Stuart McNair

Most questions about 2016 Alabama football are same as at end of spring

Alabama begins 10th fall football practice under Coach Nick Saban

When Spring practice ended, there were several questions regarding 2016 Alabama football. With the start of Fall Camp today, there has not been a lot of change in the key questions.


Alabama must find a quarterback, the third consecutive year the Crimson Tide has been looking for a new starter at the critical position. But after the job Alabama Coach Nick Saban and Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach Lane Kiffin did the past two years, it is hard to find more than mild curiousity about what to expect at quarterback.


After all, the last two years have produced first-year senior starters in Blake Sims, leading Bama to the Southeastern Conference championship and into the College Football Playoff, and Jake Coker, leading the Tide to both the SEC and national championships. So what could go wrong with the battle among four candidates as the Crimson Tide begins 25 days of practice before opening the season Sept. 3 against Southern Cal in Arlington, Texas?


Just to refresh memories, those QB candidates in order of class are fourth-year junior Cooper Bateman (6-3, 220), third-year sophomore David Cornwell (6-5, 228), redshirt freshman Blake Barnett (6-5, 211), and true freshman Jalen Hurts (6-2, 209).


Saban is expected to have two workouts today (as he has in the past) with returning players in the afternoon, a combination of newcomers and some returnees in the evening.


While quarterback is the most important position, there is also the task of replacing Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry at tailback. Do we cross fingers hoping Bo Scarbrough can make it through August and beyond without another injury? If Bo can’t do it, can Damien Harris? There are a couple of newcomers – B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs -- who can get into this mix. Tailback is one of those positions where freshmen can make a splash.


No worries at wide receiver, even with Daylon Charlot and Chris Black electing to transfer. Alabama is in good shape with Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, and others. It will be interesting to see how Robert Foster holds up after a couple of years of injuries. And the latest graduate transfer, Gehrig Dieter, provokes interest, particularly after last year’s success with graduate transfer Richard Mullaney.


Same at tight end, particularly with O.J. Howard’s most recent outing still fresh from the national championship win over Clemson.


The state of the offensive line would be cause for great concern at most schools. Should it be at Alabama?


Alphonse Taylor was a starting right guard last year, but was obviously in the doghouse in the spring when he was dropped as far down the depth chart as possible. And then he got into off-the-field trouble (though obviously not as bad as first reported,  since his driving while intoxicated charge seems to have been bogus). Not all eyes will be on the battle, but it will be important to see if Taylor or perhaps Bradley Bozeman or Brandon Kennedy wins that right guard battle.


Speaking of off-the-field trouble, Cam Robinson’s drugs and guns drama in Monroe, La., was one of college football’s biggest stories in the summer. The All-America left tackle candidate may have avoided game suspension, though.


Alabama’s offensive line outlook was apparently upgraded by a successful spring experiment with 2015 starting left guard Ross Pierschbacher making a successful move to center, where a replacement had to be found for All-America and first round NFL draft choice Ryan Kelly.


Bama has a history of working offensive linemen at more than one position, so there could be some shuffling as practice proceeds, but at the end of spring it appeared that sophomore Lester Cotton was top man at Pierschbacher’s vacated left guard position and true freshman Jonah Williams was first at right guard following the graduation of Dominick Jackson.


Defense seems to be more settled coming out of spring practice. Yes, there’s the question of Reuben Foster being able to fill the shoes of Reggie Ragland at middle linebacker. Foster is certainly as gifted athletically, and indications are he is more than able to handle the play-calling responsibilities of the position. If he can be the leader of the defense and avoid the injuries that limited him prior to 2015.


Alabama is one of the few teams that could suffer losses the likes of A’Shawn Robinson and Jaran Reed in the defensive line and feel very confident about the position. That’s mostly because Jonathan Allen – like Reed before him – elected to return for his senior season. Bama has built excellent depth at defensive line positions, which are among the most difficult to fill.


Tide fans are not only not concerned about the outside linebacker spots. They are anxious to see senior sackmasters Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson as they take over.


The secondary had some losses, but this is a glass about seven-eighths full with Eddie Jackson, Marlon Humphrey, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Ronnie Harrison among the veterans.


JK Scott as punter, Adam Griffith as placekicker, Cole Mazza as snapper, and Cooper Bateman as holder are returning to special teams. Much of the coverage and return players will be built with newcomers. The greatest interest is in return men with punt return star Cyrus Jones and kickoff return man Kenyan Drake having moved on to the NFL. There’s reason to believe Saban and company will find some among the skill position players to handle these tasks.


Football never ends, particularly not in Alabama. Following a season, even a national championship season as the Tide has experienced in four of the past seven years, it’s back to work with the off-season program, followed by spring practice, and then followed by players participating in summer workouts. Now comes another phase, one with a bit of urgency with the first game a month away.


The first few days of practice will be limited as players attempt to get acclimated to football in hot, humid Alabama summer. One of those is Sunday, an open practice beginning at 2:30 at Bryant-Denny Stadium, part of Fan Day. Assuming history prevails, there will be a couple of closed scrimmages in coming weeks.


And, also based on history, Alabama will have a very fine football team again this year, Nick Saban’s 10th as head coach of the Crimson Tide.

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