After a sixth run that ended in a national championship under Nick Saban, Alabama is gearing up for another round of spring football practice. Things are set to get underway on March 19, and the annual A-Day Game will be held almost a month later on April 17 after 15 practices.
As the Crimson Tide gets closer to getting back on the practice field, it’s time to look at some of the top questions the team faces heading into spring ball. If Alabama wants to have its second back-to-back national title run in the Saban era, they’ll need to provide answers to the questions below.
1. Will Young be the next first-round QB?
Mac Jones surprised people will his final season in Tuscaloosa. After a strong four-game audition in 2019, the Jacksonville, Fla. native continued to improve in 2020 en route to a top-3 finish for the Heisman Trophy.
That has him in position to be a first-round pick come April. If that happens, it will be the second-straight draft with Alabama landing a quarterback on Day 1. Considering it’s Alabama, that may not be a surprise. But Tua Tagovailoa was actually the first since Richard Todd in 1976.
Will rising sophomore Bryce Young be the next first-round quarterback for the Crimson Tide? As a former five-star prospect with impressive mobility, a lightning quick release and a knack for creating eye-popping throws, he certainly could be — even with his lack of size (6-0, 194).
For whatever reason, some fans have speculated that Paul Tyson could be the starter. And while it’s a possibility, it’s highly unlikely given Young’s extremely high ceiling, especially when combined with the experience he got over Tyson.
2. How much different will the offense look under O’Brien?
Alabama has seen several great coordinators during the Saban era. None of them come close to Steve Sarkisian, however. The now former offensive play-caller has taken his talents to Austin, but he is replaced by former Houston Texans and Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien.
As the team enters spring practice, many are wondering how much different things will look moving forward. Yes, O’Brien will bring a different style and approach, but Saban doesn’t want him tinkering too much with what has already been successful.
Will O’Brien be able to create the wrinkle plays needed to create mismatches while also finding ways to get his top playmakers the football? Maybe not to the same degree as Sarkisian, but he’ll have plenty of talent to work with. It’s really hard to fail in Tuscaloosa.
3. What’s the right mix along the offensive line?
Alabama returns plenty of experience with its offensive line.
Yes, it’s true Alex Leatherwood, Landon Dickson and Deonte Brown are all off to the NFL, and those are significant hits to a Joe Moore Award-winning group from 2020. But Evan Neal, Emil Ekiyor Jr. and even Chris Owens have several starts under their belts.
But where exactly are the holes and who fills them? Neal could make the shift from right tackle to Young’s blindside, which would create an opening at his old position. Other than that, Ekiyor and Owens should man right guard and center, respectively.
That leaves left guard and right tackle as the two open spots.
Tommy Brown, Darrian Dalcourt, versatile tight end/offensive lineman Kendall Randolph and several others are all seen as strong candidates. But we can’t forget about the freshman group coming in that includes:
- JC Latham (No. 1 OT)
- Tommy Brockermeyer (No. 2 OT)
- Terrence Ferguson (No. 2 OG)
- James Brockermeyer (No. 1 OC)
- Jaedon Roberts (No. 15 OG)
Any of those guys, especially the top three, could fill the two voids.
4. Which new offensive weapons emerge?
Alabama doesn’t just have to replace its quarterback. There’s also a Heisman winner (DeVonta Smith), Doak Walker Award winner (Najee Harris) and potential top-10 pick (Jaylen Waddle) as well. There’s also the losses of Miller Forristall and Carl Tucker at tight end.
So, who emerges to take on those targets and carries? There’s a new quarterback and a new play-caller in the fold, and both of them need reliable, impactful weapons at their disposal.
John Metchie III is expected to become the team’s top receiver, and there are others — Slade Bolden, Javon Baker and Xavier Williams — who should be involved as well. But once again, we can’t forget about the talented foursome coming in.
- Jacorey Brooks (No. 2 WR)
- Agiye Hall (No. 5)
- JoJo Earle (No. 6)
- Christian Leary (No. 10)
There’s a nice blend of skill sets there. And Brooks can be that big-bodied (6-foot-2, 190), physical X-receiver that has thrived in O’Brien’s offenses — DeAndre Hopkins with the Texans, Allen Robinson at Penn State.
There’s at least one reliable option returning besides Metchie and Bolden, though.
Tight end Jahleel Billingsley was outstanding last season stepping up as a pass-catching option following the injury to Waddle. He’s big (6-4, 230) and athletic, which was reflected with his kickoff return duty. His role should continue to increase, and he could be the next highly regarded — and highly drafted — tight end from Tuscaloosa.
At running back, it could be a number of players.
Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams showed potential in late-game mop-up duty. Brian Robinson Jr. is expected back and should be a primary contender, and Keilan Robinson returns after sitting out in 2020 due to COVID-19. Plus, there’s five-star freshman Camar Wheaton, but unfortunately, he won’t be available in the spring.
5. Who provides the complementary interior pass rush?
The defense has a lot more certainty heading into spring training. The only significant losses are Patrick Surtain III, Dylan Moses and Christian Barmore. All three should go on Day 1 or 2 of the 2021 NFL Draft, but there are replacement options on the Crimson Tide roster.
The most difficult to replace could be Barmore, who was Alabama’s most dominant interior pass-rushing presence last season. Will Anderson Jr., Christopher Allen and several other highly-recruited prospects should provide plenty of juice on the outside.
But who emerges to provide a complementary pass rush from the middle?
The defensive front is loaded with playmaking talent, but there isn’t a dominant pass rusher of the group — at least not yet. If LaBryan Ray can stay healthy, maybe that’s a role he can fill. Or maybe it’s Justin Eboigbe or Byron Young.
My money would be on sophomore Tim Smith, though. His combination of size (6-4, 320), power and athleticism reminds me a lot of former Alabama standout Marcell Dareus. Despite being a late enrollee, don’t count out five-star true freshman Damon Payne either.
Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.