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DeBoer’s first season begins with a post-spring exam

Kalen DeBoer’s first spring practice at Alabama is in the books. There are some minor transfer portal-related items to clean up over the summer, but for the most part the Alabama program is in a stable position. Now what?

This is where different programs demand different analyses and ultimately, different outcomes. It’s one thing to have a “solid offseason” at a school like Baylor or North Carolina State; the words mean something entirely different at Alabama.

In this post-spring postmortem, we take a look at some of the questions facing Alabama football as it heads into summer offseason work and later, fall camp.

What’s the plan at quarterback?

This isn’t simply a question of whether Jalen Milroe hangs onto the starting job. One of the biggest surprises of the spring is that Alabama finished camp with the same number of quarterbacks with which it started camp. Both Ty Simpson and Dylan Lonergan chose to stay out of the transfer portal, and Austin Mack remains on roster as a developmental quarterback. Now, how does DeBoer choose to use all of his assets?

Does Milroe play the lion’s share of the snaps again? Does Simpson get more work while games are still on the line? Is there an open competition for the job at all? DeBoer very early on in the process identified Milroe as the starter and has managed the team as if he’ll be the starter in the fall, so we’ll go with that. The question is whether there will be enough work to keep at least Simpson and Lonergan interested as the season goes along … and as a related item, how much patience DeBoer will show in Milroe if he struggles in the new offensive system.

Will Alabama play more players in general?

We were going to talk next about the logjam at wide receiver, which features a lot of names but not a lot of proven production. Every player Alabama is counting on for 2024 has a clear upside and a clear downside: Germie Bernard is familiar with the system, but hasn’t been “the guy” before. Kendrick Law has impressive physical skills but to date, but hasn’t had the production. Kobe Prentice is reliable, but relatively undersized. Jalen Hale has the profile of a top-level X receiver, but is currently hurt. Incoming freshman Ryan Williams has all the tools, but will report as a 17-year-old who could stand to add some weight.

The larger question, though, is whether Alabama will play more players in general under DeBoer than it did under Saban, who took a very NFL-style approach to player personnel. Saban’s approach worked in that it got the playmakers on the field for more snaps, but it suffered when key players were lost to injury and the backups were thrust into the game without a lot of experience. Will Alabama play its usual 6-7 receivers, or will DeBoer opt to go with 9-10 regulars? Will Alabama rotate more at linebacker, defensive tackle and cornerback? In an age where the transfer portal forces coaches’ hands before the players are actually ready to play, roster/snap management is going to be a yearly issue.

How did Bama make out in the transfer portal, and what needs are left?

Post-spring, Alabama lost a pair of defensive backs (Tony Mitchell, Peyton Woodyard), a defensive lineman buried down the depth chart (Khurtiss Perry) and, in a significant surprise to many, James Brockermeyer, who had posted a solid spring at center. On the plus side, Alabama added the best college kicker in the country, Graham Nicholson, and also brought in safety Kameron Howard. As of this writing, Alabama is also expected to add DBs DaShawn Jones and King Mack and OL Geno VanDeMark.

Looking in the short-term, Alabama probably needs an additional offensive lineman and an inside linebacker. There may also be room for a wide receiver if Bama can find the right one. If Alabama simply adds all the names in the first paragraph, it will be considered an all-around win for DeBoer, especially when counting earlier transfers like Germie Bernard and Parker Brailsford, and playing the reverse card on Kadyn Proctor’s exit to Iowa. The transfer portal is going to be as big a part of college football recruiting going forward, and DeBoer’s initial effort in Tuscaloosa looks strong.

Judging from A-Day, where are the potential weaknesses in this team?

Offensive tackle didn’t look terrible at A-Day, but it didn’t look great, either. Having Proctor back will certainly help, and if Bama can add Geno VanDeMark, it will solidify the position enough that it won’t be a major concern anymore. VanDeMark can play multiple positions on the line, and both Elijah Pritchett and Wilkin Formby gave encouraging performances at times in the spring.

Defensive back is the other major area of concern, which is why adding another transfer or two is crucial, especially at cornerback. Domani Jackson looked good enough this spring to answer some questions that had followed him from USC, and true freshmen Zabien Brown, Jaylen Mbakwe and Zavier Mincey did well enough at the other spot to take it down from emergency status, but Alabama doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver right now if injuries pop up. Even with the losses of Tony Mitchell and Peyton Woodyard, safety appears to be in good hands (again, barring injury). The stealth weakness to the defense is probably inside linebacker, due to depth. Alabama has virtually no options there if the starters get dinged up, as none of the younger players appear ready to contribute yet.

Is this all actually going to work?

That’s the million-dollar question: Will Kalen DeBoer’s systems and general personality fit in at a Deep South program with an identity grounded in defense for literally the last century?

So far, things look promising. DeBoer’s recruiting is about on par with Nick Saban’s most recent classes, and DeBoer might actually have a superior understanding of the transfer portal. As to the issue of fit, the jury is still out on that one – and the first loss or two will probably send some fans wondering whether the sky is about to fall on their heads.

Looking to the 2024 schedule, the Sept. 14 road game at Wisconsin could wind up being an actual test, but the first really big checkpoint comes Sept. 28 when Georgia visits. Alabama later gets a three-week run of Tennessee, Missouri and LSU that should prove challenging, but none of those games are sure losses. Finishing at Oklahoma, followed by Auburn at home, isn’t ideal, but isn’t unmanageable, either. The only game on that list that will find Alabama a clear underdog will be the Georgia game, and even then, it’s a home game for the Crimson Tide.

Whether DeBoer can navigate these challenges in 2024 and set himself up for future success is another question entirely. The last time Alabama replaced a legend, things looked to be going fairly well until Ray Perkins decided to jump ship back to the NFL. Still, Alabama went just a decade between the end of the Paul “Bear” Bryant era and its next national championship, under Gene Stallings. It just took three different head coaches in those 10 years to do it.

The best-case scenario is that Alabama made another 20-year hire when it tapped DeBoer to follow Nick Saban. Based on what we saw this spring, there are no guarantees, but the future remains bright.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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