In preseason Alabama football stories going back to last spring, an obvious area of concern was on a line going right down the middle of the field. That is, Alabama was going to be replacing tailback, quarterback, center, nose tackle, middle linebacker, and safety.
In order of importance, that would be quarterback. In order of concern, perhaps tailback.
Why not more concern about quarterback, where there was almost no college football game experience? That would be because Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin has been successful the past two years in developing first year starters into championship caliber players and leaders.
Alabama, ranked No. 1 in the nation after winning last year’s College Football Playoff National Champ;ionship, takes on 20th-ranked Southern Cal at 7 p.m. CDT in the season opening game in the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. ABC will televise the game.
Most expect fourth-year junior Cooper Bateman to get the start for the Tide, but it should be remembered that many expected Phil Sims to start ahead of AJ McCarron in 2011; ditto for Jake Coker over Blake Sims in 2014. Even last year there was talk that Alec Morris might have moved in front of Coker. Morris will be suited up today, but it will be for North Texas, which is playing SMU.
In limited media viewing opportunities, it has seemed – as Tide Coach Nick Saban had said, that Bateman and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett were the two candidates. Much preseason speculation had it that true freshman Jalen Hurts would get the nod.
For the first time in the Saban era, Alabama lost not only its No. 1 tailback, but also the backup. There is no Trent Ri,chardson to replace Mark Ingram, no Eddie Lacy to take over for Richardson, no Derrick Henry to follow T.J. Yeldon. That’s because top backup last year, Kenyan Drake, has joined Henry as an NFL hopeful.
Saban said the two returning players from last year when they got limited time as true freshmen, Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, have done well, and the coach also predicted that true freshmen B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs would see playing time. The primary issue with Scarbrough, who is regarded at the heir to Henry’s job as workhorse tailback, is Scarbrough’s history of injuries – meaning two knee injuries.
There was a late surprise at the center position when Bradley Bozeman, who had been number one at right guard through the spring and fall camp, was shifted to center in the final days of preparation for USC. Bozeman was not completely new to the position as he had played in relief of Ryan Kelly in 2014 when Kelly missed a couple of games with injury. Ross Pierschbacher, the 2015 starting left guard, had worked at center all spring and up until he was replaced by Bozeman.
Saban said he thought the switch helped Alabama put the best five players on the offensive line.
On defense, it was no surprise that soph Daron Payne (6-2, 319), would get the start at nose tackle. He played in every game last year and had three starts. He’s perhaps the strongest man on the team.
Middle linebacker was also a bit of a late surprise when Alabama issued its official depth chart Monday. All spring and fall camp, it sppeared that former Auburn High School teammates Reuben Foster and Rashaan Evans would be side-by-side at the two inside linebacker positions. Instead, they were listed as one and two at weakside li,nebacker with Shaun Dion Hamilton listed number one at middle linebacker. Hamilton has a reputation as a very intelligent player to man that key middle spot that gets the defense lined up.
Geno Matias-Smith was Alabama’s starting safety alongside strong safety Eddie Jackson last year. Try to remember a key play by safety last season, though, and it might be the pass breakup in the end zone by Ronnie Harrison against Clemson. Sophomore Harrison now moves up to the starting role at safety.
So there are six of the 11 or so new starters Alabama will put on the field against USC. The losses are Coker, Henry, Kelly, tackle Dominick Jackson, slot receiver Richard Mullaney, defensive linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed; linebackers Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall, and Dillon Lee; cornerback Cyrus Jones, and Matias-Smith. Also expected as new starters are left guard Lester Cotton, right tackle Jonah Williams, defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson, and outside linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson.
A mystery is what happens at cornerback and nickel back. Last year Minkah Fitzpatrick was the nickel and he was expected to move to corner this year with Maurice Smith taking over at nickel. But Smith took his talents to Georgia. There have been reports that Anthony Averett might start at cornerback with Fitzpatrick returning to nickel, and also speculation that true freshman Trevon Diggs might be at nickel, or that true freshman Shyheim Carter might be the fifth back, playing either corner or nickel.
Players aren’t the only new men in key positions. Saban lost nearly half his assistants following last season. Tight Ends Coach and S;pecial Teams Coordinator Bobby Williams resigned his on-the-field duties to serve as Saban’s special assistant. Kirby Smart stayed through last season, but as lame duck defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach as he had been named Georgia head coach prior to bowl season. Smart took safeties coach Mel Tucker with him to Athens. Finally, Bo Davis was allowed to resign as Bama defensive line coach following an alleged NCAA rules violation in recruiting.
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Saban shifted things up on offense, bringing in Brent Key to coach centers and guards and giving Mario Cristobal, who had been coaching all offensive linemen, the duties of tackles and tight ends. Jeremy Pruitt, who had previously served on Saban’s staff, returned after a national championship year as FSU defensive coordinator and a year in the same capacity at Georgia, to replace Smart as both coordinator and inside linebackers coach. Derrick Ansley, a former graduate assistant under Saban, had been at Tennessee and Kentucky and returned to coach safeties. Karl Dunbar, who had coached in the NFL the past ten years, took over the defensive line. Additionally, Burton Burns, who has developed two Heisman Trophy tailbacks at Alabama, adds the duties of special teams coordinator.