Position-by-Position Preview of Alabama's 2014 Roster
You don’t want to say that any time the University of Alabama football program doesn’t play for the national championship under Nick Saban the season wasn’t a success, but last year essentially showed otherwise.
The Crimson Tide beat Texas A&M Johnny Manziel on his home field, won the always-difficult matchup against LSU and with an 11-0 start were incredibly close to being No. 1 from start to finish during the regular season.
Of course, the last time the Crimson Tide came up short they responded by winning the next two national championships, so Saban is hoping that history repeats itself. Even with major questions at quarterback and in the secondary, there’s no doubt that Alabama has enough talent to contend, so the big question this spring was if it had the right mental makeup.
“I’m very encouraged by the attitude that we have on our team,” Saban said.
So far Alabama has been able to avoid the major distractions it had to deal with a year ago and nearly everyone who signed on as part of the nation’s top recruiting class (the unanimous choice among top recruiting evaluators) are already on campus taking summer classes.
“Guys are just a lot more hungry,” senior linebacker Trey DePriest said. “We didn’t finish the season like we wanted to. Guys knew that and they just took a different approach to it, and are trying to get back to the standard to how we do stuff.”
Here’s a position-by-position look at the 2014 Crimson Tide:
Alabama will go into the fall with three players vying for the starting job including Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, who arrived in May with his degree and two years of eligibility remaining. The other two are senior Blake Sims and redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman.
No one on the roster has ever made a start at the collegiate level. Alabama has only had three quarterbacks start since 2006 (John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron).
Coker played in 10 career games for the Seminoles and had one touchdown pass. Sims has participated in 23 games for the Crimson Tide and last season completed 18-of-29 passes for 167 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions to go with 15 carries for 61 rushing yards.
The only other quarterback with any game experience is sophomore Alec Morris, who played briefly against Chattanooga last season but didn’t attempt a pass.
Walk-on Luke Del Rio, who was third on the depth chart last season, transferred to Oregon State and redshirt freshman Parker McLeod has been given permission to start looking around.
David Cornwell (6’5”, 241 pounds) enrolled early, but he will likely redshirt.
Alabama has another monster trio in the backfield, but unlike Mark Ingram Jr., Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy, everyone in this group employs a different style.
With 1,235 rushing yards on 207 carries last season, T.J. Yeldon became just the fifth running back in program 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’s on target to become the Crimson Tide’s all-time leading rusher (3,565, Alexander, 1996-99).
Meanwhile, sophomore Derrick Henry moved up to second on the depth chart for the Sugar Bowl and responded with a 100-yard rushing performance along with turning a short catch into a 61-yard touchdown on his first career reception. Bryan Fischer from NFL.com recently tabbed him the scariest player in college football due to being so physically imposing.
Junior Kenyan Drake, who has the best burst of the three, was second in team rushing last season with 694 yards on 92 carries, while Henry was third with 35 carries for 382.
Joining them in the backfield last season was fullback Jalston Fowler, who will also line up as a running back and receiving tight end. Here’s the really bad news for opponents, they’re all receiving threats as well.
Dee Hart’s departure will help sophomore Altee Tenpenny and redshirt freshman Tyren Jones get on the field more, and talented freshman Bo Scarbrough (6’2”, 225) will start his career at running back. The three are sort of in the same mold as the primary ball-carriers, with Tenpenny a potential every-down running back like Yeldon, Jones somewhat similar to Drake, and Scarbrough more of a power back.
Some are already touting Amari Cooper as college football’s best wide receiver this year. Now he just has to prove it.
After having just 100 receiving yards through his first five games due to a variety of injuries last season, Cooper ended up leading the team for the second straight year, with 45 catches for 736 yards.
Cooper will need 1,188 yards to set the Crimson Tide career record (DJ Hall, 2,923, 2004-07), but just four touchdown receptions to become Alabama’s all-time leader (Dennis Homan, 18, 1965-67).
After mulling over an early departure for the NFL, DeAndrew White may be the most underrated player on the team. Although his 100-yard performance against Oklahoma was better than the seven previous games combined (93 on 10 receptions), he finished with 32 catches for 534 yards.
Christion Jones had 36 receptions for 349 yards, most of which came in the first half of the season, and he is a dangerous threat in the slot.
Sophomore Chris Black is expected to lead the second wave along with sophomore Raheem Falkins and redshirt freshman Robert Foster, who coaches came very close to playing last season.
Redshirt freshman ArDarius Stewart’s spring experiment at safety was a short one, while early enrollee Cameron Sims had a good indoctrination. They’ll be joined by incoming freshman Derek Kief over the summer, giving coaches a potential three-deep corps.
Two years ago Michael Williams was such a physical presence for the Crimson Tide that the Detroit Lions recently moved him to offensive tackle.
This year’s tight ends will have a much different identity, especially in the passing game.
While senior Brian Vogler is back after having eight catches for 71 yards and one touchdown in 2013, the player defenses struggle matching up against is sophomore O.J. Howard. He played in 13 games last season, with five starts, and made 14 receptions for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
Both are looking to get a little bigger and stronger, but last year left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said about Howard as a freshman: “This guy is something special.”
While running back Jalston Fowler may take some snaps as a receiving tight end, coaches are hoping sophomore Kurt Freitag steps up in that role as well, with junior Malcolm Faciane an extra blocker in short-yardage situations.
Alabama fans are hoping last year was a bit of a transition year for the offensive line, which didn’t play poorly but wasn’t the same as the previous season when the unit featured three All-Americans.
The Crimson Tide also had a new offensive line coach, former FIU head coach Mario Cristobal but now all five starters from the 2012 national champions have moved on to the NFL.
With star recruit Cam Robinson enrolling early, he’s already been handed the starting left tackle job, while junior Ryan Kelly is back at the starting center. Alabama finished the spring with seniors in the other three spots—right tackle Austin Shepherd, right guard Leon Brown and left guard Arie Kouandjio—but the competition is expected to continue in the fall.
The player to watch may be junior college transfer Dominick Jackson (6’7”, 304 pounds), while sophomore Grant Hill played in five games and at one point was splitting reps with Shepherd last season.
Among the reserves, Isaac Luatua and Alphonse Taylor have moved up to the second unit and redshirt freshman Bradley Bozeman spent the spring learning center. Sophomore Brandon Greene is back at tackle after filling in at tight end last season, and redshirt freshman Brandon Hill is a long-term prospect.
Along with Robinson and Jackson, Alabama’s prize group of incoming linemen includes Ross Pierschbacher (6’4”, 290), JC Hassenauer (6’5”, 292), Joshua Casher (6’1”, 297) and Montel McBride (6’4”, 329), who will provide immediate depth.
Although Alabama is replacing both defensive ends, it might boast a line in which the smallest starter is 6’4” and 310 pounds.
That’s how senior nose tackle Brandon Ivory and junior college transfer Jarran Reed are both listed, while sophomore A’Shawn Robinson, who led the Crimson Tide in sacks last season, is 320.
Basically, you’re taking about three players who are all roughly the same size as Marcell Dareus when he played at Alabama (2008-10).
Returning line coach Bo Davis is looking for more out of the nose tackle position, especially in the pass rush. Ivory has made 13 career starts and was credited with 24 tackles, 1.5 for a loss, a hurry, and a pass broken up last season, while primary reserve Darren Lake missed the spring due to a torn pectoral muscle.
Reed made 66 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss as a defensive tackle and helped East Mississippi win the junior college national championship. Robinson had 38 tackles, including eight for a loss and a team-high 5.5 sacks as a rookie.
D.J. Pettway is back at the Capstone after a year as Reed’s junior college teammate, during which he had 18.5 tackles for loss and an impressive 11.5 sacks. Sophomore Dalvin Tomlinson is coming off his second knee injury in three years.
Jonathan Allen had 16 tackles, three for a loss and a half-sack, as a freshman, while Alabama’s line rotation could also include sophomores Dakota Ball, Korren Kirven, and Dee Liner.
The player to keep an eye on among the incoming players is defensive end Da'Shawn Hand, who will try and prove that’s he’s too good to keep on the sideline, while Josh Frazier, O.J. Smith and Johnny Dwight will add depth in the middle.
Although Alabama has to move on without it’s second Butkus Award winner in five years, as C.J. Mosley is now with the Baltimore Ravens, it has a veteran presence in the middle to help ease the transition.
Trey DePriest has played in 40 games, with 26 starts, and last season he made 65 tackles, including 7.5 for a loss and two sacks, two fumble recoveries and one interception. He’ll be the every-down player relaying the calls from the sideline and making adjustments before the snap.
Although Reggie Ragland was expected to get a look at strong side linebacker this spring, when sophomore tackling machine Reuben Foster continued to sustain injuries while making hits, the coaches kept the junior next to DePriest at weakside, or Will (which in Alabama’s defense is an interior linebacker).
If Foster can get straightened out he could be a real defensive force, while the coaches have some options at the outside spots.
Junior Denzel Devall had 30 tackles, including five for a loss and three sacks, as the hybrid linebacker/defensive end Jack spot last season, but he also took snaps at Sam this spring. Junior Dillon Lee can play there as well, or in the interior, but senior Xzavier Dickson was with the first unit during A-Day (the final scrimmage of spring).
Sophomore Tim Williams could be poised to make an impact as a pass-rusher, while sophomore Ryan Anderson and redshirt freshman Walker Jones provide depth and will likely land roles on special teams.
Among incoming freshmen there’s a lot hype surrounding Rashaan Evans and Christian Miller, while Ronnie Clark is another high-profile outside linebacker. Interior linebacker Shaun Hamilton enrolled early and had a good spring, while local product Keith Holcombe is a summer addition.
Going back to last year’s season opener, all four starting defensive backs are no longer with the Crimson Tide. While coaches are going with a sort of a strength-in-numbers attitude at cornerback until two starters emerge, safety Landon Collins is the player the unit will build around.
Filling in for suspended Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and then injured Vinnie Sunseri, who have since been drafted by NFL teams, the junior made nine starts last season and was second in team tackles with 70.
In comparison, Clinton-Dix played in 38 career games, with 20 starts, and Sunseri participated in 29 games with 14 starts.
Converted cornerback Geno Smith will likely go into the fall as the player to beat at the other safety spot, with senior Nick Perry challenging. Jarrick Williams is established as the slot defender in the nickel package, and he was backed up by sophomore cornerback Maurice Smith during the spring.
Early enrollee Laurence “Hootie” Jones turned some heads during the spring and at minimum provides some depth and will be potentially ready to step in next year.
At cornerback, Deion Belue was the closest thing Alabama had to stability at the position in 2013, and he struggled with a season-long toe/foot injury. Sophomore Eddie Jackson appeared poised to secure one of the spots in the spring only to sustain a torn ACL.
Coaches went with juniors Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones with the first unit during A-Day, while 247Sports ranked early enrollee Tony Brown and incoming freshman Marlon Humphrey the first and second cornerbacks in the recruiting Class of 2014.
There are only two Alabama specialists who know what their roles will be in the fall, senior Christion Jones and sophomore Cole Mazza. Everything else is up for grabs.
After making Alabama fans a little nervous by the way he would field bouncing kicks in 2012, Jones was seventh in the nation in kick returns (28.7 average) and 15th in punt returns (14.4) last season.
Meanwhile, Mazza didn’t have a failed snap during his freshman year.
Sophomore Adam Griffith is in place to inherit the kicking duties, but he has to win the job against incoming freshman JK Scott, who is also the expected punter. In turn, his competition to replace Cody Mandell, who had been Alabama’s punter for 52 games over four years, is walk-on Tuck Borie from nearby Hoover High School.
As for who will be on the coverage units, that will largely be determined during training camp, with the Crimson Tide expected to be back on the practice fields in approximately two months.
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.