Reloading Tide to feature several spring battles
By Cary L. Clark
As two-time defending national football champion Alabama prepared to embark on Nick Saban’s seventh spring last week, several starting positions were up for grabs. Further, some position change spring experiments are in the offing.
Offensively, starting linemen Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack are NFL-bound. At Jones’ vacated center spot, the heir apparent is redshirt sophomore Ryan Kelly, who reminds some of a younger Jones, though strength/conditioning coach Scott Cochran will endeavor to add good weight to the 6-5, 288-pounder. Kelly has already won the respect of his teammates and the rest of the league, which named him an All-SEC Freshman team member despite being a backup. While no one is expected to push Kelly, at left guard and right tackle, things will be quite competitive.
Austin Shepherd (of North Gwinnett) backed up Fluker and played well all season, juco transfer Leon Brown will get a hard look at right tackle, as well. The same could be said for Brandon Hill, a spring enrollee who reported at 406 pounds but has gradually dropped weight under Cochran’s tutelage. Brown can also play left tackle, and it’s possible he could play on the right side this year and the left in 2014.
There are several candidates on hand to step into Warmack’s vacated guard slot. It’s possible that a pair of Kouandjio’s could play on the left side of the Tide line, should redshirt junior Arie stay healthy enough to line up by his younger brother, junior Cyrus. That would make for a nice story-line. However, as new offensive line coach Mario Cristobal attempts to get his best five linemen on the field at once, it could be that Shepherd and/or Hill get a look at guard, should Brown learn the playbook quickly enough to win the right tackle slot. Two redshirt freshmen could also enter the fray. Brandon Green appears ready to fight for the No. 2 left tackle job, and Alphonse “Big Shank” Taylor will battle Arie K. at left guard.
The tight end position vacated by Michael Williams is likely to go to redshirt junior Brian Vogler, who came to Tuscaloosa known as a “receiving tight end” but has honed his blocking skills to the point that his play against Georgia and Notre Dame turned heads. There’s never been a question about the 6-7, 258-pounder’s hands. He has put in the work to make himself into a legitimate SEC blocker, and it should pay off in a starting role in 2014.
At H-back, gone is the graduated Kelly Johnson and the dismissed Brent Calloway. There is no clear-cut favorite to start, but junior Harrison Jones has played there and junior Jalston Fowler has the skill set to do so. A good guess is they will be on separate teams at A-Day April 20.
On defense, Damion Square and Jesse Williams left starting jobs to be claimed. The odds-on favorite at end would probably by Jeffrey Pagan, a 6-4, 285-pound junior who has improved annually, but don’t sleep on redshirt freshman Dalvin Tomlinson, a lithe former wrestler who knows how to use his hands. The two could have a Battle Royale to start. Both will letter. Also expected to get a look at end is Jack linebacker Xzavier Dickson, in an effort to further shore up the Tide’s pass rush. Returning starter Ed Stinson will be pushed by all the above.
At nose, the raw but talented sophomore Darren Lake and the better-conditioned redshirt junior Brandon Ivory will fight it out. Both should see time in every game, but it’s not clear yet who will start.
There is playing time available in the secondary, at both safety and corner. Robert Lester’s starting spot is likely to be filled by sophomore Landon Collins, though veterans like Vinnie Sunseri and Nick Perry will also be in the mix. The corner spot Dee Milliner filled will likely go to sophomore Geno Smith, who picked up the playbook quickly and was a starter in the Tide’s nickel package by season’s end.
There is a very strong chance some receivers could get looks at cornerback, namely sophomore Cyrus Jones and junior Christion Jones. Both excelled in the secondary in high school, and have the skills identified by cornerbacks coach Saban to stand out in his defense. There is even talk about trying running back Dee Hart in the secondary, although Hart, most feel, seems to have more of an offensive mind and skill-set.
At place-kicker, Jeremy Shelley had a perfect senior season, nailing all 80 kicks he attempted between field goals and extra points. Cade Foster returns for his senior year, and will likely still kick off, but redshirt freshman Adam Griffith could fill Shelley’s role, and perhaps attempt all field goals, whereas the last two seasons Foster tried the longer attempts. Griffith is known for both a strong and accurate leg.
Other spring notes: Word is that both young players expected to compete for playing time behind AJ McCarron have looked good in informal throwing sessions. Alec Morris and Cooper Bateman will get hard looks. Also, even with a dearth of talent at running back, make no mistake about it: true freshman Derrick Henry will be there. Fans will speculate about H-back, etc, but Henry is a tailback, end of story, per two very good sources.
Bottom line: as limited as most media pre-practice viewing periods are under Saban, this is a good spring to pay special attention to reports about who is running at what position and in what “personnel grouping.” Some “experiments” could last longer than others, and some may wind up as permanent.