolford. Latham is a good bet to start at one of the two spots, but the man Alabama is targeting for the other could very well not be on campus yet. Vanderbilt’s Tyler Steen is the top tackle available in the transfer portal, but he is probably still several steps down from Neal as a left tackle – understandable, as Neal is set to possibly be the top pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. If Steen goes elsewhere – he’s been said to be leaning softly toward Virginia at this time – then Latham will almost certainly go to left tackle, with Kight, Damieon George Jr. and sixth-year tight end/tackle Kendall Randolph competing for right tackle. Others involved in that discussion would be Tommy Brockermyer, who came to campus with a lot of hype but hasn’t been able to get his weight up to SEC standards yet; tackle/guard swingman Tanner Bowles and true freshman Tyler Booker.
Prediction: Latham on one side, Steen on the other if he transfers to UA. Otherwise, Randolph.
2. Tight end
Tight end was a mess for a large portion of 2021. Jahleel Billingsley stayed in the doghouse the entire year and transferred out at the end of the season, which is probably the best resolution for both parties. Major Tennison was hurt for the most of the year along with Caden Clark, and then true freshman Robbie Ouzts was lost near the end of the season. Alabama’s two best players ended up being converted defensive end Cameron Latu and Kendall Randolph, who is ordinarily an offensive lineman. Going into 2022, Latu has one of the two positions nailed down, as he developed into a mostly reliable receiving target by season’s end. But Latu is still not the ideal inline tight end fit for the Y position, so either Randolph has to go back to pulling double duty, or Alabama has to find another solution.
Caden Clark does not appear on the spring roster, so that leaves Ouzts, and cluster of walk-ons and three true freshmen. Elijah Brown, who is an early entrant, has the most Y-like body of the bunch but is the least polished of the tight ends Alabama signed in the spring. Jax Porter is a preferred walk-on with good height who turned down offers to SMU and others to come to Alabama. Amari Niblack and Danny Lewis aren’t on campus yet, but Niblack will be part of the battle at H almost as soon as he steps inside the county borders. Charlie Skehan, Adam Thorsland and Robert Ellis are the other walk-ons. Thorsland has good height, while Skehan ran as high as second team last fall and could be an option at FB/H, a position Alabama has shown a willingness to use walk-ons on several occasions in the past. If Randolph is going to get his primary look at offensive line, as Nick Saban has suggested, that leaves Latu at Y by default, with Brown the only true backup, while Ouzts and Skehan will likely split H until more freshmen arrive in the fall.
Prediction: Latu at Y, Ouzts at H, and Randolph back in the mix at Y if he gets beaten out on the OL.
Cornerback was a revolving door in 2021 thanks to injuries and an ill-timed transfer. Josh Jobe was solid but also got dinged up a couple of times. Jalyn Armour-Davis ended up being arguably the team’s best functional cornerback, but finished the year on the bench, hurt. Marcus Banks decided to transfer out just before the injuries hit, which left Alabama starting true freshman Ga’Quincy “Kool-Aid” McKinstry and a twice-injured, little-used JUCO transfer named Khyree Jackson in the playoffs. Heading into 2022, Alabama must nail down these slots solidly, because Nick Saban asks a lot of his corners in Bama’s defensive scheme. Alabama added LSU transfer Eli Ricks to the mix, so the big fight in the spring will be about staying in the top two, because Alabama has opted for safeties at Star and dime with increasing frequency. With Malachi Moore coming off a poor sophomore campaign, however, and Daniel Wright moving on to the pros, the dime spot is open. Ricks didn’t transfer here to sit on the bench, so pencil him in at one spot, while McKinstry and Jackson fight it out on the other side. McKinstry has future star written all over him, but Jackson is one of the biggest and most physical corners Alabama has ever had. The other big fight will be for the other second-team spot, where redshirt freshman CB/S Terrion Arnold will battle junior Jahquez Robinson primarily for that job, but true freshman Tre’Quon Fagans, S/CB Devonta Smith and walk-on Brylan Lanier are also in the mix to varying degrees.
Prediction: McKinstry and Ricks start, with Jackson backing up and perhaps playing dime.
4. Wide Receiver
Few would have expected Alabama to sail on through season-ending injuries to Jameson Williams and John Metchie without being negatively affected to some degree, but the final picture was close to being an unmitigated disaster. Ja’Corey Brooks had his Superman moment at the end of the Alabama-Auburn game, but once Williams was lost for good in the playoffs, Alabama never recovered. Metchie and Williams elected to jump-start their NFL careers, as did slot receiver Slade Bolden, who was a nice supporting piece but wasn’t capable of carrying the load without help from faster outside receivers.
Alabama’s biggest offseason acquisition to date may have been convincing junior Jermaine Burton, a Metchie clone, to transfer over from Georgia. He’ll probably develop into Bryce Young’s go-to receiver in short order, as he has reliable hands and brings a physical, no-nonsense approach to the position – and Alabama had “nonsense” in spades at receiver by the end of the year. The other two starters are likely set – Brooks at flanker, with JoJo Earle in the slot – but Brooks won’t participate in spring drills as the result of an injury, and Earle is getting the slot mostly by default, as his 2021 season fizzled badly at the midpoint. The most important concern here is to get a reliable rotation. Traeshon Holden looks almost certain to grab the fourth receiver spot; he does not have elite speed, but he is tall with a large catch radius and plays with physicality. He is prone to frustration, though, and needs to mature when things don’t go his way. Take that same analysis, multiple it by ten, and apply it to Agiye Hall, who now has the doghouse to himself with the loss of Jahleel Billingsley. Hall is the most gifted of all the Alabama receivers, regardless of age or position, but he simply has to grow up. If he doesn’t do it quickly, he’ll be out, according to a source inside the building.
As long as Holden and Hall continue to spin wheels, it will bring true freshmen Aaron Anderson and Kendrick Law into the mix. Neither have the size Alabama typically wants in their outside receivers, but Anderson in particular is fast and fluid. The most spirited competition may come at slot, where Christian Leary and Thaiu Jones-Bell could both end up pushing Earle. That position looks like a serene pond compared to the choppy seas at X and Z, and the staff is trying to focus on bringing calm to the whole scenario. Among walk-ons, Indiana transfer Bret Bolin elected to come back for a sixth year, and he was on the edge of getting playing time a year ago. Grant Krieger, who is tall, and Jacoby Boykins are also around, but with Alabama adding Isaiah Bond, Shazz Preston and Kobe Prentice to the mix in the fall, it’s going to be hard for any borderline players to hang onto their spots in the depth chart.
Prediction: Burton, Brooks and Earle as starters, with Holden, Hall, Leary and Anderson fighting for two reserve slots.
5. Interior Defensive Line
One of Bama’s biggest losses following the 2021 season was the departure of Phidarian Mathis to the NFL. Mathis played both tackle and end for four years for Alabama, and did it very well. Even in Mathis’ early years in which he didn’t play much, Alabama’s defensive efficiency numbers were at their highest when he was on the field. He developed into a vocal leader of the line, and his ability to deflect passes frustrated quarterbacks and centers alike. Heading into 2022, Alabama has more depth here than it maybe ever has, but no proven playmakers. The two closest to getting to that level are D.J. Dale and Tim Smith, for different reasons. Dale has proved his worth as a traditional nosetackle against running teams, and when he missed time late in 2021 with a leg injury, his loss on the field was felt. Smith is a more balanced player and can get up the field to make plays, but like Christian Barmore two years ago, Smith is prone to penalties and frustration. He’s the only guy like Mathis on the team, though, at least among those who have a resume. Stephon Wynn Jr. is another nosetackle type, with limited value as a pass rusher, but he does give Alabama insurance against Dale getting dinged up again. The rest of the group are total unknowns – Tim Keenan, Anquin Barnes and true freshman Jaheim Oatis – but each has a lot of promise. Damon Payne and Khurtiss Perry are also around, but they look more like outside players in Alabama’s 3-4 base. Alabama has a couple of veterans who can flex between end and tackle, most notably Justin Eboigbe and Jamil Burroughs, but Burroughs is another who fell out of the rotation after some midseason frustrations, and Eboigbe is really only an option at nose when Alabama goes small. Bama will add signee Isaiah Hastings in the fall, as well.
Prediction: Smith and Dale will split/combine for the spot, depending on alignment, with Wynn and one of the young players backing up.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN