Defending SEC champion Alabama hits the practice field on Friday, and the questions head coach Nick Saban must answer this spring could make or break his team’s title chances this fall.
One look at the depth chart on the offensive side of the ball, and you’ll see a laundry list of new players who are being counted on in 2015. Saban and second-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin must replace nine starters off of last year’s Allstate Sugar Bowl squad, including quarterback Blake Sims and Heisman Trophy finalist, wide receiver Amari Cooper.
On defense, Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart are entering the third season of the cornerback crisis, and Saban threw a curveball into the mix this offseason when he shuffled around his staff and brought in Mel Tucker specifically to coach the defensive backs.
What should you watch for during Alabama’s spring practice? Here’s a primer.
What to Watch on Offense
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Alabama QB Jake Coker (left) and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin
The most notable battle will take place at quarterback, where Jake Coker, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett will all square off to fill Sims’ shoes.
Coker likely has at least a small advantage heading in, after leading the second team last year. Familiarity with those second-teamers could be a huge benefit, because with so much roster turnover on the offensive side of the ball, many of the players he worked with throughout the 2014 season will likely get the first crack at joining the first team this spring.
It never clicked for Coker last year, and if he doesn’t have a grasp of the offense, Bateman and Cornwell—two former 4-star prospects—are certainly talented enough to run Kiffin’s offense. Barnett is the new kid on the block, and while the former 5-star prospect can sling it all over the field and make things happen with his legs, it’d be a huge leap of faith for Saban and Kiffin to put the offense in the hands of a true freshman—especially with eight other new starters on offense.
Alabama QB Career Stats
|Alec Morris||Jr. (RS)||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Cooper Bateman||Soph. (RS)||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|David Cornwell||Fresh. (RS)||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A|
While the quarterback battle will dominate headlines, it’s not the most important battle on Kiffin’s offense. He has to find a replacement for Cooper, and it doesn’t even have to be a wide receiver.
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Alabama RB Derrick Henry
Cooper was the player that the offense revolved around, which was similar to Marquise Lee’s role with USC when Kiffin was the head coach of the Trojans. But Kiffin also went to a national title game as the offensive coordinator of the Trojans in 2005 with running back Reggie Bush as the centerpiece.
Whether it’s running back Derrick Henry, ultra-versatile weapon Kenyan Drake or a wide receiver like ArDarius Stewart, Cameron Sims, Robert Foster or somebody else, somebody has to step up. If Kiffin can find “his guy” this spring, it will accelerate the process and help the rest of the offensive pieces fall into place.
Up front, Ryan Kelly returns at center, and Cameron Robinson will lock down the left tackle spot. The rest of the jobs along the offensive line are up for grabs, and finding the right mix is imperative this spring so the continuity can be built through the summer.
What to Watch on Defense
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Alabama DB Bradley Sylve
All eyes will be outside this spring, as new defensive backs coach Mel Tucker was brought in specifically to fix Alabama’s lingering issue at cornerback.
Cyrus Jones got progressively better as last season went on and will surely lock down one side. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, on the other side, there’s a medium-sized village of corners contending for playing time—many of whom haven’t been able to stay in the lineup despite significant playing time over the last few years.
Eddie Jackson and Bradley Sylve have both started over the last few years, Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey have the talent but haven’t earned the experience, and Anthony Averett, Levi Wallace and Jonathan Cook are all vying for playing time prior to two more touted freshmen—Kendall Sheffield and Minkah Fitzpatrick—arriving this summer. It’s a crowded field, but it’s Tucker’s show now, and a fresh set of eyes might be the magic elixir to solving the cornerback blues.
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Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and head coach Nick Saban
Saban and Smart got a boost this offseason, when inside linebacker Reggie Ragland passed on the chance to jump the NFL in favor of returning for his senior season with the Tide. Next to him, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Dillon Lee and hard-hitter Reuben Foster will all contend for playing time this spring in a crowded linebacker corps.
Outside, Denzel Devall will return in one spot, but he might not be able for spring after he was spotted at Alabama’s pro day with a cast on his leg and moving around on a scooter, according to AL.com. Ryan Anderson and the ultra-explosive sophomore Rashaan Evans will likely compete for playing time if Devall is out, and that experience could prove to be invaluable when toe meets leather this season.
Up front, the Crimson Tide are loaded.
Defensive end Jarran Reed returns after flirting with the NFL, along with ultra-talented running mates D.J. Pettway, Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson, who all return to give Saban and Smart the option of constantly rotating defensive linemen throughout games. Toss in defensive tackles A’Shawn Robinson in the middle, along with junior college transfer Jonathan Taylor, and the Tide are going to be tough in the trenches.
Job No. 1 for the big men (and possible Job Nos. 2, 3 and 4) is to stay healthy.
Freshman to Keep an Eye on
It seems like we’ve been talking about Bo Scarbrough making an impact in Tuscaloosa for a decade, and now—after a long wait—we’ll get to see the freshman in action in the crimson and white.
The 6’2″, 235-pounder from Tuscaloosa signed with the Tide in the class of 2014, but academic issues delayed his enrollment until January. He practiced with the team during preparation for the Sugar Bowl and turned some heads in the process.
Saban said in December, according to AL.com:
We think Bo is a multi-talented guy but we look at him as a running back first. He has really a diverse skill level for a big guy, he’s a physical guy. He has really good running ability but he also has great receiving skills. He’s actually played as much wide receiver as he has running back.
He’s joining a backfield that’s led by Henry, but also features Drake—who’s coming off a gruesome broken leg suffered versus Ole Miss in October—early enrollee DeSherrius Flowers and suspended sophomore Tyren Jones.
If Scarbrough is as versatile as Saban thought in December, look out for him to make a huge impact in 2015.
Coach Saban’s Toughest Task
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Alabama head coach Nick Saban
Fixing the secondary.
Will Alabama finish in the top half of the SEC in pass defense in 2015?
Alabama gave up 133 passing plays of 10 or more yards—the worst mark in the SEC in 2014—and finished 11th in the conference in pass defense (226.0 YPG). That has to change.
Sure, a stout front seven will force quarterbacks into mistakes and take a little bit of pressure off of the back end of the defense, but teams know Alabama’s weakness and will undoubtedly look to exploit it early and often in 2015.
If the Crimson Tide are going to again contend for the SEC West and national titles, they have to fix their secondary problem. The most potent offense in school history provided a wide margin for error last year, and with nine new starters on that side of the ball, Saban can’t count on history repeating itself.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93, XM 208.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports’ composite rankings. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.