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2023 Previews: Alabama Crimson Tide

Overview: Alabama finds itself in an unfamiliar spot under Nick Saban – playing catch-up to another program. Georgia has won back-to-back national titles and is the odds-on favorite to win a third straight. For Alabama to derail the Bulldogs, the Crimson Tide must first get back to the SEC Championship Game. If it is going to do that in 2023, it will likely be with defense and a re-commitment to a strong running game. In the spring, the offensive line appeared to be improved, but still a work in progress at spots. The running back group is stacked; the receiver unit, less so. All eyes, though, are on the quarterbacks, and there is currently no clear favorite. 

Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr) 

QB: Av
RB: Ex 
WR: Av 
OL: Vg 
DL: Vg 
LB: Ex 
DB: Ex 
ST: Ex

Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson battled over the spring for the job but neither ever took full control of the spot. At the end of the spring, Alabama took a player out of the transfer portal, Notre Dame’s Tyler Buchner, who new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees had worked with prior to coming to Alabama.

The problem here is that no one stands out, at least not for anything positive. Milroe and Buchner have about the same amount of experience, but both players have been prone to turnovers. Picking a favorite here comes down to whether Alabama wants the player that seems to fit its current system better (Buchner), or whether it wants an uncommon athlete who can make as many plays running the ball as throwing it (Milroe).

Then there is Simpson, who was injured early during the A-Day game. He’s somewhere between Simpson and Buchner as a runner but is probably the best pure passing prospect of the three. He has very little experience, however, and wasn’t sufficiently better with ball security this spring as to be able to move past Milroe. Most believe Buchner will get the first snaps of the year due to his prior working relationship with Rees. If it’s not Buchner, Milroe will probably get the first opportunity.

A pair of true freshmen, Dylan Lonergan and Eli Holstein, could join the mix, especially Lonergan, who was the best quarterback at A-Day, showing unexpected poise. This is really the only position group on the team that isn’t game-tested to the point where concerns are minimal or at least, manageable. The uncomfortable truth is that Alabama will need to put the quarterbacks through a test of fire before anyone knows what Bama really has. The best outcome for all involved is for one of the first three names on the list to show up for fall camp well ahead of the other two and claim the job definitively. 

Alabama has been able to put together impressive running back stables for the entirety of Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa, and this one is no exception. Senior Jase McClellan finally looked fully recovered from a nearly-two-year-old knee injury this spring, and he’ll lead this group. McClellan is a do-it-all kind of back, a plus-runner and receiver who also can handle his blocking assignments well. Behind him, it’s a free-for-all and all the options are good. Fellow senior Roydell Williams will likely settle into a specific role, as his own recovery from a knee injury hasn’t quite caught up to McClellan’s, and Williams isn’t quite the complete back McClellan is anyway. Williams likely will be Alabama’s third-down back, as his receiving and pick-up blocking skills are well-developed. But when it comes time to pound the ball, look for Jamarion Miller and true freshman Justice Haynes to be the go-to players in relief of McClellan. Miller’s aggressive, downhill style makes him a good compliment to the sharp, knifing McClellan, while Haynes has the kind of “wow” factor that excites people.

Another true freshman, Richard Young, wasn’t available for spring practice but is an impressive physical runner with a lot of speed. Walk-on Jonathan Bennett has enough skills to warrant a mention here, too, adding to Bama’s impressive depth. There’s enough talent here – and enough lack of separation – that Alabama figures to be able to go with a committee approach if it wants, focusing on whoever has the hot hand.  

There’s a lot of talent here but most fans are taking the Missouri approach: The receivers are going to have to show it. Alabama lost an entire squadron to the transfer portal, yet only one of the departed players (Aaron Anderson) was really considered a significant loss. Furthermore, Alabama played so many receivers last year that even with all the losses to the transfer portal, the Crimson Tide returns a full complement. Ja’Corey Brooks, Jermaine Burton and JUCO transfer Malik Benson will be the likely starters, with Isaiah Bond and Kobe Prentice nipping at their heels. With the departure of Traeshon Holden, there isn’t a true big-body receiver in the group, though, although both Brooks and Benson check in at the 6’2” mark. Those five plus Kendrick Law and Emmanuel Henderson will probably form the core group, as trying to use more than seven wideouts in a rotation can get unwieldy. In the spring, Bama continued to have a problem with drops, especially from Burton and Bond, but those are the two players Alabama has that are the most likely to give defenses problems. Burton has good separation skills and Bond has so much pure speed that he’s hard to handle.

Of the others, Brooks is the proven vertical threat, while Benson’s JUCO film showed good hands and fluid route-running abilities. Henderson, a converted running back, will probably end up the featured kick returner, and he has gobs of potential. Law’s strong hands and overall physical game make him a valued special teams player and downfield blocker. Prentice is the consummate slot receiver. Whoever plays most out of the Benson-Bond-Prentice-Law group will probably the one who gets the drops under control and can prove able to get separation. The next group up is comprised of holdovers Thaiu Jones-Bell and Shazz Preston, along with true freshmen Jaren Hamilton, Cole Adams and Jalen Hale. Unless one of the youngsters steps up in fall camp, we don’t expect the second group see time outside of blowouts. The tight end group almost deserves its own category, because there is very little transfer from 2022. Kendall Randolph and Cameron Latu are in NFL camps, and Elijah Brown transferred out.

Alabama took a transfer from C.J. Dippre out of Maryland, but he might end up the H-back to Danny Lewis Jr., who arrived on campus late last year and then got hurt. Lewis had a solid spring and may be better suited for the inline tight end spot on this team. Dippre, Amari Niblack and Robbie Ouzts will probably split H-back duties depending on what role is needed, while Miles Kitselman had a solid spring and has the most prototypical tight end body out of the whole group. Signee Ty Lockwood and several quality walk-ons are also in the mix. Of those, Charlie Skehan has played before, while Jax Porter and Coby McNeal both have good size. Unless Niblack puts on more weight or Lewis proves to be a weapon as a receiver, Alabama doesn’t have a true prototype at tight end, but the addition of Dippre helps eliminate a lot of negative possibilities.  

There were some encouraging developments this spring but also some puzzling ones. The negatives stood out clearly at A-Day, as presumptive new left tackle Elijah Pritchett struggled mightily with Alabama’s edge rushers – and the two best of that group didn’t even play. The right side of the line appears to be set, with J.C. Latham and Tyler Booker holding down right tackle and right guard, respectively. Center Seth McLaughlin plays a lot better than he looks, but there is concern for his durability, as he has missed time in both 2021 and 2022 with minor injuries. The two biggest questions for this group are, one, how much of Pritchett’s struggles at A-Day were because of him, and how much was due to the emergence of Quandarrius Robinson and Keanu Koht at Jack linebacker? Second to that, who is going to play left guard?

Sixth-year center Darrian Dalcourt started there at A-Day, and neither wowed anyone nor looked like a swinging gate. He certainly will have a role, given McLaughlin’s injury history, but Dalcourt, too, has missed time the last two years with leg and foot injuries. Terrence Ferguson was never far off Dalcourt’s bumper this spring, but the player the fans want to see more of is true freshman Kadyn Proctor, who is probably going to begin the season no worse than as Bama’s sixth man. Proctor was the top left tackle prospect coming out of high school last year, but Alabama may need him more at guard.

In addition to Proctor and Ferguson, reserves to watch include Jaeden Roberts, who can play guard or tackle, and tackle Wilkin Formby, who was close enough to Proctor to allow Proctor to be tried inside. Olaus Alinen also has a lot of fans as a young tackle prospect, and James Brockermeyer appears to be no worse than a decent backup center. True freshmen Miles McVay and Roq Montgomery round out the other options. Overall depth isn’t as good as in recent years, but there may be more quality top-to-bottom. Getting the left side figured out is the key. 

This was already going to be a hold-your-breath kind of unit, and then Jamil Burroughs exited the program over the summer. There are certainly enough names here, but proven production is low and the defensive line were the biggest underachievers of 2022 outside of the receiver unit. The bright spots are pretty bright, though. Jaheim Oatis returns in the middle of the line, and he is the rare nosetackle with the ability to stay on the field for all downs without needing a pass-rushing specialist to sub on obvious throwing snaps.

Senior Justin Eboigbe was able to return from a scary neck injury and should slide right into the spot vacated by Byron Young, now playing in the NFL. The other spot is now clearly Tim Smiths to lose, now that Burroughs has departed. Smith passes the eye test for sure, but he hasn’t been consistent enough in games and is prone to penalties.

At this point, the depth chart is unsettled, as Burroughs was likely going to be no worse than the top backup at all three slots. True freshman James Smith becomes the reserve nosetackle almost by default, although Tim Keenan may finally be recovered from a knee injury he sustained in his senior year of high school. Of the rest, Jah-Marien Latham is sure to play a lot in certain packages; he is an option at any of the three positions on the line but relies on quickness to offset his smaller size. The closest thing Bama had to a breakout player this spring, other than Burroughs, was Anquin Barnes Jr., who came from being absolutely buried on the depth chart his first two years to probably second-team.

Monkell Goodwine, Khurtiss Perry, Isaiah Hastings, Damon Payne Jr. and signees Hunter Osbourne, Jordan Renaud and Edric Hill are the other possibilities. Of those, Payne has played by far the most minutes, while Goodwine may have the most pure upside. This group has almost the reverse problem of the offensive line: Plenty of depth, but a lot of unknown quantities in regard to star power. 

This will be the strength of the defense. Alabama has the best outside linebacker depth chart in the game right now, as any of six guys could start for 100-plus other teams tomorrow without s single practice. Chris Braswell joins Dallas Turner as the two starters; Braswell may actually be a better pure speed rusher than Turner but Turner has the more complete skill set. Turner’s skill set is so well-rounded that he can play inside linebacker in certain packages. Braswell displayed better coverage skills as the 2022 season went along, which was a hole in his game prior to that.

Quandarrius Robinson and Keanu Koht both broke out in spring ball, especially Koht, who has basically spent two full seasons in the medical tent. Robinson will probably see increased action this year in special three-OLB packages and as the top backup at both the Jack and strongside spots. Jeremiah Alexander has a lot of fans dating back to his prep days, while signee Keon Keeley could be good enough as a true freshman to break through even this stout of a depth chart.

Yhonzae Pierre lit up all-star games over the offseason and while it will probably take some time to acclimate to the college game as a fall enrollee, there are some who believe he has a higher ceiling than even Keeley. Qua Russaw looks like more of a long-term prospect and could grow into a defensive end. The situation at inside linebacker is just as stacked. Deontae Lawson is all but certain to start at one of the two inside spots, but the other is a free-for-all competition between Georgia transfer Trezmen Marshall, JUCO transfer Justin Jefferson, and holdovers Jihad Campbell, Kendrick Blackshire, Ian Jackson and Shawn Murphy.

While most thought Marshall would immediately slot into the vacant spot, Campbell had other plans, and if the season started tomorrow, he would likely be the first name called. Marshall and Jefferson will have roles, however, as Marshall’s speed, energy and solid tackling are too good to keep on the bench. Jefferson, meanwhile, caused serious problems for the quarterbacks at A-Day playing a hybrid dime linebacker/safety spot. He’s about the size of Alabama’s safeties. The most physically imposing of the bunch may be Blackshire, who can be as good as he wants to be, but who has lacked focus in his earlier years on campus. 

The biggest challenge here will be to replace Brian Branch at the Star position. Malachi Moore has spent two years trying to recover from back injuries and other ailments, and finally this spring appeared to have recovered the step he had lost. If Moore can handle Branch’s old responsibilities, it’s game on. Ga’Quincy McKinstry is the best cornerback in the SEC and will be putting together his NFL Draft resume.

The question at corner is whether Terrion Arnold, who was recruited more as a nickel safety than a corner, can continue to hold the off-corner position. He had a mostly solid freshman season but it wasn’t without some shaky moments. The high safety spots, where Alabama will be replacing NFL talent in Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams, are the football equivalent of musical chairs right now: Lots of butts, not many seats. Kristian Story and Caleb Downs held those positions coming out of spring, with Story also competing with Earl Little II at both a high safety and dime safety spot. Downs, a true freshman, is the most highly-regarded safety signee Alabama has had in the defensive backfield since at least Minkah Fitzpatrick.

The room got more crowded over the offseason as Alabama added UAB transfer Jaylen Key and Louisiana transfer Trey Amos. Both are expected to play, which leads to the question of “where?”. Both transfers are primarily safeties although Amos can play corner as well. Alabama also returns Devonta Smith, who missed a good bit of spring work with injury; Jake Pope, who had a breakout A-Day as a high safety; and Antonio Kite, who has risen somewhat surprisingly to the level of third corner.

And then there are the signees: safety Braylen Hubbard, who was the other breakout safety of A-Day, and Jahlil Hurley, Tony Mitchell and Dezz Ricks. Hurley and Ricks will be given time to develop at corner, while Mitchell’s status is still a bit up in the air following an offseason arrest. It would appear four positions are locked in: McKinstry and Arnold at the corners, Moore and Downs at two of the safety slots, and Earl Little figures to be a favorite at a fifth slot. The sixth and seventh spots, the latter of which is situational, would seem to be the two transfers, Story or Smith.  

There are no changes at either kicker spot – Will Reichard took his fifth year and came back for one last run, while James Burnip will punt again and be the holder – or at long snapper, where Kneeland Hibbett has things locked down. The question marks are on the return units, especially kickoffs. Ga’Quincy McKinstry would figure to have the top punt return slot locked down again, although if Alabama wants to limit his exposure there are plenty of candidates from the receiver unit. Emmanuel Henderson seems to have the inside track at the top kick return slot, but running backs Jamarion Miller and Justice Haynes are also part of that discussion.

Others who have been tried, or who figure to be tried at one or the other include Caleb Downs, Thaiu Jones-Bell and Isaiah Bond. Alabama has plenty of athleticism to go around, and as a result the Crimson Tide has become consistently good at kick coverage. There are several reserve kickers adding depth, most notably signee Conor Talty, but walk-on Upton Bellenfant had a solid spring as both a kicker and punter and figures to allow Bama to save a travel spot on the roster by being adept at backing up both spots.  

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