Five Questions About Tide Offense
Alabama has been on spring break this week, but returns to the practice field Monday. The A-Day Game is April 19.
The question of greatest interest regarding the Alabama offense this spring has basically already been answered by Nick Saban, answered to the extent that it will not be answered until later. That of course is:
Question No. 1 -- Who will emerge as the quarterback?
Anyone who has been paying any attention at all knows that Saban speaks the truth. The competition to succeed A.J. McCarron, Bama's starting quarterback the past three years, will not be decided in the spring. There is a very good chance that the finalists won't even be determined in spring practice.
In part, that is because the "favorite" for the job, Florida State's Jacob Coker, is not yet on campus (or, at least, not participating in practice). Coker is finishing up work to earn his degree from FSU, and then the Mobile native will join the Crimson Tide football team in summer workouts. Coker will have two years of eligibility beginning this season.
There are five others in spring football practice. Are they just working to see who is the back-up to Coker?
The five contending in the spring are not rag dolls. All were highly recruited players. As Saban said, they have ability; just not experience.
Although no one expects a drastic change in the Alabama offense, the quarterbacks are working with a new position coach and offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin.
In order of experience the candidates now in camp are upcoming senior Blake Sims (6-0, 202), who has been the back-up the past two years, but who hasn't been in clutch situations. Even Saban acknowledged that Sims's passing ability in the Bama offense is "a work in progress."
Alec Morris (6-3, 230, sophomore) has been in the program for two full years and seems to fit the mold of a durable, efficient quarterback, but he was limited last season to a couple of clock-killing snaps.
Two redshirt freshmen, Cooper Bateman (6-3, 208) and Parker McLeod (6-3, 193) are in their second springs.
True freshman David Cornwell (6-5, 215) arrived this semester in order to participate in off-season work and spring practice. He's coming off an injury but has been working in quarterback drills.
And the answer is: No, we're not dealing with answers here. Just questions.
Question No. 2 – Who will succeed Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle?
All of the Alabama quarterback candidates are right-handed. The left tackle is the man who has their back. If the left tackle misses a block, Question No. 1 may become "Who is the back-up quarterback?".
Leon Brown (6-6, 313, senior) was brought in last spring from junior college to compete for a starting tackle job, but didn't get a start until the Sugar Bowl, and that was at guard replacing an injured Anthony Steen. Brown saw action in only eight games last year, and those were in games of little stress – not the Texas A&M or LSU or Auburn or even Mississippi State games.
Still, Brown would be considered the likely No. 1 at left tackle on a beginning spring depth chart. The question then becomes whether he can hold on to it against the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the nation last year among high school seniors, Cameron Robinson (6-5, 330), who entered The University in January to compete for the job.
And like the quarterback position, there is a viable left candidate coming to Tuscaloosa this summer. Dominick Jackson, 6-7, 310, will be reporting in following his graduation from the College of San Mateo in California. Jackson was considered not just the best prospect at left tackle coming from the junior college ranks, he was considered the best JC prosoect regardless of position. Scout.com gave only three five-star ratings to junior college transfers and Jackson was one of them.
One thing to note: Although there's an adage that a team brings in junior college players only if they can start, or at least help out immediately, that doesn't mean that it always happens that way.
Question No. 3 – Who will take over at right guard, where Anthony Steen was a three year starter?
Steen missed the Sugar Bowl after undergoing shoulder surgery at the end of regular season play, and Brown took his place and appeared to have a good game – as good as anyone else in that disappointing performance. It may be that if Brown can't beat out Robinson and/or Jackson, and if he's considered one of the five best offensive linemen, that he'll move to guard.
Two men who played as back-ups last year, sophomores Grant Hill (6-6, 301) and Alphonse Taylor (6-5, 335), were in the mix for right guard during bowl preparation and certainly are candidates.
As for newcomers, two of the nation's top ten guard prospects in the 2014 recruiting class will be entering The Capstone this summer. They are Ross Piersbacher (6-4, 295) and Montel McBride (6-4, 330).
Question No. 4 – How does Alabama make tight end O.J. Howard a bigger part of the offense?
Howard is a 6-6, 237-pound tight end with great hands and wide receiver speed. As a true freshman he showed how much of a threat he can be for the offense as he had 14 pass receptions for 269 yards (a team best 19.2 yards per reception) and two touchdowns.
Howard showed improvement as a blocker during the season, but he's still not the tackle-type blocker of Brian Vogler (6-7, 260), so Vogler gets top billing at tight end. But as a receiver, Vogler had only eight catches for 71 yards (8.9 yards per catch) and one touchdown.
True, Alabama frequently uses more than one tight end. But when there are two on the line of scrimmage for blocking purposes, the second guy is more likely to be former tackle Brandon Greene (6-5, 307). That is, if Greene is still at tight end. On the spring roster, he's listed as an offensive lineman.
The tight end types used at H-back almost certainly will be behind a proven commodity, Jalston Fowler, a fine blocker and sure-handed receiver, too.
We may not have the answer to this, but one can bet that Lane Kiffin, Bama's new offensive coordinator, is working hard to figure it out.
Question No. 5 – This question could be about the back-up center since Chad Lindsay passed up his final year of eligibility or about wide receivers to replace the sure-handed Kevin Norwood and deep threat Kenny Bell. Instead, though, we wonder: Who will emerge from spring drills as the number one tailback?
Every other school in the nation with a returning junior with the credentials of T.J. Yeldon would pass on this question. But no other school has a returning sophomore like Derrick Henry.
Additionally, if Kenyan Drake can get his act together, he could be in the competition. And though we've seen little of him, what's not to like about Altee Tenpenny? Which leaves Tyren Jones, whom we haven't seen.
The competition was reduced by two when Dee Hart and Alvin Kamara left the team after last season. Bo Scarbrough joins the group this summer.
Even though Saban says that Jalston Fowler is a running back, he had only 20 rushes for 88 yrds last year, and we consider him an H-back.
Speaking of statistics, Yeldon had 207 rushes last year, more than twice as many as runner-up Drake, who had 92. Yeldon carried for 1,235 yards, 6 yards per carry and 102.9 per game. Drake was second with 694 yards, 7.5 per carry in his 11 games. Henry played 12 games, had 35 rushes for 382 yards, and 10.9 yards per carry. As for receiving: Yeldon 20 catches for 183 yards, Drake 12 receptions for 135 yards, and Henry only one reception, an inside screen that he turned into a memorable 61-yard touchdown play in the Sugar Bowl.
Last year it was Yeldon and Drake through the regular season. Prior to the Sugar Bowl, Saban revealed that Henry had moved into the No. 2 spot.
Because of Henry's spectacular plays against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl – a 43-yard touchdown burst in addition to his long TD pass reception – and his 80-yard touchdown run against Arkansas – it is easy to forget that Yeldon is a proven commodity. Our bet is that Yeldon holds on to No. 1.
But guess what? It doesn't matter. Saban has always rotated his tailbacks and there's no reason that Yeldon, Henry, and at least one other will be in that rotation. The real question might be whether Drake slips back another spot.
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