The cast of characters will be different for defending national champion Alabama in 2016—a new defensive coordinator for the first time in the Nick Saban era, an inexperienced first-string backfield and replacements for key players in the trenches.
But that doesn’t change much for the Crimson Tide, who are projected to start the upcoming season once again as the No. 1 team in the country. College football’s biggest target continues to stay put on Alabama’s back, and several powerhouse teams in a loaded SEC will be gunning for its conference crown.
The strengths of this 2016 Alabama team are clearly defined, as a tradition of stifling defense is showing no signs of slowing down after years of collecting the best recruiting classes in the game. The weaknesses, however, will be more evident when the Tide have the ball in their own hands.
There’s a distinct mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar in Tuscaloosa this season as Alabama looks to defend another national title under Saban. And the Tide will hope that generates a few pleasant surprises across the depth chart.
With SEC media days—the unofficial start to college football season—coming up next week, let’s take a look at the strengths, weaknesses and possible secret weapons for the 2016 Crimson Tide.
Devastating defensive front
The Alabama defensive front played at an incredible level last season, as the Tide allowed just 75.73 rushing yards per game, 2.43 yards per carry and seven rushing touchdowns in what turned out to be a 15-game national championship season. They were also third nationally in sacks per game and second in sack yardage.
Yet even with the losses of players such as Jarran Reed, Reggie Ragland and A’Shawn Robinson from that elite defensive front, Alabama has the potential to be even better in the trenches this fall.
The Tide will continue to be able to go as many as three-deep across the front seven with former blue-chip players. Defensive star Jonathan Allen, ace pass-rusher Tim Williams and veteran outside linebacker Ryan Anderson combined for 28.5 sacks last season. Reuben Foster was second on the team in tackles. They’re all back for 2016.
Sure, Alabama will have to replace Reed and Robinson on the defensive line, and Ragland is a tremendous loss at middle linebacker. But when the rising reserves include former 5-stars Da’Shawn Hand, Daron Payne and Rashaan Evans—more on him later—there are plenty of reasons to be confident.
“There are some new faces we have to get used to on the defensive line, but we are still a big family,” senior defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson said, per Charlie Potter of 247Sports. “It won’t be different for too much longer.”
Alabama should continue to be like a boa constrictor in run defense, and more of its efficient pass-rushing specialists from last season should see more of the field in bigger roles. You won’t find a better collection of defensive talent anywhere else in college football.
A secondary that could improve even more
The Alabama defensive front has numbers and star power. The Alabama secondary, though, has numbers, star power and additional starting experience.
Once the weakest link in Tuscaloosa, the Alabama secondary stepped its game up in a huge way last season. Opponents had the eighth-worst combined QB rating against the Tide pass defense, and it ranked in the top 10 in interceptions. Not bad for a unit that entered the season with only one returning starter at the cornerback, safety, nickel and dime positions.
Now, in 2016, Alabama welcomes back All-American cornerback-turned-safety Eddie Jackson and young star cornerbacks Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey to its starting lineup. Ronnie Harrison, who picked up a start as a true freshman last season, is set to take over for Geno Matias-Smith at free safety.
As Bleacher Report’s Christopher Walsh wrote earlier this year, the talented depth Alabama boasts up front carries over into the secondary. Almost all of the defensive backs on the roster were 5- or 4-star recruits. One of the lone 3-stars was none other than Jackson, who became a household name with six interceptions and two touchdowns last year after his position switch.
“Similar to how Alabama’s defensive line could attack in waves this past season, the secondary might be able to do likewise in 2016 and give opposing offenses a multitude of looks,” Walsh wrote. “The talent is there again, with some experience mixed in that will only improve over the [offseason].”
The Alabama defensive front will get a ton of deserved attention this fall for the huge amount of collective size and skill it has built up there. But the secondary could be the unit that leads the way for another potentially legendary Saban defense.
Deep talent pool at receiver
While there is still a question mark at quarterback for Alabama heading into fall camp, whoever wins the job is going to have plenty of weapons to spread the ball to this upcoming season.
Alabama brings back its top two receivers from last season—Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart—and a tight end in O.J. Howard who had the game of his life in the national championship victory over Clemson.
Ridley averaged nearly six catches per game as a true freshman and posted four 100-yard performances. He has the look of a potential All-American in 2016. Stewart was ultra-reliable, catching multiple passes in all but one game last season for the Crimson Tide. The experienced Howard might be the most skilled tight end in the country with more consistency.
Alabama also replaces breakout transfer Richard Mullaney with Gehrig Dieter, who caught the ninth-most passes in the country last season as a key figure in Bowling Green’s uptempo attack. The 6’3″ Dieter won’t be expected to put up the same kind of numbers in Lane Kiffin‘s offense, but he has the tools to be a game-changer this fall for the Crimson Tide.
The Crimson Tide also get back Robert Foster and Cam Sims this season. Derek Kief caught the lone touchdown of Alabama’s A-Day game, and he has the chance to break into what is a deep rotation.
Alabama has the talented bodies to keep up a high level of competition among the receiving ranks throughout the rest of this offseason and into the regular season. That should turn into even more improvement for the wide receivers and tight ends in what is now an experienced corps.
Inexperience in the backfield
A new starting quarterback is nothing new for Alabama. In the last two seasons, the Tide have had first- and only-year starters at signal-caller, and they won the SEC both times.
Breaking in new running backs isn’t completely unexplored territory for the Tide under Saban, either. Alabama had a different top rusher each year between 2010 and 2014. Once again, the depth of the Crimson Tide is a huge advantage when faced with major roster turnover.
However, Alabama is facing a combination of the two scenarios in 2016. Another large quarterback derby is set to continue into fall camp, while a new starting running back must replace Heisman winner Derrick Henry.
Junior Cooper Bateman has one game of starting experience at quarterback for Alabama, and younger players with high potential such as Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts will continue to push for the top job. The lack of offensive production at A-Day was discouraging for the Tide, but it did come against what could be the best defense in the entire country by season’s end.
Running back, on the other hand, is filled with inexperience. Alabama returns just 296 rushing yards from last season, which is by far the fewest in the Saban era. In the past, the Tide have been able to replace their No. 1 back with an established reserve. That’s not the case this year with Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris.
Both Scarbrough, a Henry clone who put up ridiculous numbers in spring scrimmages, and Harris, one of the lone bright spots on offense at A-Day, are extremely talented. But they will both be thrown into the fire this fall alongside a brand-new starting quarterback. That’s a rather unfamiliar issue Alabama will have to work through in 2016.
Consistency, new blood on special teams
All in all, the special teams unit for Alabama played well at the perfect time last year. Shaky starts gave way to top-notch play for both kicker Adam Griffith and punter JK Scott as the Tide rolled their way to another title.
But the consistency issues reared their ugly heads this spring, especially for Griffith. The up-and-down kicker missed four field goals in A-Day before tacking on a pitch-shot effort from 21 yards out. In the two seasons that Griffith has been the top kicker for Alabama, the team has finished 97th and 82nd nationally in field-goal percentage.
Griffith has shown incredible power and accuracy at times for Alabama, as he drilled several clutch field goals in wins last season over Tennessee, LSU and Auburn. Scott can make a claim as the nation’s best punter when he’s on his game, like when he averaged more than 48 yards per boot in five different contests last season.
The key for Alabama’s special teams unit, which will now be led by running backs coach Burton Burns, will be keeping that consistency throughout the 2016 season. The Tide need to re-establish that beginning-to-end confidence while also breaking in new starters—possibly Ridley and Xavian Marks—at both kick and punt returner.
“If you’re going to be in those positions as a punt returner or kickoff returner or even as a slot receiver, your ball security has to be something that everyone can depend on,” Saban said this spring, per Michael Casagrande of AL.com. “And I would say that to anybody that was going to do that on our team.”
The punt-return game will be a special spotlight this fall, as Cyrus Jones gave the Crimson Tide four big-time touchdowns in that category last year. Alabama had some newfound success on special teams in 2015, and several question marks stand in its way of a repeat performance this season.
LB Rashaan Evans
In his first two seasons at Alabama, Evans lined up at outside linebacker and had modest success there as a reserve. Last year, Evans was fourth on the team in sacks with four, including two against Deshaun Watson in the national title game win over Clemson.
But Evans was at a new position this spring at Alabama, and he took full advantage of it. The Crimson Tide moved him inside to help with the loss of Ragland. Evans then recorded a team-high 17 tackles at A-Day—a number that was far bigger than any other Tide defender in the scrimmage.
“We recruited him because he had a great fast-twitch ability to rush on the edge, and he did a good job of that last year,” Saban said in the spring, per Marq Burnett of SEC Country. “We still have every plan to use him at that, but we were looking at where can he develop as an every-down position player the best.”
Evans brings an added injection of speed and pursuit to the inside linebacker spot with the likes of Foster, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Keith Holcombe. Whether he lines up there in special packages or becomes a regular at inside linebacker, the Tide can use him to provide extra pressure up the middle and security in passing situations.
“I’ve seen greatness in him, like footwork, all that,” Foster, who played with Evans in high school at Auburn, told Potter. “He brings a lot. For our defense, he moves quick, and he can get to the ball much faster, so that’s a win.”
Evans’ move makes the Alabama defensive front even more dangerous for 2016. He should bring an additional dimension to a defense that offenses aren’t used to seeing from the Crimson Tide.
WR Robert Foster
Foster won’t be a completely secret weapon to anyone who was paying attention during the first three weeks of Alabama’s 2015 campaign. But his return has been somewhat overshadowed with Ridley, Stewart and Howard set to start again for the Tide.
The junior was in that starting lineup for Alabama early last season, starting in the opening trio of games against Wisconsin, Middle Tennessee and Ole Miss. Foster posted nearly identical stat lines—four catches for around 50 yards and a touchdown—against the Badgers and the Blue Raiders before suffering a torn rotator cuff against the Rebels.
Foster got back into action this spring for the Crimson Tide, and he picked up right where he left off in the fall. Saban sounded pleased with his improvement and consistency after the injury.
“He’s playing with a lot more confidence and has got better knowledge of the position,” Saban said in March, per Walsh. “I think sometimes you can learn a lot when you don’t play.”
The former 5-star recruit has the talent to be a breakout star for the Alabama offense, as he has both the height (6’2″) and speed that teams love to see in a top-notch wide receiver. He’s reportedly the fastest receiver on the team, as Matt Zenitz of AL.com noted he was clocked at a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash.
Foster was just beginning to become a key playmaker for the Crimson Tide when he suffered a season-ending injury. Now armed with the lessons he learned from the sidelines, Foster should take that huge leap forward in 2016.
CB Anthony Averett
One of the secret weapons Alabama could deploy in its deep and experienced secondary this season is junior Anthony Averett, who has been patiently waiting as a reserve cornerback for the last couple of seasons.
Averett has a great shot at some major playing time this season. Fitzpatrick slid over to nickelback last season for the Crimson Tide when they went with five-defensive back sets. That leaves a hole at cornerback opposite Humphrey, and Averett fits that position well.
Like Humphrey, Tony Brown and several other defensive backs on Alabama’s roster, Averett is a high-quality speedster. According to Zenitz, he is a former New Jersey high school state champion in the 55-meter sprint, and he’s been clocked in the 40-yard dash at a team-high 4.34 seconds.
That amount of speed will be a real weapon at cornerback for Alabama, especially when it moves Fitzpatrick to his favored nickel role. Although he doesn’t have the bulk of most Tide defensive backs, Averett is tough to beat on deep balls and brings plenty of experience in the system.
“He’s come a long way since freshman year and even since last year,” former Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith said, per Zenitz. “He’s learned a lot of the plays, and he’s starting to play faster on the field. You can definitely tell. And with his speed, it makes it a lot easier playing corner on that island.”
Averett was one of the winners of the Bart Starr Award this spring, which is given to the most improved players on the roster. Don’t be surprised if he keeps that momentum going toward a key role on another fantastic Alabama defense.
Stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.
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