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Spring football: What is a ‘rebuilding’ year, anyway?

Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa has changed the parameters of what qualifies as success. By default, he has also changed the definition of “rebuilding,” especially compared to what the term means at other programs.

Typically, teams enter “rebuilding mode” following losing seasons, or after a string of losing seasons. At Alabama, it simply means the Crimson Tide failed to reach the College Football Playoff in 2022. With spring practice underway, here’s our analysis of the 2023 Crimson Tide team, with a special emphasis on our annual “Five Position Groups to Watch,” highlighting those areas of the team in greatest question.

The Five

1. Quarterback

Competing: Jalen Milroe (So.), Ty Simpson (RS Fr.), Eli Holstein (Fr.), Dylan Lonergan (Fr.), Cade Carruth (RS Fr.)

Departed: Bryce Young, Amanni Stewart

Why We’re Optimistic: Years of consistent recruiting gives Alabama four legitimate options at the top of the depth chart.

Why We’re Pessimistic: Inexperience reigns, and the most veteran of the group (Milroe) may be out of place in the new system.

Analysis: Any time the quarterback position turns over, you can bet this position group is going to lead our list of concerns. Bryce Young may wind up being the top pick in this year’s NFL Draft, and while that is certainly good for program bragging rights, it’s not good for the futures of the 2023 team.

Jalen Milroe came off the bench to replace Young at Arkansas last year when Young hurt his shoulder, and he did a fine job finishing off that game despite running what would be generously described as an “emergency playbook.” The following week, however, Milroe barely escaped a home game against Texas A&M that was marred by multiple turnovers and bad decisions.

There is legitimate gripes to be had with former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien for this, as O’Brien did not appear to modify his playsheet to accommodate Milroe’s talent set. Milroe is not Bryce Young and will never be; he’s more akin to recent Florida QB Anthony Richardson.

The offense would have to be designed heavily around zone-read running plays and RPOs with Milroe as its starter. New offensive coordinator Tommy Rees is a pronounced pro-style kind of coach, though, and more importantly, reportedly has an extreme dislike for players that can’t minimize mistakes. This would all seem to point to Ty Simpson as likely starter, but Simpson’s game experience so far has been limited to handing off at the end of four blowouts, with the occasional throws to down-the-depth-chart receivers. While Simpson isn’t the runner that Milroe is, he’s probably as athletic as Young, and that’s more than enough.

A pair of true freshmen, Eli Holstein and Dylan Lonergan, are cut from the Simpson mold as well, and Holstein has a physical presence to rival Milroe. With the transfer portal now firmly ensconced at the college level, it’s unlikely Saban can string along Milroe and Simpson until fall camp. The job will probably come down to one of those two, with the loser transferring, and Holstein and Lonergan will fight over the backup job in fall camp.

Prediction: Simpson wins a close battle, while Milroe either moves on to another program or is moved to a different position.

2. Safety

Competing: Malachi Moore (Sr.), Terrion Arnold (So.), Caleb Downs (Fr.), Brayson Hubbard (Fr.), Antonio Kite (RS Fr.), Earl Little II (RS Fr.), Jake Pope (RS Fr.), Jahquez Robinson (Jr.), Devonta Smith (Jr.), Kristian Story (Jr.), Tony Mitchell (Fr.)

Departed: DeMarcco Hellams, Jordan Battle, Brian Branch

Why We’re Optimistic: There’s a lot of big-time talent here, good overall depth, and several of the candidate have better cover skills than the upperclassmen they are replacing.

Why We’re Pessimistic: Much smaller size profile across the 2023 group, and very little experience in crucial situations.

Analysis: For all practical purposes, Alabama no longer runs a 3-4 defense so much as it runs a 3-3-5, or 4-2-5/2-4-5 hybrid, but with over/under concepts. All three of Alabama’s starting safeties from a year ago are in the NFL Draft pool, either by choice or by exhausting their eligibility.

The only known quantity for the upcoming season is dime safety Malachi Moore, who was Alabama’s starting Star safety as a true freshman before being overtaken by Brian Branch, is going to start somewhere. It might be at Star again, or it could (and probably will) be at one of the two high safety positions. Moore isn’t the player he was as a freshman, thanks to knee and back injuries that have robbed him of a step, so getting him out of the Star position is probably the best long-term solution.

The question then becomes, how does Alabama set the rest of the alignment?

We’ve included CB Terrion Arnold in our list here because Alabama has other options at that spot and Arnold was originally recruited as a safety, but the most likely names to fill the other two positions are Earl Little, Jahquez Robinson, Caleb Downs and Kristian Story. Story played more as the 2022 season went along and was the top backup at both high safety spots, but he is listed on the roster as a senior, meaning he either isn’t taking his redshirt year or the coaches didn’t give him one – and neither portends a lot of playing time for the upcoming year, as it might indicate Story is simply moving through the program.

Little is competing at corner and safety both. Robinson was the backup at Star and dime in 2022, so if Moore vacates Star for a high spot, Robinson would seem to be next man up. Robinson and Little were both recruited as corners originally. The name to watch here is Caleb Downs, who jumped off the screen in his high school highlights. Fellow freshman Tony Mitchell’s status is uncertain after an offseason arrest on drug charges; he is currently suspended.

Prediction: Moore starts at one of the high safety spots, alongside either Downs or Story. Little starts at Star ahead of Robinson, who we think will play dime. Devonta Smith backs up all spots and may play dime ahead of Robinson.

3. Tight End

Competing: C.J. Dippre (Jr.), Danny Lewis Jr. (RS Fr.), Miles Kitselman (Jr.), Robbie Ouzts (Jr.), Amari Niblack (So.), Elijah Brown (RS Fr.), Ty Lockwood (Fr.), Charlie Skehan (Sr.), Jax Porter (RS Fr.), Adam Thorsland (Jr.), Robert Ellis (Sr.), Peyton Fox (So.), Coby McNeal (So.)

Departed: Cameron Latu, Kendall Randolph

Why We’re Optimistic: Maryland transfer C.J. Dippre gives Alabama a proven playmaker at the spot, and Danny Lewis Jr. is drawing raves in early camp work.

Why We’re Pessimistic: This group has been beset by injuries, recruiting misses and generally inconsistent play for multiple seasons.

Analysis: There may not have been a more important transfer portal addition to any SEC contender than Alabama getting C.J. Dippre to move from Maryland to Tuscaloosa. Dippre is a physical tight end with good hands and a chippy attitude as a blocker, and in general is seen as an upgrade across all fronts over Cameron Latu.

Latu was effective when healthy, but he stayed nicked up for two seasons as the starter, and Robbie Ouzts couldn’t stay healthy as his backup, either. That led Alabama to rotating true freshmen at times last year, as well as recruiting a converted defensive lineman out of JUCO (Miles Kitselman) who had been playing football at all for just two years, and using a converted offensive lineman (Kendall Randolph) in far too many key situations. By the time Ouzts finally got healthy at year’s end, the damage had already been done.

Alabama must find a starting H-back, and Ouzts is the odds-on favorite there when he’s healthy, but he’s missing spring practice yet again. The good news is that Danny Lewis Jr. seems to have taken a big step forward in his development. The big name among fans is Amari Niblack, who is tall and is a fluid receiver, but Niblack is a worse blocker than O.J. Howard was at the same stage of Howard’s career. Niblack is more or less a big wideout playing tight end right now, so fans will need to be patient, but he’s probably the starting H as long as Ouzts is sidelined.

Miles Kitselman started the 2022 opener but then faded late. Elijah Brown, despite being ranked more highly than Lewis on Signing Day, wasn’t even close to being ready for this level. Brown, Kitselman and Niblack all three have questions to answer lest they be passed by signee Ty Lockwood, a good receiver who has good physical tools.

At least three of the walk-ons have a chance to play: Charlie Skehan has some game experience and always seems to be on the fringe of the discussion at H-back. Jax Porter has good size, and chose to walk-on at Alabama over getting a scholarship from SMU. The intriguing name is Colorado State transfer Coby McNeal, a Marine Corps veteran who will be 27 years old by the time the opener rolls around.

Prediction: Dippre runs away with this and Lewis will be his backup. Ouzts, Lewis and Niblack fight for H, and all three will play at some point based on the situation. The real question is whether Alabama can keep the injury bug from biting.

4. Defensive Line

Competing: Jaheim Oatis (So.), Justin Eboigbe (Sr.), Jamil Burroughs (Jr.), Jah-Marien Latham (Jr.), Tim Smith (Sr.), James Smith (Fr.), Tim Keenan (So.), Anquin Barnes (So.), Monkell Goodwine (So.), Isaiah Hastings (RS Fr.), Edric Hill (Fr.), Hunter Osborne (Fr.), Damon Payne (So.), Khurtiss Perry (RS Fr.), Jordan Renaud (Fr.), Chase Quigley (Jr.)

Departed: D.J. Dale, Byron Young

Why We’re Optimistic: Depth galore, and the return of Justin Eboigbe takes a lot of uncertainty off the table.

Why We’re Pessimistic: Wildly inconsistent and overall, disappointing in 2022. Byron Young’s departure also hurts.

Analysis: The pressure is on this group to get better, fast. Relative to talent, probably no unit underperformed like the defensive line in 2022, “beating out” the wide receiver group for that “honor.”

The return of Justin Eboigbe is both welcomed and unexpected, given it was a neck injury that knocked him out in the first place and threatened his career entire. He’ll be a steadying force on the outside, a position that has seen both great potential rise, and then crash soon after. Having Eboigbe on one side will allow the coaches to pit Tim Smith and Jamil Burroughs, two impressive physical specimens who have struggled to put together stretches of consistent play, against each other for a starting job. The loser of that battle will provide depth along with primarily Jah-Marien Latham and Damon Payne, a pair of tweeners who still managed to provide a boost at times last year.

In the middle, Jaheim Oatis continues to get in better physical condition and should nail down the starting nosetackle job, but D.J. Dale is no longer around to back him up. Dale had quietly become one of Alabama’s steadiest and most valuable linemen by the end of 2022, so it’s highly important to identify a secondary noseguard from a group that includes Tim Keenan, Jah-Marien Latham, Anquin Barnes and true freshman James Smith. Latham is probably the most likely of those names, at least at the beginning of the year, but his smaller size makes him vulnerable on running downs. Isaiah Hastings is another flex player who could get some work in the middle.

Damon Payne could also play a role there. Of the younger players, Khurtiss Perry – who would probably be more at home in a 4-man front – has made some noise early on in camp and could give Alabama a situational option at end when it goes with a smaller front. It’s critical that Alabama figure this group out in spring camp and focus on development in the fall, rather than having the uncertainty drag into August. Given that the offense is expected to struggle a bit early on, the defense will have to carry the load for a bit, and it all starts up front.

Prediction: Eboigbe, Oatis and – at least at the beginning – Tim Smith will probably be the starters, with Burroughs, Latham, Payne and maybe James Smith as the second group.

5. Wide Receiver

Competing: Malik Benson (Jr.), Ja’Corey Brooks (Jr.), Isaiah Bond (So.), Jermaine Burton (Sr.), Kobe Prentice (So.), Shazz Preston (RS Fr.), Kendrick Law (So.), Emmanuel Henderson Jr. (So.), Thaiu Jones-Bell (Jr.), Jalen Hale (Fr.), Jaren Hamilton (Fr.), Cole Adams (Fr.), Sam Willoughby (Sr.), Zarian Courtney (Sr.)

Departed: Christian Leary, Traeshon Holden, JoJo Earle, Aaron Anderson, Jacoby Boykins, Tyler Harrell, Bret Bolin

Why We’re Optimistic: From an attitude standpoint, there’s been quite a bit of addition by subtraction. Plus, JUCO transfer Malik Benson looks like a prime-time talent.

Why We’re Pessimistic: Consistency – and especially, attention to detail – was sorely lacking in 2022.

Analysis: It was a toss-up with the running back group as to which one would take the fifth position, but we’re going with receiver simply because the 2022 group was such a train wreck.

Alabama watched five scholarshipped receivers walk through the doors of the transfer portal over the offseason, and despite the immense amount of talent that left with them, only a couple of them will be missed at all. The biggest addition came in the form of JUCO signee Malik Benson, who we’ve raved about since first seeing him in junior college.

Benson has the potential to be as impactful as Jameson Williams was, albeit in a slightly different way. While Benson certainly has the top-end speed needed for the position, he also brings value on shorter routes. He will almost certainly displace a returning starter; the question simply will be which one that is.

Ja’Corey Brooks, Isaiah Bond and Jermaine Burton finished the year as the top group, with Kobe Prentice and Kendrick Law the primary bench players. All of them return along with three players who didn’t play nearly as much, but weren’t completely out of the conversation, either (Emmanuel Henderson, Shazz Preston, Thaiu Jones-Bell).

Freshmen Jalen Hale, Jaren Hamilton and Cole Adams all have the talent necessary to play early. One of the challenges for the offensive staff will be settling on a consistent playing rotation.

After years of arguably playing too few players, in 2022 Alabama went the other way, and the result was that younger receivers couldn’t get into a rhythm. It was only once bowl season arrived, and Alabama lost four players to early opt-outs, that it was forced to make do with a smaller rotation. The Sugar Bowl may have been the most cohesive game Bama’s receivers played all year as a result. This group will revolve around Benson’s health, and in getting steady improvement from the second group.

Prediction: Benson, Brooks and Burton start, with Bond playing as much as the starters. Prentice and Law will be the other primary backups, along with perhaps Henderson.

Quick Takes on the Others – Offensive Line

Competing: J.C. Latham (Jr.), Tyler Booker (So.), Seth McLaughlin (Sr.), Darrian Dalcourt (Sr.), Elijah Pritchett (RS Fr.), Terrence Ferguson (So.), Jaeden Roberts (So.), Olaus Alinen (Fr.), James Brockermeyer (So.), Wilkin Formby (Fr.), Miles McVay (Fr.), Roq Montgomery (Fr.), Kadyn Proctor (Fr.), Graham Roten (Jr.), Wilder Hines (So.)

Departed: Damieon George Jr., Javion Cohen, Tanner Bowles, Amari Kight, Tommy Brockermeyer

Why We’re Optimistic: The development of J.C. Latham, Tyler Booker and Elijah Pritchett gives us hope, and true freshman Kadyn Proctor is a next-level talent.

Why We’re Pessimistic: Center and left guard are still problem spots, and a couple of unexpected transfer-outs didn’t help.

Analysis: Incremental improvement should, by itself, be enough, so long as Alabama can identify a new left guard and a backup center. Darrian Dalcourt was a surprise return as a graduate student, and he opened camp as the leader at LG.

The keys here are Terrence Ferguson and Jaeden Roberts, because one of them needs to push Dalcourt and the other needs to show he can be an emergency center. James Brockermeyer needs to continue to develop at center, too. The freshman class looks promising, with Kadyn Proctor a possibility to start at a guard slot at some point. J.C. Latham is in his get-ready-for-the-NFL year, while Elijah Pritchett looks like a young Chris Samuels.

Prediction: From left to right, Pritchett-Dalcourt/Ferguson-McLaughlin-Booker-Latham.

Running Backs

Competing: Jase McClellan (Sr.), Roydell Williams (Sr.), Jamarion Miller (So.), Justice Haynes (Fr.), Jonathan Bennett (Sr.)

Departed: Jahmyr Gibbs, Trey Sanders

Why We’re Optimistic: Jamarion Miller’s development has him on an impressive path, and true freshman Justice Haynes looks like a future star.

Why We’re Pessimistic: Depth isn’t great, and presumptive starter Jase McClellan has never been able to stay healthy.

Analysis: If McClellan can get healthy and stay that way, this unit could be a strength of the team. If McClellan falls victim to (insert random injury here) then there’s potential for trouble. Roydell Williams doesn’t look like the kind of back who can carry the load every down for an SEC contender, so the question is whether sophomore Jamarion Miller or signee Justice Haynes are ready to handle blitz pick-ups and other nuances of the position. Jonathan Bennett is a walk-on, but has some ability, and Alabama will welcome its other signee, Richard Young, at the start of fall camp. But it must figure out what it has at the top of the depth chart, as well as the bottom of it.

Prediction: McClellan is the man unless or until he gets hurt. Then, it’s a Miller-Haynes fight.

Outside Linebackers

Competing: Dallas Turner (Jr.), Chris Braswell (Sr.), Quandarrius Robinson (Sr.), Jeremiah Alexander (RS Fr.), Keanu Koht (So.), Qua Russaw (Fr.)

Departed: Will Anderson, Demouy Kennedy

Why We’re Optimistic: Despite losing Will Anderson, any team would drool over the prospect of having Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell on the same team.

Why We’re Pessimistic: Turner is the only player in this group proven to have good coverage skills.

Analysis: This is probably the strength of the team, and as long as Chris Braswell can continue to develop the parts of his game that come into play when he doesn’t have his ears pinned back rushing the quarterback, he and Alabama will both be fine.

Quandarrius Robinson is the most impressive physical specimen of the bunch, and he’ll get the chance to be Alabama’s rotational OLB this year. Keanu Koht has impressive skills but can’t stay healthy long enough to show them. He’ll be in a fight for the other reserve OLB spot along with redshirt freshman Jeremiah Alexander, who didn’t live up to his prep billing in 2022, and signee Qua Russaw, who could grow into almost a pure defensive end if he’s not careful.

When fall arrives, Alabama will welcome Keon Keeley and Yhonzae Pierre, which is the effect of opening up a bank vault full of money and dumping gold bars in on top of it. Meanwhile, Dallas Turner and Braswell both could wind up first-round draft picks next April.

Prediction: Turner and Braswell will retain their spots, while Robinson probably backs up both sides.

Inside Linebackers

Competing: Kendrick Blackshire (Jr.), Deontae Lawson (So.), Jihaad Campbell (So.), Shawn Murphy (RS Fr.), Ian Jackson (So.), Justin Jefferson (Jr.), Trezmen Marshall (Sr.), Kyle Flood Jr. (Sr.), Bennett Whisenhunt (Sr.), Jordan Smith (Sr.)

Departed: Jaylen Moody, Henry To’o To’o

Why We’re Optimistic: Deontae Lawson looks like a star, and there is a frightful level of competition for the other ILB spot.

Why We’re Pessimistic: MLB could wind up in the hands of a smaller LB, which didn’t work at times during the Henry To’o To’o years.

Analysis: You have to stretch to say something bad about this group, and the size issue is just about the only concern. JUCO transfer Justin Jefferson is right in the middle of the fight for MLB, but he would be the smallest MLB of the Saban era and would recall some of the linebackers of the Mike Shula regime. Deontae Lawson isn’t competing in the spring, but he has WLB locked down.

The real fight – Jefferson versus Kendrick Blackshire, Jihaad Campbell, Shawn Murphy, Ian Jackson and Georgia transfer Trezmen Marshall – is all about finding a starting middle linebacker and getting the depth rotation set. Marshall couldn’t crack the regular starting lineup at Georgia, although he did play a bunch, and his early camp work has drawn raves. Of the holdovers, Kendrick Blackshire has the best chance of fending off newcomers.

Prediction: Lawson and Marshall start, with Blackshire and Jefferson the primary backups.

Cornerbacks

Competing: Terrion Arnold (So.), Ga’Quincy McKinstry (Jr.), Tre’Quon Fegans (So.), Earl Little II (RS Fr.), Antonio Kite (RS Fr.), Jahlil Hurley (Fr.), Dezz Ricks (Fr.), Devonta Smith (Jr.), Jahquez Robinson (Jr.)

Departed: Eli Ricks, Khyree Jackson

Why We’re Optimistic: McKinstry is Bama’s next NFL star, and Terrion Arnold was promising at times in his first year at corner.

Why We’re Pessimistic: The loss of Eli Ricks hurts, and the prospective depth chart doesn’t make for a lot of clean fits.

Analysis: This one basically comes down to Arnold’s development. Bama’s coaches have seen Arnold as a CB more than a safety, which is what recruiting analysts predicted, and at times last year it looked like the analysts would prove correct. Arnold may eventually end up at the Star position, and if so, Earl Little could come back over from the Star battle and be a cornerback again.

True freshman Dezz Ricks probably has the inside track to be the primary backup on both sides, although Tre’Quon Fegans has shown flashes in the past. Antonio Kite got into blowouts last year but not enough to burn his redshirt, and signee Jahlil Hurley plays with good technique but may not have the kind of top-end speed Alabama is accustomed to at this spot. Devonta Smith should be considered an emergency option, as would be Jahquez Robinson.

Special Teams

Competing: Will Reichard (Sr.), James Burnip (Jr.), Chase Allen (Sr.), Upton Bellenfant (RS Fr.), Nick Serpa (RS Fr.), Reid Schuback (Jr.), Kneeland Hibbett(SN) (Jr.)

Departed: Jack Martin

Why We’re Optimistic: Reichard’s decision to return for his senior year gives Alabama a Groza Award-level kicker, and James Burnip has developed into a reliable, consistent punter.

Why We’re Pessimistic: No reason to be, unless coverage and return teams can’t get the job done.

Analysis: All of these riches, and Alabama will welcome another top kicker in the fall with the addition of Conor Talty. Talty was probably going to walk into the locker room as the presumptive starter at placekicker, or at least in a fight with senior walk-on Chase Allen, until Will Reichard decided to come back for another shot at a ring.

James Burnip has become a reliable punter, if not an overwhelming one, but the fact he has been able to solidify the holder position has been just as important, if not more so. Getting the coverage and return units whipped into shape is the other, annual issue. Ga’Quincy McKinstry has the punt return position nailed down, but Alabama needs some extra juice on kickoff returns.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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