Alabama Crimson Tide Football: Spring Practice Position Battle Tracker
As the University of Alabama football team returned to the practice fields Monday, it’s as if the preliminaries have all been completed.
The Crimson Tide had held four team workouts before spring break, which for many players was sort of the acclimation period, especially the eight early enrollees including junior college transfers.
However, now begins the three-week buildup to the A-Day scrimmage at Bryant-Denny Stadium on April 19, when some jobs will be won and other front-runners to start in the fall established.
Alabama is in need of four new starters on offense and at least seven on defense, but there are really only a few spots that aren’t up for grabs. Coach Nick Saban has made it clear that some of the self-admiring attitudes that hurt the Crimson Tide last season won’t be tolerated.
“I think that immature people and immature players sort of think that life’s going to give into their demands,” the coach said. “Mature people know that I have to give into life’s demands. If you really want to advance in this world, you’ve got to kind of do what you need to do to be successful, and most of the time that gets defined by somebody else.
“Like your boss. He defines the expectation for you, so if you want to advance, you need to do a good job. We need everybody to buy in and do a good job for what we need them to do so that we can be successful as a team.”
Here’s a look at some of the players to keep an eye on in April.
With quarterback Jacob Coker not transferring to Alabama until after the semester ends, as he has to graduate from Florida State in order to be eligible to play without having to sit out a year, per NCAA rules, the spring will be like a position-battle appetizer for the main course expected during training camp.
Senior Blake Sims spent his spring break working with a quarterback coach (while Coker visited Tuscaloosa to learn more of the offense) and needs to show that he’s both ready for the starting responsibilities and won’t try to run for a first down on every other snap.
Overall, he’s played in 23 games for the Crimson Tide, including eight last season, when he completed 18 of 29 passes for 167 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions to go with 15 carries for 61 rushing yards.
For the spring, his main competition is sophomore Alec Morris, who played briefly against Chattanooga but didn’t attempt a pass.
After preferred walk-on Luke Del Rio transferred to Oregon State, redshirt freshmen Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod will help establish the pecking order with early enrollee David Cornwell (6’5”, 241 lbs), who is coming off a torn ACL.
While AJ McCarron finished second for the Heisman Trophy and won the Maxwell Award as college football’s most outstanding player, the last quarterback other than him or Greg McElroy to start for the Crimson Tide was John Parker Wilson in the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 2008 season.
It should be remembered, though, that both McCarron (2011) and McElroy (2009) both won a national championship their first year as a starter.
9. Defensive Ends
Even though both of last year’s starters, Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson, have moved on, the general thought heading into the spring was that there may not be much of a competition for the every-down jobs.
That, actually, turned out to be not true.
Coming in, the known quantities were two players who stood out as true freshmen in 2013, especially A’Shawn Robinson, a 5-star recruit, per 247Sports, who ended up leading the Crimson Tide in sacks with 5.5.
“I didn’t really expect it, but that was my goal to play as much as I possibly can and help the team win,” Robinson said at the Sugar Bowl. “Coming in, I saw everyone putting in the work, so I felt like I had to get that exact same way, and that’s what I did.”
He and Jonathan Allen combined for more tackles for a loss and sacks than their starting counterparts. Robinson had 38 tackles, including eight for a loss, while Allen had 16 tackles, three for a loss and a half-sack.
Meanwhile, sophomore Dalvin Tomlinson missed most of the 2013 season following a torn ACL, and D.J. Pettway is back as well after getting kicked out of school last year. He went the junior college route to straighten his life out and hopefully return. Last year, he tallied 18.5 tackles for loss and an impressive 11.5 sacks for his junior college national champion East Mississippi.
The player to keep an eye out for, though, may be his junior college teammate Jarran Reed (6’4”, 310 lbs), who made 66 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss as a defensive tackle. He too has joined the Crimson Tide and is already getting a long look at defensive end—which could result in a very large defensive line.
8. Running Backs
There aren’t too many teams at any level in which the player on pace to set its career rushing record can be seriously pushed by a teammate, but junior T.J. Yeldon and sophomore Derrick Henry are anything but typical.
With 1,235 rushing yards on 207 carries in 2013, Yeldon became just the fifth running back in Crimson Tide history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, joining Johnny Musso (1970-71), Bobby Humphrey (1986-87), Shaun Alexander (1998-99) and Kenneth Darby (2004-05).
He needs just 1,222 yards to become the Crimson Tide’s all-time leading rusher (3,565, Alexander, 1996-99) and returns as the clear incumbent. But everything behind him is a question mark.
Henry was the buzz of the Sugar Bowl after moving up to second on the depth chart, and in relief, the 6’3”, 238-pound running back had 100 rushing yards on eight carries with a touchdown and turned his first career reception into a 61-yard score.
Just as impressive—and a strong indicator of his improvement—was the blitz pickup on AJ McCarron’s 67-yard bomb for a touchdown to wide receiver DeAndrew White.
“Derrick had a really good bowl practice,” Coach Nick Saban said after the game. “Actually, we decided that he was our second-best back going into this game, and we were going to give him an opportunity based on his performance in practice and what he had done and the confidence that he had gained throughout the course of the season in terms of knowing what to do and playing fast.
“[He] certainly had an outstanding game tonight and did a really good job for us, and I think he has a bright future.”
Junior Kenyan Drake was second in rushing last season with 694 yards on 92 carries, while Henry had 35 carries for 382. Sophomore Altee Tenpenny is also looking for a bigger role this season.
7. Outside Linebackers
Although Adrian Hubbard’s statistics weren’t the most impressive with the Crimson Tide, it’s important to note that his position, strong-side linebacker, was usually pulled in obvious passing situations to get an extra defensive back on the field.
If junior Dillon Lee lands the starting “Sam” job, he may not have that problem.
The versatile player has spent most of his first two years with the Crimson Tide learning both the inside and outside linebacker positions, so while he could play the strong-side spot in the base defense, coaches could also slide him to the interior, weak-side linebacker or “Will,” when the nickelback enters the game.
Lee was listed as Hubbard’s backup last season and played in all 13 games, with 16 tackles and two quarterback hurries.
With apologies to comedian Steve Martin, his teammates have described him as “wild” and “crazy,” a Clay Matthews III-type player who is just relentless.
“That guy’s crazy,” former safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said at the Sugar Bowl. “Dillon Lee’s a beast. He’s going to be that player next year.”
Coaches are also giving junior Reggie Ragland a look at outside linebacker as well, although he’s primarily been an inside linebacker thus far.
6. Wide Receivers
Everyone already knows about Amari Cooper—who figures to get a lot of preseason All-SEC, if not All-American, recognition this summer—and Christion Jones—the standout return specialist who is established in the slot—but there may not be much doubt about who will be the other starting wide receiver in the fall.
“I think you’re going to be talking about DeAndrew White a lot,” former safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said at the Sugar Bowl—and with good reason.
White finished 2013 with a stellar performance against Oklahoma, with 139 yards on just three catches and a touchdown. Surprisingly, he had more receiving yards against the Sooners than the seven previous games combined (93 on 10 receptions), and for the season, he had 32 catches for 534 yards.
But while White has been out this spring with an unspecified injury, the rest of the receiving corps has been jockeying for position. Granted, the Crimson Tide would like to go three deep at each spot, but there are obviously only so many balls to go around.
Sophomore Chris Black has shown some real flashes.
Teammates believe that sophomore Raheem Falkins could emerge to be the next clutch receiver, sort of like Kevin Norwood.
Coaches were so high on Robert Foster that they nearly burned his redshirt status midway through last season.
Redshirt freshman ArDarius Stewart got an early-spring look at safety but is already back at wide receiver.
True freshman Cameron Sims—a 6’4”, 199-pound 4-star prospect from Monroe (La.) Ouachita Parish, per 247Sports—appears to be off to a good start and should be in the mix during the upcoming spring scrimmages.
5. Right Guard
Offensive line coach Mario Cristobal spent a good part of his first season on the Capstone mixing and matching linemen while looking for the five who worked best together, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to do the same.
Nevertheless, filling Anthony Steen’s former spot won’t be easy after he made 34 starts and played in 51 games before missing the last one due to shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum.
He was one of seven fifth-year seniors who earned national championship rings not only in 2011-12, but also in 2009 while redshirting (the others, who helped Alabama go 46-7 over the previous four seasons, were Kenny Bell, AJ McCarron, Kevin Norwood, Tana Patrick, Ed Stinson and fellow offensive lineman Kellen Williams).
Although Alabama went with Leon Brown, who had spent the season as a reserve tackle, it opened the spring with Alphonse Taylor (6’5”, 335 lbs) at right guard and Brown at left tackle.
The two positions may end up being linked depending on how well Brown fares. His competition at left tackle are Brandon Greene and early enrollee Cam Robinson, and if he can’t hold off the 6’7” true freshman, it only seems reasonable that guard could again be an option.
Regardless, the future seems bright for both Taylor and sophomore Grant Hill, who played in five games and, at one point, was splitting reps with Austin Shepherd at right tackle last season.
If there was an offseason surprise for Alabama fans, it was the early departure of Vinnie Sunseri, who, despite coming off surgery to repair a torn ACL, decided to leave early for the NFL.
With Sunseri, the Crimson Tide were probably looking at having Landon Collins play a little out of position as the free safety, but that still would have almost certainly given Alabama the hardest-hitting safety tandem in college football.
Without Sunseri, though, Collins returns as the only incumbent, and the Crimson Tide are looking at having more of a left safety and right safety instead of designated strong and free. While that might make things a little easier on whoever wins the starting job next to Collins, it can also make it easier to disguise coverage(s).
Regardless, replacing All-American Ha Ha Clinton-Dix won’t be easy. The likely first-round draft pick had played in 38 games with 20 starts, while Sunseri played in 29 games with 14 starts.
Collins played 27 games during his first two seasons and, as Coach Nick Saban put it, was a “demon” on special teams. Despite starting just nine games last year, he still managed to be second in team tackles with 70.
While the spring scrimmages could go a long way in determining the depth chart, the two front-runners are the seniors, Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams.
Perry missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, while Williams made nine starts after stepping in to be the nickelback following Sunseri’s knee injury.
3. Left Tackle
The departure of All-American Cyrus Kouandjio to the NFL a year early not only broke up the Kouandjio connection on the left side as brother Arie started at left guard, but also guaranteed that this season’s offensive line would have no one with more than a year’s experience as a starter.
With right tackle Austin Shepherd, center Ryan Kelly and Arie Kouandjio anchoring things this spring, coaches are able to try some different possibilities at the other two spots, especially left tackle.
Leon Brown (6’6”, 313 lbs), a junior college transfer who spent most of the season as a reserve tackle, filled in for Anthony Steen at right guard during the Sugar Bowl and is getting the first look at left tackle this spring.
Backing him up is sophomore Brandon Greene, who switched to tight end last season to provide some extra blocking in short-yardage situations. Following a rigorous offseason, he again looks the part of a lineman (6’5”, 307 lbs).
The wild-card factor, though, is early enrollee Cam Robinson, who highlighted the recruiting class of 2014. Listed as 6’6”, 325 pounds, he was considered the best lineman prospect in the nation, but he’s still a true freshman with a lot to learn and prove.
2. Weak-Side Linebacker
How do you replace a player like C.J. Mosley?
The co-captain was a two-time All-American (including a unanimous selection last season), won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker and finished his career with the third-most tackles in Alabama history.
Simple, you don’t.
But someone has to step in and play the weak-side linebacker spot alongside senior middle linebacker Trey DePriest, who will take over the play-calling responsibilities.
The two main contenders are junior Reggie Ragland and sophomore Reuben Foster, who many believe could develop into the next great Crimson Tide linebacker.
Although Foster was considered a 5-star recruit out of high school, per 247Sports, he had to wear extra padding last season after essentially knocking himself out a couple of times during training camp. He finished with just 12 tackles as a true freshman, but his potential is unquestioned.
Meanwhile, Ragland is a little more versatile and is also getting a look at outside linebacker this spring. As a reserve last season, he was in on 17 tackles including a 0.5 for a loss.
The string of premier cornerbacks leaving the Crimson Tide early for the NFL came to an abrupt end this offseason, but early indications are that the young group Coach Nick Saban is assembling could start another in a couple of years.
Where that leaves this year’s defense is anyone’s guess, as both starting jobs are up for grabs, and the Crimson Tide have numerous candidates.
Alabama started six different players at cornerback last season, including a player struggling with a troublesome turf-toe injury, a converted wide receiver and two true freshmen. Only Deion Belue, who had the injury, has moved on.
But while a lot of players say Saban’s scheme takes roughly a full year to get down, having so many players thrown into the fire last season should now start paying dividends.
Among the returning players, junior Cyrus Jones (the converted wide receiver) made the most starts with five, while Eddie Jackson had four as a true freshman.
They’re the closest thing to incumbents and the only two returning cornerbacks with interceptions. Junior Bradley Sylve made three starts last season, and sophomore Maurice Smith one.
Meanwhile, not only did speedster Tony Brown enroll early, but he’s also turning heads with the track team this spring.
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.