Wednesday, September 28, 2022
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2022 Preview: Alabama Crimson Tide

 

Predicted record: 12-0
SEC record: 8-0
SEC West record: 6-0

Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Ex
Running Backs: Ex
Wide Receivers: Vg
Offensive Line: Av

Defensive Line: Vg
Linebackers: Ex
Defensive Backs: Ex
Special Teams: Vg

OFFENSE

Alabama returns its 2021 offensive scheme mostly intact, and why wouldn’t you? Its quarterback is coming off a Trophy-winning season, the running back stable is as stacked as a Kentucky Derby field, and Alabama has re-infused its wide receiver corps with talent, both with freshman signees and two high-profile transfers. The offensive line is a question mark, but there is excitement there in regard to a change in offensive line coaches and strategy.

QUARTERBACKS

Bryce Young returns under center, which is quite a feat that a team could find itself bringing back a winner, at any position, for yet another run. Young is a staple at the top of virtually all 2023 NFL Draft mocks, and for good reason: His accuracy, field vision and ability to feel pressure and create on the run calls to mind some combination of Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, two of the greatest to play the position. Young’s only downside is the same downside that affects a lot of quarterbacks: pressure. When Alabama’s offensive line got sketchy at times in 2021, Young’s patience waned. He’ll need to have the patience of Job early in the season, as Alabama breaks in two new tackles and tries to work out some health issues in the interior. As for backups, Alabama boasts two of the most promising younger quarterbacks in the league. Jalen Milroe finished the spring as the backup, and then spent the summer honing his physique to the point that he now resembles – breathe deep, Alabama fans, before commenting – former star Cam Newton in both build and athleticism. Milroe under center would be one of the best pure athletes Alabama has ever had there, reminiscent of Danny Woodson at his most hyped. But Milroe isn’t even assured of winning the job. Ty Simpson, a true freshman, pressured Milroe heavily in the spring. Milroe made more jaw-dropping plays, especially when scrambling, but Simpson has better accuracy and looked more poised in the pocket at times. Three walk-ons fill out the depth chart – Caleb Carruth, Amanni Stewart and Zeb Vickery – but there’s a gulf between them and the Simpson/Milroe battle. Bama legacy and Young’s 2021 backup Paul Tyson saw the Milroe-Simpson train coming and opted to transfer, so it speaks well to Alabama’s depth in the event something happens to Young.

RUNNING BACKS

Provided everyone is healthy, Alabama will have a different look at running back this year, and a potentially more dynamic one. Alabama will certainly miss Brian Robinson Jr., who got everything he could out of his talent and uncanny durability and toughness before moving on to the NFL. In his place is a group of smaller backs who won’t be able to bang inside like Robinson did, but might be able to do more things in open space. Settling on a starter is the first task. With Robinson gone, Trey Sanders moves up to the starting job using next--up theory, but he’s got a tough road ahead of him in keeping Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs and Jace McClellan, who was Robinson’s backup early in 2021 prior to suffering a knee injury, behind him. Sanders is one of the most heartstring-pulling stories of Alabama in recent years: Expected to be a star early in his career, Sanders nearly saw football taken from him altogether when a car he was riding in was involved in a highly destructive crash. Sanders broke bones in his hip and pelvic regions and for a time, simply walking without a limp would have been considered a victory. The fact Sanders has rebounded to be back in the mix for this job is nothing short of a miracle by itself. However, anyone who saw Gibbs run wild at A-Day recognizes what Alabama has in him. Initially considered to be a third-down back when he transferred in, Gibbs’ similarities to former Bama star elevated his profile and now he’s considered the odds-on favorite to start, or at the very least, split carries with Sanders or McClellan. McClellan is coming off major knee surgery, so there’s no need to rush him back with Sanders and Gibbs around. Another back coming off knee surgery is Roydell Williams, who is smaller than the others but excellent out of the backfield. He’s a little behind McClellan in recovery time. Two true freshmen, Jamarion Miller and Emmanuel Henderson, may find some time on special teams but it’s unlikely either will break into the A-group unless there is another run of injuries. Miller gave Alabama some good work as an inside runner this spring, while Henderson is just getting to campus. Two walk-ons, Jonathan Bennett and Elijah Crockett, are better than the typical walk-on running back, adding even further depth.

WIDE RECEIVERS

When John Metchie and Jameson Williams both went down with leg injuries late in the season, it exposed the lack of depth in this unit. Had Alabama not added two transfers – Georgia’s Jermaine Burton and Louisville’s Tyler Harrell – this group would have been by far the biggest question mark of the upcoming team. Burton was in Tuscaloosa for spring ball and claimed Metchie’s split end position outright, although his A-Day game was not the best. Harrell is a speed merchant, but like Williams before him, will have to prove he can handle short and intermediate routes before he can be pronounced the next big thing. The problem for Alabama is, outside of those two players – who established themselves with other teams and not Alabama – the rest of the unit is full of question marks. For now, the slot receiver will come down to either JoJo Earle or . Earle showed flashes last season before also being lost for much of the year with an injury, while Leary moved to running back when injuries hit that position group. In the spring game, Leary outplayed Earle by a mile, but the coaches are high on Earle’s potential and he’ll likely get the initial starting reps here. With Burton entrenched at the X spot, the Z receiver position likely comes down to Harrell versus Ja’Corey Brooks, the hero of the game after Jameson Williams was ejected for targeting on a special teams play. Brooks showed flashes of greatness at times, but was also too inconsistent in the postseason. Another holdover with a chance to make waves is Traeshon Holden, a big-bodied receiver who is physical, but doesn’t possess either elite hands or speed. Behind these six is sophomore slot receiver Thaiu Jones-Bell and a lot of true freshmen. Jones-Bell was solid in the spring and probably secured himself some future auditions with those performances, as his career has started slowly. There are five signees gunning for a spot: Aaron Anderson, Kendrick Law, Isaiah Bond, Shazz Preston and Kobe Prentice. Of that group, Anderson and Law were on campus for spring ball, but Anderson, arguably the more impressive of the two, is dinged up as fall camp starts. Bond possesses uncommon speed, while Preston may have the best overall skillset. Prentice and Law are not dissimilar. The biggest challenge for the coaches will be developing a rotation; Alabama typically limits its A-group to six receivers at most, and there are 12 names here. A similar problem is developing at tight end thanks to an offseason injury to Y-position starter Cameron Latu. With Latu hurting, a position that was already seen as a potential problem spot is now a complete mystery. Robbie Ouzts will play somewhere thanks to time spent in the system, but he is viewed more as an H-back or fullback than a true tight end. If Latu is out for any length of time, it might put walk-on Charlie Skehan into the lineup at H while Ouzts subs for Latu. This is another spot with a lot of new faces: true freshmen Danny Lewis, Elijah Brown, Amari Niblack and JUCO transfer Miles Kitselman, the latter being an accidental discovery by Tide coaches when they visited his school to evaluate a different player. Kitselman has played exactly one year of tight end after starting his career on the defensive line – but then again, so did Latu. Even with Latu healthy, Alabama needs more consistency from him, and if Niblack isn’t ready to step into the H-receiver role that belonged in 2021 to Jahleel Billingsley, there’s going to be a hole here regardless. There is an awful lot of potential here, but we’re stretching to give a “Very Good” rating until some of that potential turns into actual performance.

OFFENSIVE LINE

It was undoubtedly the weakness of the 2021 offense and until Alabama figures out how to replace LT Evan Neal, it’s going to be the most-watched unit of 2022, too. Alabama enticed Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen to move to Tuscaloosa from Nashville, and he’ll be the starting until he does something to lose the job. Steen is likely a guard at the NFL level, and he won’t be as good as Neal, but spring ball exposed both tackle positions as having issues and Steen at least brings a veteran presence and experience to the position. J.C. Latham is expected to be the new right tackle, and may end up being next year’s if he continues to progress. Latham had a solid spring and it looks like the experiment of moving him over from guard is going to stick. Even though the interior of the line has far more experience, the questions are just as numerous. Javion Cohen has the chance to be one of the best guards Alabama has ever had, and could wind up at tackle next year, but he missed a lot of offseason time dealing with health issues. At center, senior Darrian Dalcourt is going to try to win his job back from Seth McLaughlin, who appeared to hold a tight grip on the position until the Georgia rematch. The only absolutely sure thing is that Emil Ekiyor Jr. has right guard sewn up, unless he is forced to move to center, a position he can also play. Depth is somewhat unsure right now thanks to true freshman Elijah Pritchett likely being lost for several weeks with an injury sustained while lifting weights. He was expected to push Latham and Steen. The reserve tackles will likely be another true freshman, Tyler Booker, and redshirt junior Amari Kight, the latter having struggled in the spring against Alabama’s elite edge rushers. Sixth-year senior Kendall Randolph seems to have shed the combination “TE-OL” label from his bio, but despite getting plenty of opportunities at both tackle spots this spring and at guard, he failed to make an impact. He might also have to move back to tight end while Cameron Latu is out. Inside depth falls to Damieon George Jr., who started a game at right tackle last year and struggled with his footwork, and redshirt freshmen Terrence Ferguson and Jaeden Roberts. There is potential there, but very little experience. Others in the mix include brothers Tommy Brockermeyer and James Brockermeyer, with James the third-team center and Tommy getting work at both tackle spots. Tanner Bowles can play just about anywhere on the line and has largely held his own in prior camp work.

Alabama figures to have one of the most dynamic defenses in the SEC thanks to its stacked edge positions, but will have to replace key interior player Phidarian Mathis, as well as lock up the cornerback positions, which became an unexpected weakness in the postseason. There is plenty of talent to do so – and Alabama’s modified 3-4 over/under defense, which now looks more like a 3-3-5 or 2-4-5 depending on the front personnel – is now fully built-out to counter speed teams.

DEFENSIVE LINE

With Mathis no longer patrolling the middle of the Alabama defense, the pressure is on like D.J. Dale, Tim Smith and Justin Eboigbe to step up their games. According to Tide coaches, Dale is now viewed as an option on all downs, which would mean he’s found some initial quickness to help his pass rush game along. He has long been a stalwart against running teams, but has needed more quickness. Smith is a freak of nature in the middle, but also has been too lax with assignments and didn’t always play with an even keel in the past. Eboigbe is a tweener, not exactly fast enough for Bama’s end spots but not enough of a big body to play inside against the run. He’ll need to at least be the next LaBryan Ray, who has also moved on. The big name to watch here will be Jamil Burroughs, who has the requisite size to mix it up in the middle, but like Smith, he needs to keep focus. Byron Young will likely start again at end, and he has finally added to power to stop the run to complement his abilities as a pocket collapser. Jah-Marien Latham seems to have finally found a role; he is undersized, but exceptionally quick off the ball and can frustrate immobile centers. The next wave includes true freshmen Jaheim Oatis and redshirts Tim Keenan and Anquin Barnes at tackle, with Monkell Goodwine, Damon Payne, Isaiah Hastings and Khurtis Perry at the ends. Oatis has been the one tagged with the “next big thing” label, as he initially reported to campus around 400 pounds and has since shed about 60 of those pounds and added quickness to his powerful frame. Goodwine and Payne have promise coming from the outside, while Keenan raised some eyebrows in the spring by being more effective at this point in his career than a lot of observers expected. Junior Braylen Ingraham did not return to the team after the summer break. The talent is here; this is all about finding the right mix.

LINEBACKERS

There has never been a time in Alabama’s storied history where the depth at outside linebacker has been this good. Will Anderson Jr. is gunning for the No. 1 spot in next April’s NFL Draft, while Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell could start as a tandem for any other team – or this one, if Anderson wasn’t here. As it is, they’ll split a spot. Then add in sophomore Quandarrius Robinson, who had a breakout spring and could see a lot of snaps against rushing teams, along with signees Jihaad Campbell and Jeremiah Alexander and converted running back/inside linebacker Demouy Kennedy. Keanu Koht also has potential but hasn’t been able to stay healthy; walk-on Christian Johnson has the build for the position but hasn’t made an impact so far. Things are about as good at inside linebacker, where Henry To’o To’o returned for his senior year at middle linebacker. There will likely be a rotation of some kind at weakside linebacker between senior Jaylen Moody and redshirt freshman Deontae Lawson. Moody developed into a key reserve in 2021 and gave the staff a trustworthy option off the bench, while Lawson has explosive potential and has good coverage instincts. Kendrick Blackshire is the next middle linebacker-in-training, although redshirt freshman Ian Jackson has made big strides there over the past year. True freshman Shawn Murphy rounds out the group of scholarshipped players. Injuries inside could be an issue, although a player like Kennedy could slide back inside from his current spot as a reserve edge if needed.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Alabama had a loopy end to the 2021 season, as cornerback went from being a strength with Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis to being manned by young with no experience in the playoffs as injuries hit. Those players – former JUCO transfer Khyree Jackson and rising sophomore Ga’Quincy McKinstry – are now the presumptive starters, and much is expected. Throw in LSU transfer Eli Ricks, and Alabama suddenly has plenty of talent at corner, especially with backups Terrion Arnold, Tre’Quon Fegans, Earl Little II and Jahquez Robinson also in the mix. Ricks was expected to claim Jackson’s starting spot immediately, but injuries and the adjustment to a new defensive style has kept things static since the end of the spring. The most-mentioned of the backups, for that matter, has been the redshirt freshman Arnold. At safety, the starting three are pretty much locked in. With Alabama almost in a full-time nickel now, Brian Branch is as much a starter as anyone. DeMarcco Hellams and Jordan Battle will start at free and strong safety. Off the bench, former Star safety Malachi Moore returns to back up Branch; he was highly regarded as a true freshman but injuries have caused some lasting damage to his game. Moore needs to rebound quickly, or he may be in danger of losing his dime safety spot to whoever loses the Jackson-Ricks battle at cornerback. Sophomores Kristian Story and Devonta Smith will be the reserve deep safeties, and Story is right on the cusp of getting meaningful playing time with the starters. True freshmen Jake Pope and Antonio Kite represent the next wave. There’s usually a walk-on to talk about in the defensive backfield but perhaps not this season; Alabama transfer Joseph Narcisse is the most recognizable name out of 10. Once the Jackson-Ricks battle has worked itself out, that will trigger the setup of the rotation at Star and dime.

SPECIAL TEAMS

There’s some continuity here finally, although Alabama will need to find new return men. Will Reichard will be the placekicker and James Burnip the punter, and Troy transfer Jack Martin will be the top backup at both spots. Kneeland Hibbett will start at long-snapper, and Burnip will likely be the holder. There are some future names to watch at kicker and punter; Chase Allen can handle either role and was Alabama’s kickoff specialist for a time two seasons ago. Walk-on freshmen Nick Serpa and Upton Bellenfant are likely to form the crux of the battle for Burnip’s job a couple of years from now. The return game must be rebuilt, but there is talent to do it. JoJo Earle has flashed as a punt and kick returner before, but he also drops the ball more than is comfortable. Ga’Quincy McKinstry is an option, as is Jase McClellan and a host of others. Jahmyr Gibbs will likely be the featured kickoff returner if his Georgia Tech resume is any indication.

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