It felt like I was still celebrating the Crimson Tide's 2011 national championship (I'll let you decide which number that was) when spring practice snuck up on me a week ago.
In my defense, it was the "unofficial official" start of spring ball at Alabama, Saban's now traditional one day of practice before spring break just to remind these young fellas to stay in shape and out of trouble. But this afternoon, the Tide will begin getting down to business for real. Bama opens spring as one of the early favorites to play for another championship in 2012, and what transpires on the practice field between now and the A-Day game on April 14th will play a big role in determining how successful the Tide's pusuit of #15 (there, I said it) will ultimately be. We'll start by taking a look at perhaps the most interesting storyline in Tuscaloosa this spring.
No Lacy, No Problem?
The general consensus among Tide fans seems to be that Eddie Lacy's limited, non-contact status (due to offseason toe surgery) for spring practice qualifies as "no problem." Many have even suggested it's a blessing in disguise that the presumptive starter at RB next fall won't be put in a position to suffer a serious injury in practice. And while I agree that it's not the worst thing that could happen, I will say this: For all those flashes of brilliance Lacy has shown over the past 2 seasons in backup and mop-up duty, he's still a developing player, and developing players need practice. Not only that, he's a developing player that didn't play as much as expected last season, and was severely limited in practice, due to his lingering turf toe issues. An Eddie Lacy who isn't getting his full allotment of reps this spring isn't going to be the best Eddie Lacy he can be in the fall. Just isn't. Coaches value spring practice so highly for a reason.
That said, there will be benefits further down the running back depth chart.
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I think the big winner will be redshirt freshman Dee Hart. In this space last year, I suggested that the freshly enrolled Hart would make spring practice miserable for the upperclassmen, and he did just that, blazing up the depth chart and sending the likes of Demetrius Goode and Corey Grant fleeing for greener pastures. It seemed inevitable that he'd play early and often. Then he suffered a freak, non-contact knee injury during summer workouts, and nothing was all that certain anymore. While his rehabilitation progressed well by all accounts, he was surrounded by turmoil and rumor off the field. Not long after he returned from a leave of absence from the team, Alabama scored a recruiting coup when it nabbed the commitment of another elite running back, TJ Yeldon. And, oh yeah, he would be enrolling in January. In less than 6 months, he'd gone from The Next Big Thing at running back to being in danger of getting lapped by the newer, fresher model.
As any player that has suffered an injury like Hart's will tell you, the biggest challenge once you're back out on the field is simply regaining confidence that your knee will do what it's supposed to do again. You'll never be as good as you were if you can't trust your body to cut at full speed (this is especially true of players like Hart who live on agility and explosiveness). And the only way you regain that confidence is by repetition. With Lacy limited, Hart moves up at least one spot on the depth chart and thus picks up however many additional reps that's worth on any given day. Lacy's absence gives him more of a chance to get back up to speed for the 2012 season and perhaps fend off Yeldon's own push for playing time.
Another winner could be redshirt sophomore Blake Sims. Prior to the spring, there was some speculation that the Crimson Tide's Man Without A Country could be on the move again, but with Lacy on the shelf and Brent Calloway transitioning to linebacker, it appears depth will dictate that Sims remain at running back. And in my opinion, that's the best thing for him right now. Not because I think he's better suited to RB than any other position (because I'm not so sure about that), but simply because bouncing around and being a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none is not how you get on the field at Alabama. You don't play for Nick Saban unless he completely trusts you to do your job, and you don't earn that trust if you're constantly switching jobs. At some places you can do that, but in Tuscaloosa these days, that's more of a recipe for an eventual transfer. I think if he's ever going to contribute here, this is the offseason he has to earn the opportunity, and staying put at RB provides him a firm foundation to start from.
But don't forget about junior Jalston Fowler in all this. He's not the athlete that Mark Ingram or Trent Richardson were (or Lacy, Hart, and Yeldon are), but once he gets rolling downhill, he has deceptive straight-line speed, and at 6-1/246 he's a bull to drag down. Fowler has defied the naysayers and stuck around at RB after moving there from linebacker to fill in the depth chart while Ingram was hurt in 2010. Don't be surprised if he beats the odds again and kicks off 2012 as the first back off the bench in Arlington.
The Post-Julio World at Wide Receiver (Now with 100% Less Maze & Hanks)
This time last year, Alabama was facing the daunting task of replacing Julio Jones. Steady role players Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks returned and could be counted on to make significant contributions. But who would be the new playmaker at wideout? One year later, we're still wondering. Neither Maze nor Hanks proved capable of stepping up to that next level, but both were consistent receiving options and made enough big plays for the offense to be productive. And while several of the young guys showed flashes of promise (Kenny Bell: 3 catches for 52 yards, 1 TD vs. Tennessee; DeAndrew White: 3 catches for 58 yards, 2 TDs vs. Vandy; Kevin Norwood: 4 catches for 78 yards vs. LSU), none were able to string together two good games against decent competition. In the end, no returning receiver collected more than 17 receptions on the year, all of them finishing behind Trent Richardson and departed H-back Brad Smelley on the team's leader board.
In other words, receiver is twice as much of a concern this offseason as it was the last. The Tide isn't just looking for a big play threat, it's now looking for guys who can be trusted to simply make routine plays on a regular basis. I'm interested to see how this plays out. And hopeful it plays out well, of course. Will White finally live up to his hype, or prove to be just another Offseason Superstar? Was the BCS title game a coming-out party for Norwood, or just another anomaly like his 36-yard TD catch against Penn State in 2010 (to date the only TD of his career)? Are redshirt freshmen skyscrapers Marvin Shinn and/or Danny Woodson the answer? Or even early enrollees Amari Cooper or Chris Black?
Who Will Be the Leaders on Defense?
The numbers aren't quite so dire as they were in 2010 when the Tide defense returned just 2 starters and only 7 of it's top 20 tacklers from 2009, but they're close. Depending on how you count, the 2012 Bama D will bring back 4-6 starters and 10 of the top 20 tacklers from the 2011 national championship team. But just like the 2010 team, the biggest challenge the 2012 team will face won't be a lack of talent to fill those spots. There isn't a team in the country that rolls as deep as the Tide does right now. No, the biggest challenge will be finding leaders who won't allow the defense to get shaken up by a rough start in a hostile environment or to get up tight and choke on a big lead at home the way the 2010 defense was.
Early buzz out of spring practice is encouraging on that front. At the very least, the players seem aware of the parallels between this year's defense and the unit from a season ago. In a recent interview, returning starter at inside linebacker Nico Johnson identified himself, safety Robert Lester, and defensive end Damion Square as players who are looking to step up and fill the vacuum left by the likes of Dont'a Hightower, Mark Barron, and Josh Chapman. I like the sound of that, but we'll see how it plays out. We heard a lot of the same stuff back in the spring of 2010 about Hightower, Barron, and Marcell Dareus. Nobody thought Bama was heading for a leadership crisis. But then the season came, and we found out that those guys weren't ready to be leaders yet. That said, overall this is a more veteran core of players (Johnson, Lester, and Square are seniors compared to junior Barron and Dareus and glorified sophomore Hightower). So we'll see.
Duron Carter Watch 2012 Begins
I just threw this one in for laughs. (Notice I didn't even include him in the discussion of options at wide receiver.) Word is that the Tide coaching staff hasn't given up on Carter yet, but I think I'm about tapped out. Once it became clear that he wasn't going to play last season, I figured a kid with his history might have difficulty staying out of the doghouse without the positive reinforcement of playing. And, sure enough, he ended up in the doghouse, suspended "indefinitely" once bowl practice got under way. Carter remained suspended for the first spring practice, but there is some chatter that he could get back on the field before spring is out. I'm not going to hold my breath, though. And even if he does eventually get to participate this spring, it's a long time between April and September. I'd like to be wrong, especially if he's all he's cracked up to be, but for now, count me in the camp of "He'll never play a down at Alabama."
Other storylines to look for...
-With Hightower, Nick Gentry, and Courtney Upshaw gone, the Tide has lost most of it's sack productivity from 2011. The returning leader in sacks is Will linebacker CJ Mosley, who had all of 2 on the year. Who will step up as the Tide's new pass rushing threat?
-Barrett Jones will open spring at center. I have a lot of faith in his ability to handle that job, but his move there is dependent on Cyrus Kouandjio (still in recovery from a knee injury) proving himself to be an effective left tackle. Will Kouandjio impress? If not, does Jones move back to the spot where he earned All-American honors and won the Outland Trophy last season? And if so, who replaces him at center?
-How does the revamped secondary shake out? Can HaHa Clinton-Dix surpass Vinnie Sunseri, the early favorite to fill Barron's job? What impact will JUCO transfers Travell Dixon and Deion Belue have?
-Will Jess Williams stick at nose guard, or will the coaching staff look to a newcomer like Alphonse Taylor to fill that role so the big Aussie can continue to utilize his athleticism at strongside defensive end?