Alabama Assistant Coach Burton Burns has to be a little envious of his fellow Crimson Tide assistant, Billy Napier. Burns has almost no experience returning in his tailback corps. Napier has almost no losses from his wide receiver group.
When Alabama begins spring practice in March, there will be three men who have been starters at one or more of the three wide receiver spots. That doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done, though. Behind those three there is very little experience. Still, both the Crimson and White teams should be stocked at wide receiver for the A-Day Game on April 16.
Although every game is important, after Alabama lost to Ole Miss in the third game of last season, every game became critical. The Crimson Tide was in a virtual elimination game insofar as the national championship for 12 straight games. Some point to Bama’s fourth-quarter come-from-behind win over Tennessee as the game that got Alabama over the hump.
The Tide had to drive 71 yards on its last possession, and quarterback Jacob Coker made the plays to get it done. He had a little help. Outstanding catches by ArDarius Stewart for 29 yards and Calvin Ridley for 15 yards kept the drive alive until Derrick Henry could finish off the march with a 14-yard run and give Bama a 19-14 win.
Alabama went on to win those 12 “must” games and took home trophies for the Southeastern Conference championship, the Cotton Bowl, and the National Championship with a 14-1 record.
Under Alabama Coach Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide offense has been remarkably balanced, and 2016 was no exception. The running game accounted for 2,999 yards and 33 touchdowns, the passing game 3,407 yards (a difference of 27 yards per game) and 21 touchdowns.
Almost all of those passing yards are gone, Coker having passed for 3,110, but quite a few of the receiving yards return, including Ridley, a 6-1, 188-pound upcoming sophomore, and Stewart, a 6-1, 204-pound junior, who were the top two receivers.
Ridley, generally listed as a split end, had Alabama freshman records of 89 catches for 1,045 yards. He had 7 touchdowns and had an 81-yard reception that was longest of the year for the Tide.
Stewart, listed as the flanker, was second in receptions (63) and yards (700) and had 4 TD catches.
Alabama frequently plays with three wide receivers – split end, flanker, and slot. The No. 1 slot receiver for the Tide in 2015 was Richard Mullaney, a graduate transfer from Oregon whose career has now ended. He had 38 catches for 390 yards and 5 touchdowns. Bama also lost Chris Black, who elected to transfer following an injury-plagued junior season in which he missed the last half of 2015 after making two catches for 23 yards. Prior to last season he had 23 career receptions for 267 yards and two TDs.
Ridley didn’t begin his freshman season as a starter. Robert Foster, 6-2, 194, junior, started the first three games before suffering a season-ending injury. He had 10 catches for 116 yards before going out.
Foster was redshirted as a freshman in 2013 and played as a backup in 2014 with 6 catches for 44 yards. Last season he was expected to get plenty of playing time after Bama lost all three starting wide receivers -- Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, and Christian Jones – to the NFL.
To borrow a bridge term, Alabama’s wide receiver corps is aces and spaces. Ridley, Stewart, and Foster are proven, whereas the other candidates are not.
Without regard to position (split end, flanker, slot), Bama returns three men with pass-catching game experience at the wide receiver positions. None, however, have very much experience or very many receptions.
Cam Sims, 6-5, 209, junior, had 6 catches for 46 yards last year. As a freshman he caught 7 passes for 62 yards and one touchdown.
Daylon Charlot, 6-0, 195, sophomore, had 2 receptions for 9 yards in his first season.
Derek Kief, a 6-4, 198-pound third year sophomore, played in nine games last year, but had only one catch.
Raheem Falkins, a 6-4, 210-pound senior, needs to take the quarterbacks to dinner. Falkins played in 15 games in 2013 and 2014, but did not play last season and has no career receptions.
Torin Marks, 5-11, 170, is a redshirt freshman and brother of Bama tailback Xavian Marks, and like his brother is also an outstanding track athlete.
Two outstanding Tide athletes could end up either on offense at wide receiver spots or on defense. They are Deonte Thompson, a 6-2, 183-pound redshirt freshman who spent part of last year as a wideout and part as a safety, and Anthony Averett, a 6-0, 170-pound junior who was listed as a defensive back last year and who played on special teams.
One true freshman is an early enrollee who will be taking part in spring practice. He is * T.J. Simmons, 6-2, 192, from Pinson (Clay-Chalkville).
Wide receiver is also a position where walk-ons can earn playing time (and more). Among those on last year’s roster with eligibility remaining are:
JaMichael Willis, 6-0, 180, senior, Gardendale; Armani Purifoye, 6-0, 195, junior, Kingsland, Ga.; Thomas Woods, 5-6, 165, junior, Birmingham; Austin Johnson, 6-2, 190, soph, Elba; and Jonathan Rice, 6-4, 207, soph, Madison.
By the same token, it is likely other non-scholarshipped wide receivers will be participating in spring work.
NEXT: Our series on Alabama football positions heading into spring training looks at tight ends.