We are just two months removed from the Alabama Crimson Tide shutting out LSU in the BCS National Championship Game to claim the program’s 14th National Championhip. The Tide’s win over LSU was one of the all-time dominating performances in the BCS era, but the time for celebrating the team’s second National Title win in the last three years is over as Nick Saban and company turn their attention to the start of spring practice in Tuscaloosa.
Football is back in the air, and spring practice is set to begin on Friday. Spring practice culminates into the Tide’s A-Day game on April 14th to give the fans their first look at the 2012 Crimson Tide, and offer a glimpse at some incoming freshman that enrolled early, and other players that made major strides from the end of the 2011 season to the end of spring ball.
Alabama signed a 26-man recruiting class in February and 8 of them enrolled early to participate in spring practice. The other 18 will join the team in the summer. A number of the early enrollees have a serious opportunity to gain some early playing time by putting together good performances this spring.
Here is a position-by-position preview of the Crimson Tide to start spring practice.
After leading Alabama to the National Championship, what does 2012 have in store for A.J. McCarron?
The Crimson Tide enter spring practice with three quarterbacks on the roster: incumbent junior A.J. McCarron, sophomore Phillip Sims, and redshirt freshman Phillip Ely. A fourth quarterback will join Alabama this summer as incoming freshman Alec Morris joins the team. Morris will almost certainly redshirt though.
There will be a lot less drama this spring than last as a year ago we had a quarterback competition between McCarron and Sims. Some thought we would potentially have another quarterback battle between this spring between the two, but after McCarron led Alabama to the BCS crown it would take something awfully drastic to change his standing as the starting quarterback.
It is actually a surprise to see Phillip Sims still in Tuscaloosa. The sophomore from Virginia was expected by many to transfer out, but it is good to see he is sticking around at least for the time being. Without Sims, the backup would be an unproven Phillip Ely that we’ve seen play only one and that was at last year’s A-Day game.
Having Sims still in town gives Alabama some depth behind McCarron even though he is largely unproven himself. We at least know the talent is there with Sims as he seriously pushed to be the starting quarterback a year ago.
The biggest news heading into spring practice will be the absence of junior running back Eddie Lacy, who will miss all of spring ball as he continues his recovery from foot surgery he had performed to fix his lingering turf-toe issue. Lacy is gearing up to shoulder the load this fall left behind by Trent Richardson’s early departure to the NFL. Lacy rushed for 674 yards last season on a 7.1 yards per carry average.
With Lacy sitting out, it further opens the door for unproven commodities to try and earn playing time as a number of guys compete for the #2 spot behind Lacy for the 2012 season. Jalston Fowler is the 2nd leading returning rusher coming back as he rushed for 385 yards in 2011. Returning sophomore Blake Sims will look to work his way up the depth chart as well.
One of Alabama’s prized recruits in 2011, Dee Hart, is eager to get back to the football field after missing all of last season after tearing his ACL during the summer. Hart was a medical redshirt last season, and if you were on hand for last season’s A-Day game, you saw the immense talent Hart possessed, and it appeared he was going to have a major role in the 2011 offense.
Incoming freshman T.J. Yeldon enrolled early to go through spring practice. The five-star recruit has a great opportunity to gain some immediate playing time for the Crimson Tide if he puts together a good spring. The backup job behind Eddie Lacy is virtually wide open, and we have yet to see if Eddie Lacy can carry the full load yet.
Lacy has a lot of talent, but most agree that he is not on the same level as Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, but he did have a strong year when he was healthy as Richardson’s backup. He should have a good year, but there are some carries to be split up this season, and those will likely be handed out this spring.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Alabama’s two leading wide receivers, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, graduated and will have to be replaced. Neither of those two were #1 receivers even thought that is a role Maze stepped in to last season. The guy Alabama fans have been waiting to see is junior college transfer Duron Carter, but as of now he remains suspended. Carter is listed on the roster, however.
Alabama’s top two returning wide receivers are juniors Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood. Norwood had a pretty quiet season until shining in the BCS Title game with some impressive receptions over Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu. Norwood caught 4 passes for 78 yards in the game.
Kenny Bell showed some flashes last season as he finished the year with 17 receptions for 255 yards.
Sophomore DeAndrew White is also back as he looks to rebound from a pretty disappointing season. White actually started the season as the #2 receiver opposite Marquis Maze while Darius Hanks was forced to sit out for two games. White sputtered through his redshirt freshman season, and wound up way down on the depth chart. He needs a good spring to bounce back.
A lot of eyes will be set this spring on freshmen Amari Cooper and Chris Black as they look to earn playing time in their first season on campus. Cooper and Black were both highly recruited receivers and they obviously have a great opportunity to play early for the Crimson Tide with the loss of both Maze and Hanks.
Another guy to look out for will be sophomore Christion Jones, who saw the field as a receiver at times last season, and also took over return duties when Maze was knocked out of the BCS Title game with a hamstring injury.
As far as tight end/H-back goes, Alabama brings back Michael Williams at tight end. Williams has 191 yards on 16 receptions last season. Brian Vogler and Malcolm Faciane should compete for the #2 tight end spot.
As far as replacing Brad Smelley at H-Back, Harrison Jones seems to have the inside track at taking over. The sophomore from Memphis, and brother of Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones, has seen a little playing time for the Crimson Tide, but is still a relative unknown. The job is his for the taking though.
After winning the Outland Trophy in 2011, Barrett Jones will likely shift to center in 2012.
The biggest task at hand for the offensive line this spring will be to replace William Vlachos who was a three-year starter at center for the Crimson Tide. It is widely expected that last season’s Outland Trophy Winner, Barrett Jones, will shift over from left tackle to center. Jones made the move to left tackle from right guard last season to replace James Carpenter. Jones has seen snaps at center before during his career, so hopefully it will be a smooth transition for the All American versatile offensive lineman.
With Jones moving to center, former 5-star prospect Cyrus Kouandjio should slide in to start at left tackle barring a set back with his surgically repaired knee. Along with those two, senior Chance Warmack should start at left guard, junior Anthony Steen at right guard, and junior D.J. Fluker at right tackle.
Depth at tackle is a bit of concern with Arie Kouandjio missing spring practice as he recovers from two knee surgeries. Also Tyler Love graduated and despite having a year of eligibility left on the gridiron, deciding to give up his football career.
Alabama’s offensive line was one of the best units in the nation a year ago, and all in all looks to be more of the same in 2012 as long as Barrett Jones can make a smooth transition to center.
Alabama gets back both starting defensive ends from 2011 in seniors Damion Square and Jesse Williams. The big question will be who steps in at nose tackle to replace the departed Josh Chapman. Guys like Brandon Ivory, LaMichael Fanning, and incoming freshman Alphonse Taylor will be competing for the job to be the 3-4 nose guard.
In the 4-3, Jesse Williams can shift inside to go along with Ivory, Fanning, Taylor, or Jeoffrey Pagan among others, with Quinton Dial and Damion Square on the ends. Ed Stinson should also be in the rotation at defensive end. It’s also more than likely whoever starts at the Jack position in place of Upshaw will put their hand in the dirt in the 4-3.
Who will man the nose may be the most pressing question for the Crimson Tide this spring, and hopefully we will have a good idea of who it’s going to be on April 14th at the A-Day game. This chould be a competition that lasts well into the summer.
Alabama lost three starters from this group, Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, and Jerrell Harris. Fortunately, Alabama had the deepest group of linebackers in the nation a year ago, and shouldn’t fall off much if any after losing those three guys.
Senior Nico Johnson looks to step up into the leadership role this season as an inside backer. Junior C.J. Mosley is back, and there hasn’t been any indication that he will be slowed by his dislocated hip suffered in the BCS Title game after intercepting Jordan Jefferson’s awful pass attempt.
Sophomore Trey DePriest stepped in to play in the BCS game after Mosley’s injury, and played quite well. He will most likely start alongside Nico Johnson on the inside this season. Junior Tana Patrick will help solidify the depth on the inside.
Sophomore Adrian Hubbard will try to fill the enormous shoes left by Courtney Upshaw as the rush linebacker. Sophomore Xzavier Dickson and incoming freshman Ryan Anderson will push Hubbard for the starting job this spring. Anderson is a highly touted recruit from Daphen who enrolled early and has drawn comparisons to Upshaw. It’ll be interesting to see if the hype is valid this spring.
The Will linebacker position that was manned by Jerrell Harris last season is wide open this spring. Junior Jonathan Atchison is the favorite heading into the spring, but for all intents and purposes it is a wide open competition.
Xzavier Dickson could try to make the transition to Will as well. Also, Brent Calloway is going to try out linebacker this spring after seemingly wasting a year at tailback in 2011. Calloway was always thought to be better suited for defense at linebacker/safety. He’ll obviously need to spend the spring and the summer trying to bulk up if he has any dreams of playing time in 2012.
Dee Milliner is Alabama's most experienced returning corner.
Alabama saw three of their top four cornerbacks leave after the 2011 season. They lost DeQuan Menzie and Phelon Jones to graduation, while Dre Kirkpatrick left for the NFL with a year of eligibility.
On the bright side, Alabama does bring back junior Dee Milliner who made major strides in 2011 after a rough freshman season when he was thrust into action too early. Nick Saban saw the roster attrition at cornerback coming, and went after some junior college guys with the hope of them being able to make an instant impact.
JUCO transfers Travell Dixon and Deion Belue will push for the chance of early playing time during the spring. Dixon was a highly recruited junior college prospect out of Arizona, while Deion Belue originally committed to Alabama back in 2009 before having to go the junior college route for a couple of years. Both of those guys figure into Alabama’s plans at cornerback next season.
Junior John Fulton is likely to be the 4th cornerback, and guys like Bradly Syle and Jabriel Washington who switched to defensive back last season will also get a look.
Senior Robert Lester is back at free safety, but three-year starter Mark Barron will need to be replaced at strong safety. Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri look to battle it out this spring for that job, and then Landon Collins should be thrown into the mix this summer when he gets to Tuscaloosa.
Sunseri became a fan-favorite last season with his big hits on special teams, and most expect him to start at strong safety next season, but personally I think he might be better cut out to replace Will Lowery as the team’s dime back with Ha-Ha beside Lester. That’s just my opinion though.
Kicking and punting will likely be another adventure this spring. The much ballyhooed Adam Griffith won’t arrive until the summer so Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley will continue to handle the kicking duties for now. Cody Mandell is back as the punter with his back-up, Jay Williams, deciding to give up football to give baseball a try.
The NCAA made big changes to the kickoff rules this offseason with kickoffs being moved up five yards, and touchbacks being brought out to the 25-yard line. This is actually good news for Alabama with the inability of Cade Foster to put the ball into the endzone the last couple of years, and the Crimson Tide’s struggles on kick return defense.
Marquis Maze handled the majority of the kickoff and punt returns the last two seasons, but with his departure it looks to be Christion Jones stepping in. As I said earlier, Jones did a magnificent job in the BCS Title game stepping in for Maze in the return game. He looks to have game changer written all over him.
It’s great to be back talking about football once again, and while we are still a long way off until Alabama opens the regular season against Michigan in Dallas, we will at least be getting our first glimpse of the Crimson Tide as they enter title defense mode in 2012.