Bama takes the field today for the first time since that dominating performance against Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. Likewise, I’ll be kicking off my coverage of the 2011 Crimson Tide for the new site today, as well, after a solid month and a half of slacking. So let’s get right down to it – Here’s a rundown of 7 key storylines to pay attention to at Alabama this spring.
#1 AJ McCarron vs. Phillip Sims
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Much has already been written about this, and no doubt much more will, so I won’t belabor the story. Nonetheless, this battle for the starting quarterback spot will largely define the next 4 weeks of Bama football. A few weeks back I described the stakes as something close to an old fashioned “Loser Leaves Town” match. To be clear, neither player has publicly said they’ll transfer if they don’t win the job this spring. In fact, it’s probable that life-long Bama fan McCarron would stick around out of loyalty even if things don’t break his way. But as a redshirt sophomore and redshirt freshman, respectively, falling behind this spring could doom the “loser” to carrying a clipboard for the remainder of his eligibility in Tuscaloosa, certainly a grim prospect for a former Elite 11 quarterback (both are). I believe the perception is that McCarron holds the advantage heading into spring ball by virtue of his game experience. And Saban does have a reputation for stodgily sticking with players he’s seen perform on the field in game action over experimenting with fresh faces.
However, most of McCarron’s playing time in 2010 came during mop-up duty or against the dregs of the schedule. It’s also worth noting that despite being separated by class, McCarron really only has one proper semester of lead time on Sims in terms of learning the Tide’s offensive system: McCarron arrived in the summer of 09, Sims arrived in January of 10. In my view, this competition is starting out neck and neck. So who’s the starting quarterback going to once the final whistle has sounded on A-Day? Barring one of them suffering a Star-Jackson-in-09-caliber breakdown where they essentially concede the job to the other guy, I have a funny feeling we may not get a conclusive winner this spring.
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#2 Left Tackle Up For Grabs
Regardless of who wins the QB job, obviously this guy is going to be their best friend. The betting favorite to take over for the dependable James Carpenter is incoming JUCO transfer Aaron Douglas. Saban doesn’t promise jobs to recruits…but he also doesn’t search out and sign JUCO recruits unless he expects them to contribute immediately. Douglas was a Freshman All-American at Tennessee before fleeing along with everyone else in the wake of Lane Kiffin’s departure. He’s very athletic, with quick feet (he’s a former tight-end) that make him an ideal pass-blocker. However, he also has a history of “character issues,” including a DUI arrest this past December, so there’s no doubt he’ll be on a short leash. Even if Douglas wins the job, there’s no guarantee he’ll keep it if he can’t get himself straightened out. In that case, whoever gets the backup job may be just as vital in the long run. Oh, and I’ll say this: whoever earns that starting spot better solidify himself before Cyrus Kouandjio arrives this summer. Make it EASY for Saban to decide to redshirt him early. You don’t want that guy coming in with a legit opportunity to compete.
#3 The Thunder From Down Under (By Way Of Arizona)
Speaking of Saban and JUCO recruits, let’s talk about the man fans have already taken to calling “Australian for Fear.” Actually, let’s talk about Josh Chapman first. He’s a very good defensive tackle, and he’ll be a big part of the defense again in 2011. But at 6’1” 310lbs, he’s not a true 3-4 nose tackle. We learned that last season. The Tide rush defense wasn’t bad with him at NT, by any means, but the middle of the line wasn’t the black hole for running backs that it was the previous two seasons with Terrence Cody in that position. Jesse Williams (6’4” 330lbs) brings that dimension back to Bama’s defensive line. In fact, there’s great hope that he can be the combination immovable object AND irresistible force that Cody never evolved into due to his weight issues. His integration into the defense will definitely be worth watching. Saban has already stated that he wants more production out of his defensive ends and “designated rushers” this year. The return of a man in the middle who can demand a double team every down would go a long way towards helping out.
#4 Are There Enough Linebacker Spots To Go Around?
By far the deepest, most experienced position on the whole team is linebacker. And with the base defense featuring a 4 linebacker alignment, there should be no problem getting everyone on the field, right? Maybe not. 5 players who started at linebacker in 2010 are in camp this spring: Dont’a Hightower at Mike, Courtney Upshaw at Jack, Jerrell Harris at Sam, and Nico Johnson and CJ Mosely at Will. Those first three positions are all but locked up, and Johnson (who primarily played in rushing situations) and Mosely (who primarily played on pass downs) figure to dominate the competition at Will as they try to earn the spot on a full-time basis. So that’s a full house as it is. But where does stalwart senior Chris Jordan fit in? Or highly-touted youngsters who’ve yet to see significant playing time like Tana Patrick or Adrian Hubbard? And yet more like Jonathan Atchison and Petey Smith? And what about early enrollee Trey DePriest? This is a huge spring for everyone on the lower tiers of the LB depth chart. At the rate the Tide is stockpiling elite talent, failure to secure a spot in the two-deep this spring, or at least a situation role on defense, could leave those left behind with no choice but to explore their options elsewhere.
#5 Dee Hart Ruins Everyone’s Spring
Once upon a time, it was looking like a relatively tranquil spring for the Crimson Tide’s running backs. There was an order to things. Trent Richardson would move into Mark Ingram’s spot, Eddie Lacy would move into Richardson’s, and then Demetrius Goode, Corey Grant, and Jalston Fowler would make their individual cases for situational work and getting first dibs on mop-up duty. Then Dee Hart committed to the Tide, which was fine. If he arrives in the summer, he likely takes a redshirt, and all the upperclassmen’s roles are safe. But he just would NOT stop bugging the coaches about enrolling in January, until finally they found a spot for him. Suddenly, nobody south of Richardson has any job security. Hart is a tremendous talent. I’ve heard some people try to say he’s not built to be a Bama running back, but I think that’s bunk. He’s not a tank in the Ingram/Richardson/Lacy mold, but 190lbs is very sturdy for a guy listed at 5’9” (emphasis on “listed”), and he’s a much more physical runner than people give him credit for when they try to categorize him as a speedy/shifty guy. With a full offseason to get up to speed in the college game, he’s a definite threat to steal playing time from somebody. Already there’s scuttlebutt that Grant may be looking to move (or be moved) to cornerback this spring. That’s the Hart effect. And while I fully expect Lacy to hold onto the #2 spot this year, if he catches another case of fumbleitis, Hart could be right there to capitalize on it.
#6 The Other Sims
While all eyes will be on Phillip Sims’ quest for the starting QB job, all-around athlete Blake Sims will begin searching for his place on the team in earnest this spring. Sims played quarterback in high school but was recruited more for his dynamic athleticism than his QB skills in the class of 2010. After a long struggle to get his grades in order, he arrived in Tuscaloosa this past August, well after most of his fellow freshmen. With a redshirt a certainty, the Tide coaching staff spent most of fall camp experimenting with Sims at numerous positions. He was often used to simulate running quarterbacks on the scout team, and the assumption by most fans is that he’ll have some role as a Wildcat quarterback. That may be true, or it may be wishful thinking by fans who’ve longed to have a true passing threat in that formation, we’ll find out. But “Wildcat QB” isn’t a position on the depth chart, and I’m much more interested to see where he lands full-time. Most news outlets have him listed as a defensive back for organizational purposes, but I hope he ultimately ends up somewhere on offense. He’s a special player with the ball in his hands.
#7 The Post-Julio World at Wide Receiver
The situation at receiver is a competition in two parts.
First, the reserves will be competing to fill the two spots in the rotation vacated by the departures of Julio Jones and Earl Alexander. Secondly, they’ll all be out to convince the coaches and QB’s that they can take Julio’s place as the feature receiver. I talked a bit about this in the Roundtable a few weeks back, but I thought this would be a good time to go a little more in-depth with the receivers… Marquis Maze – Probably one of the most underrated players in the conference. He flirted with the NFL before opting to return for his senior year. Easily one of the fastest guys on the team, with great lateral quickness. At a listed height of 5’10”, he’s more of a prototypical slot guy than a typical #1 receiver, but he’s displayed an ability to work the sidelines for big catches in the past. Darius Hanks – He’s a bit longer and lankier than Maze, which might make him a more appealing target as the #1 guy, and he had his best year in 2010, so maybe he’s peaking in time for his own senior season. That said, his hands have never been as consistent as they need to be. Brandon Gibson – A stalwart upperclassman. Stole the show at last year’s A-Day game before disappearing into obscurity again. He’s solid in every area but not great in any of them. I’d like to see him have a real role this year, but it’s difficult to believe he’ll hold off the charge of the younger, more talented guys. Kevin Norwood – He’s the best physical match for Julio in terms of combining size and speed. Reputed to have the best hands on the team. Michael Bowman – At 6’4”, he’s a huge target but not especially fast. Spent most of last offseason in the doghouse and flirted with a move to tight end, which he may yet make. Kenny Bell – The 6’1” speedster is reportedly AJ McCarron’s favorite target in drills, which could serve him well if McCarron wins the quarterback battle. As a redshirt freshman, he’s yet to see significant game time. Perhaps his most notable contribution to this past season were some inflammatory comments he made through social media following the LSU loss when he suggested the Tide’s struggles were the result of “favoritism” by the coaches. That may not help him when it comes time for said coaches to fill out the depth chart. Ronald Carswell – Participated in summer workouts where he drew a high praise from Greg McElroy before taking the fall off to greyshirt. Keiwone Malone – Another little guy with good speed. Redshirted this past season but has gotten good reviews in workouts. However his size is an issue (listed at 165lbs), and he’ll likely need a year or two in the strength & conditioning program before he gets on the field in the SEC. DeAndrew White – This guy has a ton of buzz heading into spring ball. A former track star in Texas, he’s likely the fastest guy on the team today. White announced his arrival in Tuscaloosa with a 70+ yard TD catch in the first fall scrimmage last season, and all reports indicate he continued to impress throughout the year. He’s the dark horse in this race.