Disclaimer: We did not discuss the Alabama depth chart for the 2016 season with Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban, who has nothing but disdain for such practice. He reluctantly will issue a depth chart prior to Alabama’s season-opener against USC on Sept. 3.
But through 15 Spring practice sessions, including the A-Day Game, a few other limited observation opportunities, and knowledge of what returning players did in the 2015 national championship season, we can take a look at how the defense may look this Fall.
It starts with which players return and which players were lost from the Tide defense. Although tackle Jonathan Allen and safety Eddie Jackson were limited in the Spring as they recuperated from off-season surgeries (Jackson did return for the last half of drills), we’ll count them among returning starters and likely 2016 first team defensive players on the depth chart. Also back are Minkah Fitzpatrick (though likely moving from nickel back to cornerback), cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and inside linebacker Reuben Foster.
Bama will be without 2015 starting defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, middle linebacker Reggie Ragland, outside linebackers Denzel Devall and Dillon Lee, cornerback Cyrus Jones, and safety Geno Matias-Smith.
This, then, is our guess at what the depth chart may look like when the Crimson Tide begins Fall camp in August.
We also look at special teams positions for 2016.
RIGHT END: Jonathan Allen, Da'Shawn Hand, Johnny Dwight
Allen missed spring with an injury, but everyone knows what he can do. He’ll likely be All-SEC and quite possibly All-America. Hand had a breakout performance against Clemson, and will get a lot of time here, especially on third down.
NOSE TACKLE: Da’Ron Payne, Josh Frazier, O.J. Smith
Payne will have two more All-SEC seasons before leaving Tuscaloosa a rich man. He is the perfect Nick Saban nose man. Frazier played mostly end in spring due to lack of depth, but this is his natural spot. Smith had surgery the Monday after A-Day, and his return status is unknown. He got a lot of time with the twos at nose all spring. He just needs to stay healthy.
LEFT END: Dalvin Tomlinson, Josh Frazier
Tomlinson is a seasoned vet who is ready to start as a senior. The addition of junior college transfer defensive end Jamar King will allow Frazier to slide back to the middle.
JACK LINEBACKER: Tim Williams, Anfernee Jennings
Williams has become virtually unstoppable/unblockable on passing downs. He should easily have a double digit sack season. He will go against eight first year starting left tackles this fall. Jennings had a great spring according to Saban. He should step right in for Williams next season.
WILL LINEBACKER: Rashaan Evans OR Shaun Dion Hamilton, Josh McMillon
Evans starts in the nickel defense, which Saban and Jeremy Pruitt will use the majority of the time. When the Tide is in its base defense against running teams like Arkansas or LSU, Hamilton will get the call. McMillon is talented, but must wait his turn.
MIKE LINEBACKER: Reuben Foster, Keith Holcombe, Keaton Anderson
The light came on for Foster last year, at last. He now can make calls and get people lined up. Holcombe did not play at A-Day due to a mild concussion, and he missed a little time due to baseball, but he’ll be in the rotation come fall. Anderson is a guy who can help the Tide down the road. He has gained strength and muscle, and he will hit you.
SAM LINEBACKER: Ryan Anderson, Christian Miller
Anderson is almost as tough to stop on third-and-long as Williams. He’s a senior now, and ready to step into the starting lineup. Miller added good weight and didn’t lose his quickness. He will see the field this fall in some passing down packages. Miller is quick as a cat.
RIGHT CORNERBACK: Marlon Humphrey, Kendall Sheffield
Humphrey could choose to turn pro if he turns in another solid season. He’s that good. His tackling has come a million miles. He could always cover. Sheffield will be groomed to step in when “Hump” departs.
FREE SAFETY: Eddie Jackson, Deionte Thompson
Jackson played in A-Day, albeit with a black injury jersey. He had a great season as a junior, and opted to return for one more year. Thompson has settled in at safety after some time last year at receiver. He stood out most of the spring.
STRONG SAFETY: Ronnie Harrison, Hootie Jones, Shawn Burgess-Becker
Harrison is one of the league’s top sophomores. He made a game-saving end zone pick to clinch the steak for his team at A-Day. Jones has finally mastered the tough defensive play book and will also be a special teams contributor, as will Burgess-Becker.
LEFT CORNER: Minkah Fitzpatrick OR Anthony Averett, Levi Wallace
In base, this will be Fitzpatrick, but he can slide to his 2015 position of nickel in that look. Wallace is a walk-on who got a lot of reps the second half of A-Day. That said, this is a spot where a freshman could move in, perhaps the speedy and athletic Nigel Knott.
NICKEL: Minkah Fitzpatrick OR Maurice Smith, Anthony Averett
Should Saban and Pruitt decide to make Fitzpatrick strictly a corner, Smith and Averett will fight for this job.
DIME: Maurice Smith, Kendall Sheffield
Smith knows this position well. Sheffield has been around long enough to learn it.
PLACEKICKER KICKOFFS: Adam Griffith, Gunnar Raborn
Griffith struggled at A-Day, but was very solid after the first couple of games last year. Saban believes in him. Raborn is back with the team after a suspension, but not really a factor. Should Griffith struggle, Saban could turn to immediately-eligible Ole Miss transfer Andy Pappanastos, a Montgomery native.
PUNTER: JK Scott, Brannon Satterfield
Scott is America’s best. His actual backup is probably Griffith, but transfer Mike Bernier from Eastern Illinois is immediately eligible as a graduate and could factor in as the backup.
PUNT RETURNER: Calvin Ridley, Xavian Marks, Daylon Charlot
It won’t be a shock to see the speedy Marks take this job sooner than later. He showed steady hands and quicks in the open field all spring. Charlot gets reps here, too.
KICK RETURNER: Calvin Ridley/Ardarius Stewart, Xavian Marks/Damien Harris
Again, if the 5-8 Marks continues to impress, he, not Ridley, may well be deep when USC kicks off. The second man listed is primarily a blocker.
LONG SNAPPER: Cole Mazza, Ryan Parris
Mazza is a veteran three-year starter on scholarship with a year left. Parris is battling an eye condition, but should be ready to be a solid backup and possible 2017 starter when he’s better.
HOLDER: Cooper Bateman, JK Scott
Bateman is Griffith’s chosen holder. He will continue in that role. Scott can fill in if needed.