Alabama Football: 7 Players with the Most to Gain in Spring Practices
With Alabama set to begin spring practice in less than a month, Nick Saban and his staff will officially begin their preparations for the upcoming 2014 season.
Chief among his concerns will be replacing a number of key contributors from last season’s 11-2 squad, including finding a successor to quarterback AJ McCarron.
A number of players from the decorated 2013 recruiting class will also be in the spotlight, with former stud recruits such as Derrick Henry, Reuben Foster and Robert Foster all getting a chance to earn valuable reps that could pay dividends in the fall.
Which players on the Tide’s roster have the most to gain in spring practice?
With the departures of C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard, Saban and Kirby Smart will be searching for a pair of new starters in the middle level of the Tide’s defense.
Considering Alabama signed four talented linebackers in the 2014 class and with a talented sophomore such as Reuben Foster in contention for extra snaps this fall, rising junior Reggie Ragland is entering the most critical spring of his career.
The 6’2”, 259-pounder has registered 25 tackles in limited action over his first two seasons. If he can prove he has a firm grasp of the system, he should put himself in a solid position to earn a starting job heading into fall practice.
If he’s unable to lock down a pivotal role entering the summer, members of the decorated freshman linebacker class may cut into the available snaps at his position heading into the fall.
Alabama’s secondary endured its share of rough moments last season, with most of the struggles coming from the corner position.
One of the few bright spots at corner came from the strong play of true freshman Eddie Jackson against Ole Miss. However, he was relatively quiet for the rest of the season due to what Saban described as a typical freshman lull, as noted by Andrew Gribble of AL.com.
This spring, Jackson has to build on his limitless potential and show the staff and his teammates he is focused on bringing the same intensity level to every practice and game moving forward.
While standout freshmen defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen saw plenty of action last season, fellow 2013 class member Dee Liner’s debut campaign consisted of a lone appearance in a game against Tennessee.
Considering both Allen and Robinson are strong bets to be an integral part of the Tide’s rotation along the defensive line, it’s important for Liner to assert himself this spring.
The 6’3”, 281-pounder is a versatile lineman who recorded 23 sacks over his final two prep seasons. With the Tide looking to upgrade their pass rush, Liner has an opportunity to step up and answer the bell starting with next month’s practices.
Alabama loses a pair of dependable receivers in Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell, but there are a number of promising young pass-catchers anxiously awaiting a chance to crack the rotation.
Atop that list is former 5-star recruit and redshirt freshman Robert Foster.
As Gribble of AL.com details, the buzz has quietly been building for the 6’2”, 185-pound Foster.
Foster has the size and athleticism to bring an explosive element to the outside receiver position opposite Amari Cooper.
Perhaps no underclassman enters the spring with more fanfare than rising sophomore running back Derrick Henry.
After a slow start to his freshman season, the 6’3”, 238-pound Henry exploded in the Sugar Bowl loss against Oklahoma by accounting for 161 yards of total offense and two scores on just nine touches.
Henry will carry that momentum into spring with an eye on pushing T.J. Yeldon for carries as the lead back in the Tide’s offense.
Regardless of the outcome in that battle, it’s important for Henry to keep his foot on the gas and continue to establish himself as one of the Tide’s most valuable offensive weapons.
Mario Cristobal’s offensive line unit must replace a pair of starters, and the group as a whole has work to do in establishing the type of continuity the Tide have enjoyed up front in previous years.
Considering the line’s struggles toward the end of the 2013 season, it’s a safe bet that every spot will be up for grabs entering the spring.
Rising sophomore Grant Hill, who Cyrus Kouandjio described to Gribble as a “man-child,” saw meaningful reps last season.
With that type of experience already under his belt, expect Hill to contend for a starting spot in 2014.
With the heavily anticipated summer arrival of Florida State quarterback transfer Jacob Coker, the remaining five participants in the quarterback battle have the spring stage left to mount a push for the starting job.
Senior Blake Sims has the experience of being in the program, but whether he can complement his running ability to be efficient enough as a passer remains to be seen.
However, don't expect his seniority to help him in this derby, either. As Gribble detailed, Saban spoke about the quarterback situation for 2014 during one of his weekly radio appearances last October and was noncommittal on the idea of handing over the reins to Sims.
"Not at all," Saban said. "Not at all."
Sophomore Alec Morris and redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman possess all the physical tools necessary to become SEC-caliber passers. Incoming freshman David Cornwell also fits the bill physically, but his first spring at the college level will likely entail fully recovering from a torn ACL suffered during his senior season at the prep level.
Redshirt freshman Parker McLeod is a quarterback who possesses the game-manager elements that have been a staple of Saban’s past successes at the position.
While all five passers have characteristics that bring something different to the table, the pending arrival of Coker puts pressure on all of them to prove their abilities this spring. Whether or not one of them seizes the opportunity to make a statement will top the list of the most intriguing storylines of spring practice at the Capstone.