TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even though the national championship game is still fresh in everyone’s memory, the University of Alabama football team was anxious to get back on the field for the start of spring practices.
Part of that was because the players had no desire to continue strength coach Scott Cochran’s rigorous/brutal offseason conditioning program, but it also meant that they could put on the pads and finally hit someone again.
“The first day, everybody is excited to do it,” linebacker Ryan Anderson explained. “Everybody’s body is well. They’re fresh so everybody is looking forward to hitting somebody.”
It’s also a sort of awakening/christening for the new players. Anderson will never forget the first hit he took during a Crimson Tide practice, which was delivered by tight end Kelly Johnson.
“It was like welcome to the big boys, you know?” the linebacker said. “He popped me. He really got me.”
Although Alabama needs to find at least 10 starters for the 2016 season, the biggest thing that coaches are looking for is having new team leaders step forward. Ryan Kelly is no longer guiding the offensive line, Cyrus Jones is gone from the secondary and linebacker Reggie Ragland has moved on as well.
Defensive linemen A’Shawn Robison and Jarran Reed, who were known for ratcheting up the intensity during practice, are also gone.
“There’s different kind of leaders,” Anderson said. “A’Shawn was that kind of leader. We don’t have anybody that’s 6’4”, 320 pounds, who can dunk a basketball. We don’t have guys big like that anymore.
“I’m a different kind of leader. [Jonathan Allen] is a different kind of leader. I like to lead by example. If I want a guy to run to the ball, I’m going to run to the ball every play.”
Anderson added that a lot of the seniors who are expected to help fill the void were eager to take ownership of the team, although head coach Nick Saban isn’t looking for everything to click immediately.
“Everybody not only has to have a get-it-done type of attitude, but they also have to take ownership for people who aren’t getting it done because they’re unable to do things to the standard that we want to do it,” he said. “I do think this is a work in progress and I do think that players have to accept roles.
“The team chemistry last year happened over time. I think we’ll see how this team develops over time.”
As for who Anderson was looking forward to hitting the most this spring?
“Everybody,” he said with a grin.
Six players have been wearing black no-contact jerseys, and none of them may see any action this spring.
“[Defensive end] Jonathan Allen, who had shoulder surgery, [offensive lineman] Cam Robinson, who had shoulder surgery, [safety] Eddie Jackson, who had a leg issue, [wide receiver] Raheem Falkins, who had a leg issue, [tight end] Dakota Ball, who had a foot issue, and [linebacker] Shawn Jennings came here with an injury that he got in high school that he’s still not healed from,” Saban said. “Those guys will have a difficult time to probably have a chance to participate at all this spring.”
Robinson’s absence has given coaches a chance to do some experimenting at the left tackle position in particular, where there’s no clear backup. One player who is already getting a look there is early enrollee Jonah Williams, who was rated a 5-star recruit by the 247Sports composite rankings.
While there are eight new enrollees this spring—tackle Charles Baldwin, tight end Miller Forristall, quarterback Jalen Hurts, Jennings, guard Chris Owens, wide receiver T.J. Simmons and Williams—they aren’t the only new additions to the Crimson Tide, as Saban also has three new assistant coaches.
Jeremy Pruitt is back for his second stint with Alabama, having previously been on the staff from 2007-2012, including three seasons as defensive backs coach. He returned to replace Kirby Smart as defensive coordinator.
Derrick Ansley, who had just been promoted to co-defensive coordinator at Kentucky when he signed on to be Alabama’s new secondary coach, had previously been the Crimson Tide’s defensive graduate assistant (2010-11).
Brent Key, who spent the past 11 seasons as an assistant coach at Central Florida, was brought in to coach Alabama’s guards and centers. Mario Cristobal’s responsibilities shifted to tackles and tight ends.
“[Running backs coach] Burton Burns has sort of taken over the special teams,” Saban said, before adding that Bobby Williams will serve as “a special assistant to me.”
In Alabama, public employees can become vested after 10 years of service. Williams had been the Crimson Tide’s special teams and tight ends coach since 2008.
Another quarterback competition
During the team’s spring break, senior tight end O.J. Howard posted a video of he and quarterback David Cornwell working out together in Texas.
“It was something we talked about like a while before,” Howard said. “We both agreed that we should go out there and run some routes and stuff.”
“Whenever you’ve got a bunch of guys on the team who are dedicated like that, it’s going to help the team in the long run.”
Cornwell is competing with Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett for the starting job, and all indications are that a decision is anything but imminent. Alabama’s previous three quarterback competitions didn’t get resolved until after the regular season started.
“We’ve got three young quarterbacks that all are going to have an opportunity this spring to compete at a position that maturity is a very important factor,” Saban said. “Blake had some ups and downs last year with some injuries and illness and things that probably held him back a little bit. So we’re all kind of anxious to see how he matures and how he does this spring, as well.”
• The coaches have been taking a long look at two position experiments: Ross Pierschbacher at center with Bradley Bozeman at left guard, and Rashaan Evans at inside linebacker.
• Alabama’s annual coaching clinic will be this weekend. Headlining this year’s speakers will be Tony Dungy, Steve Spurrier, Frank Beamer and Bill Polian.
• Former Alabama quarterback Jake Coker told WNSP-FM 105.5 in Mobile that he played all of the 2015 season with a broken bone in his right toe and had two screws inserted. They have only recently been removed.
• Tony Brown, who was sent home from the playoffs, is back practicing with the team. However, Saban said, “He is facing some suspensions.” During the media observation periods, he’s been working at both cornerback and safety, often switching with Maurice Smith.
• Incoming 5-star linebacker Lyndell Wilson tweeted last week that he’ll have shoulder surgery. He’s expected to miss training camp.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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