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Spring football: Alabama’s other position groups

A week ago, we profiled the five position groups with the most uncertainty headed into the 2022 season. Alabama’s offensive tackles, tight ends, cornerbacks, wide receivers and defensive tackles are in the spotlight as spring practice rolls on.

The other eight position groups are not immune to questions, but there’s a fairly clear division line from defensive tackle, which ranked as the fifth-greatest position group of need in last week’s preview, to the group we have ranked in sixth, which is the inside linebacker group.

Here’s a look at the remaining position groups as Bama’s second week of spring practice begins.

6. Inside Linebacker

With as much talent as Alabama had amassed here over the past two or three offseasons, it was inevitable that some players would opt to move on. The biggest name among them was undoubtedly Christian Harris, who had a shaky start to his 2021 season but rebounded to become one of the most feared linebackers in the conference by season’s end. Harris parlayed his strong finish into the possibility of sneaking into the first round of the upcoming NFL Draft. The other starter from a year ago, Henry To’o To’o, elected to return to Alabama for his senior season, but while To’o To’o has a lot of value due to his pursuit speed, he needs help from a larger player who can stuff the middle, which Harris was able to do.

Alabama got a big boost when Jaylen Moody elected to come back to the team for his Covid eligibility season, even after going through Senior Day activities last November. Moody has bloomed late in his career, going from an afterthought in 2018 to a player with the flexibility and size to play all across the formation; he even lined up at nosetackle for the last play of the Florida game last fall. The big question here is going to be building up some depth behind To’o To’o and Moody, because no one else has played with the game on the line. Some observers believe either of the two players projected to finish spring with the second unit – Deontae Lawson and Kendrick Blackshire – could push Moody for a starting job, but that’s going off pure potential, not on-field results up to this point. Ian Jackson and Demouy Kennedy, the latter having moved back to defense after being forced into action as an emergency running back last year, will compete with five-star signee Shawn Murphy in the next tier.

There probably aren’t going to be any walk-ons getting into the mix, although Kyle Flood Jr. has some ability. Most of the questions here will only come up if one of the starters gets injured.

Prediction: To’o To’o nails down one spot, while Moody stays ahead of Lawson and Blackshire at the other.

7. Special Teams

Placekicker Will Reichard will enter 2022 as likely the best kicker in the SEC. Beyond that, questions abound. Alabama changed assistant coaches here, going from Drew Svoboda to Coleman Hutzler, and while Nick Saban almost never specifies why he makes a particular coaching change, there weren’t many people blown away by the quality of Alabama’s special teams coordination last year.

The best of the other specialists was snapper Kneeland Hibbett, a walk-on true freshman, who varied between serviceable on his worst day and very good on his best. Holder Paul Tyson lost that job mid-year and is no longer on campus. The bigger problem was at punter, where James Burnip was consistent, but didn’t show many signs of being able to boom Alabama out of trouble. His best attribute was being able to execute one-step punts just as well as those with a longer approach, which helped cover up punt blocking that was suspect at times. Alabama’s return game fell off greatly, and with sure-handed Slade Bolden now gone to the pros, Alabama must identify another punt returner early in camp. JoJo Earle was too inconsistent catching the ball last year. Jameson Williams is gone from the kickoff return group; he was one of the three or four best at kickoff returns that Alabama has likely ever had.

As for Burnip, he took over for Tyson as the holder, and did well enough in that role that it might keep him on the field as punter, too. Alabama was supposed to get Ty Perine back at one point at punter, but he’s not on the spring roster, and neither is Sam Johnson, who started as a true freshman. That leaves Troy transfer Jack Martin as the principal backup at both placekicker and punter, and while he showed a strong leg in practices, Alabama never seemed to be close to letting him try to overtake Burnip in an actual game setting. Chase Allen was Alabama’s kickoff specialist two years ago and can also both kick and punt, but he was injured for much of the 2021 season. Another walk-on, Reid Schuback, is back at placekicker after redshirting last season. If Bama didn’t have Reichard at placekicker, this position group would have made the first week’s article. As it is, Bama just needs more consistency.

Prediction: Reichard handles all kicks and kickoffs, while Burnip holds and punts – for now. The makeup of the return units won’t crystallize until fall camp.

8. Interior Offensive Line

This group became problematic as the season went along due to inconsistencies at center. Now, with Darrian Dalcourt injured and missing spring practice, it feels a bit like Alabama is missing an opportunity to develop Dalcourt’s skills. Seth McLaughlin started the last few games of the 2021 season, but a rough performance against Georgia in the College Football Championship Game may have reopened the door for Dalcourt or another player. It was a stark contrast to McLaughlin’s strong performance against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and raised questions about whether he could consistently overcome his relative lack of size at the position.

As for the guard slots, they’re rock-solid – presuming left guard Javion Cohen and right guard Emil Ekiyor Jr. stay where they are. Cohen wasn’t mentioned in our first preview article on the offensive tackles, but he is a candidate to slide over to left tackle, having played it some as a true freshman two years ago. Ekiyor, meanwhile, has the skills to play center and has practiced there before. New offensive line coach Eric Wolford prioritizes versatility in his linemen, so expect Ekiyor to be developed as a possibility at center this spring, along with other players.

If no one moves to a new position, this group will basically start 2022 in the same alignment as it ended 2021, but if players begin moving around, look out. Damieon George Jr. may end up moving inside, where his footwork won’t be such of an issue in pass blocking. Amari Kight is also a possibility to move in from tackle, and Kendall Randolph can play anywhere but center. If Cohen moves outside to tackle, Dalcourt could shift to guard, or could flip-flop with Ekiyor outright. Redshirt freshmen Terrence Ferguson and Jaeden Roberts are both expected to compete at the guard spots, along with Tanner Bowles, who can play both guard spots and right tackle as well.

James Brockermeyer may be closer to seeing playing time at center than his brother Tommy is at tackle, and Alabama was also able to bring in signee Dayne Shor, a guard prospect, for the spring. There are two walk-ons with good size, senior Jackson Roby and redshirt freshman Graham Roten, that will try to make an impression on the new coach. As it is at tackle, there are a lot of possibilities here, but after a fairly disastrous 2021 performance by Alabama standards – not to mention the loss of Evan Neal to the NFL – the pressure is on the whole line to step up their game.

Prediction: Cohen and Ekiyor hold onto the guard slots, while McLaughlin supplants Dalcourt at center.

9. Defensive End

We’re now getting down to positions that don’t need a lot, and what defensive end basically needs is a little more explosiveness and development of depth. For the first time in years, there isn’t much doubt about who will start: Byron Young has developed his body and filled in the holes in run defense that plagued him early on in his career, and has now become one of Alabama’s best linemen, if not the best returning defensive lineman overall. Justin Eboigbe never became a dominating force like recruiting analysts predicted, but he is versatile, reliable and as a senior, has as good a chance as any at having a breakout season.

Presuming Tim Smith stays mostly inside, Alabama needs to replace the departed LaBryan Ray, who ended up bracketed with Eboigbe last year as the swing tackle and eventually replaced him as a starter during the playoffs. The player with the greatest potential to take that spot also has the most questions surrounding him: Jamil Burroughs has twice climbed the depth chart and broken through for playing time, only to then fall down the depth chart for undisclosed reasons. Burroughs has both size and quickness, and it would benefit all parties for Alabama’s coaches to find a way to reach him. Otherwise, the choices are Jah-Marien Latham and Monkell Goodwine. Latham is a smaller player and not able to give Alabama much help inside, but he is uncommonly quick and plays with good leverage; we’ve likened him to former Tider Nick Gentry on multiple occasions. Goodwine was a true freshman in 2021 and didn’t play until late in the year, and still redshirted. He has a lot of potential and particularly if Burroughs doesn’t get it together, the deck is clear for Goodwine to break into the top rotation.

As for the rest, Braylen Ingraham is a redshirt junior who has yet to break through, but remains on the team regardless, which is sort of an anomaly in modern college football. Damon Payne and true freshman Khurtiss Perry are the others competing this spring, and Isaiah Hastings will join the team in the fall. Alabama will have the bodies; it just needs more punch.

Prediction: Young and Eboigbe start, while Latham, Burroughs and Goodwine provide the initial depth.

10. Running Back

Hopefully, the ridiculous injury situation of 2021 isn’t repeated. Despite the loss of Camar Wheaton to the transfer portal and Brian Robinson Jr. to the NFL, Alabama is set to have six running backs on scholarship once the season starts.

For now, the biggest issue is finding a starter from a group of four players, holdovers Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams, Trey Sanders and Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs. True freshman Jamarion Miller is also on campus, and Alabama has two walk-ons with legitimate ability, Jonathan Bennett and Elijah Crockett. Another true freshman, Emmanuel Henderson, will join the team in the fall. McClellan and Williams are both coming off season-ending knee injuries last fall, and both will be either limited or out altogether this spring. Sanders is still on a long-arc bounceback from an automobile accident that was serious enough to affect his 2021 season and potentially his 2022 season as well, although he showed amazing heart last December and January and held down the role of Brian Robinson’s backup to the end.

The real wild card here is Gibbs, who at worst appears to have tremendous value as a third-down back, and may be able to lead the way on earlier downs as well. Gibbs is around 5’11” and 200 pounds, with great hands and good speed, and will initiate contact – a nice trait to have, as Alabama searches for a back that can pass-block as good as Robinson did.

Prediction: Gibbs and McClellan bracketed at the top, with Sanders and Williams bracketed behind them.

11. Safety

You know you’re in pretty good shape when the biggest question on the board is whether a 2020 freshman all-star can bounce back from a sophomore slump and become the team’s primary sixth DB. Alabama lost Daniel Wright to graduation after the 2021 season, and while Wright wasn’t always the most consistent defensive back Alabama had, he ultimately developed into a solid dime safety. With Brian Branch entrenched as the Star (nickel) safety, attention turns to Malachi Moore, who began 2021 as the Star but lost that position to Branch and then lost the dime position to Wright.

Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams return as the free and strong safeties, and by the end of the year, no one really liked coming across Alabama’s middle of the field. Battle quietly has become one of Alabama’s best centerfield robbers, and while Hellams is a tremendous hitter and is built like a small linebacker. Branch is the perfect Star in Alabama’s system, so that just leaves Moore trying to hold off third cornerback Khyree Jackson and reserve safety Kristian Story for the dime slot. There’s no clear reason why Moore went from being a FWAA Freshman All-American in 2020 to benched in 2021, but it happened, and it needs to un-happen in short order if Alabama’s pass defense wants to continue to improve.

The other issue at safety is overall depth, which hasn’t gotten a lot of ink so far this spring, but the problem is there. Story is one of just two reserves to have any meaningful playing time, and there are just three other scholarshipped players available. One of them, Terrion Arnold, is competing at cornerback, which leaves Devonta Smith and Kaine Williams as the other options. Most of Smith’s snaps so far came from special teams work, while Williams redshirted in 2021. Walk-ons Brylan Lanier, Blake Pugh and Jacobi McBride fill out the roster, but help is on the way in the fall in the form of signees Jake Pope and Antonio Kite.

Prediction: Battle and Hellams start with Branch at nickel and Moore battling Khyree Jackson for dime. Story and Smith will be the primary backups.

12. Quarterback

It says something for overall team quality when the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback isn’t even at the bottom of the list of greatest needs. Bryce Young doesn’t need any help being a dominating force at quarterback, but what lands QB on this list ahead of the outside linebacker group is a simple question of depth. Alabama lost primary backup Paul Tyson to transfer after the 2021 season concluded, and quality walk-on Braxton Barker decided to come off the field and become a graduate assistant. That leaves Alabama with just two other scholarshipped players, Jalen Milroe and true freshman Ty Simpson. But those “just two” are both very good. Milroe played in a handful of games in 2021, not enough to burn his redshirt, but enough to display outstanding speed and good arm strength. Simpson is also considered a dual-threat quarterback, but not on the level of Milroe as a runner.

The choice for Alabama’s coaches is whether to use the more experienced Milroe, who would appear to need the offense re-tailored a bit to his skill set, or plug Simpson into the spot in the even Young is hurt. Alabama also added Vanderbilt transfer Blake Jarrett to take the place of Barker and Stone Hollenbach, who also transferred out.

Prediction: Young starts, of course. Milroe and Simpson both get playing time in blowouts.

13. Outside linebacker

Alabama’s best overall player is probably JLB Will Anderson, the most talented edge rusher Alabama has had since Derrick Thomas. Coupled with Dallas Turner, who was the breakout defensive player of the 2021 signing class, Alabama has the best edge combo in college football for 2022. Alabama lost Christopher Allen to the draft and Drew Sanders to transfer, but it might not matter. Chris Braswell developed steadily over the 2021 season and can spell either Turner or Anderson when needed. Alabama will need to find a fourth defensive end, which at the moment will be either sophomore Quandarrius Robinson or one of two signees, Jeremiah Alexander or Jihaad Campbell.

Campbell looks like the more likely option right now, but Alexander was a solid addition to the roster. Redshirt freshman Keanu Koht will miss spring with an injury, but he has a lot of potential. The player most observers are watching is Campbell, who will also work a bit at inside linebacker, but his future is on the outside. He needs to add size, but his speed off the corner is hard to ignore. Robinson, meanwhile, is a big body and should be able to help with run containment. This is the deepest collection of potential game-changers Alabama has had at outside linebacker since at least the 1980s and maybe ever.

Prediction: Anderson and Turner start, Braswell is the primary backup with Robinson and Campbell fighting for the fourth spot.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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