Photo by Danny Parker

College football has awards for top position players and 2017 Alabama has candidates

Alabama football players frequently among nation’s best

Led by Jonathan Allen winning four national awards for 2016 — Bednarik and Nagurski for best defensive player, Lombardi for best lineman on offense or defense, and Hendricks for best defensive end — Alabama players earned much individual attention last season. Reuben Foster won the Butkus as nation’s best linebacker and CamRobinson took home the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best interior lineman.
Although Alabama lost many fine players from last year’s team, Coach Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide also returns a number of excellent players who may earn recognition as best at their positions in 2017.
Previously we examined the possibility of an Alabama quarterback or tailback winning the awards for their positions (Unitas and O’Brien for quarterback, Doak Walker for tailback) or even taking home the Heisman Trophy and/or the Maxwell Award as the nation’s best player.
Today we look at the national individual awards presented each year and at some Alabama players who may find themselves on various watch lists in the preseason and possibly at the awards stands at the end of the year.
Because the Crimson Tide is annually one of the nation’s best teams — and expected to be so again this year — it is likely that several Bama players will be highly regarded. Here’s a look at the awards and some of those Alabama players who may be individually recognized.
Fred Biletnikoff Award to best wide receiver — Perhaps because his sophomore season was not as outstanding as his record-breaking freshman year (his 89 catches was most in history by a freshman in Southeastern Conference history and second most in major college football history and his 1,045 yards the most by a freshman in Bama history) and perhaps because ArDarius Stewart had such a great 2016, it may have seemed that Calvin Ridley had something of a sophomore slump. But he had a team-leading 72 catches (he has had at least one reception in every game he has played) for 769 yards and 7 touchdowns last season. Based on his first two seasons, expect Ridley to be one of the nation’s best in 2017.
John Mackey Award for best tight end — There are two tight end positions at Alabama, the traditional “Y” on-the-line blocker first and the “H” tight end, the O.J. Howard type who could be particularly dangerous as a receiver. Howard was a strong candidate for the Mackey Award. Alabama returns its on-the-line man in Hale Hentges, a 6-5, 256-pound junior who has been a regular for two years and has been outstanding as a blocker. For him to get into the conversation for the Mackey, he’ll have to have more receiving opportunities. Howard was rarely targeted in his first two years. Hentges has had only 4 receptions for only 15 yards to date. Soph Miller Forristall is likely to take over Howard’s position and he had 5 catches for 73 yards as a freshman.
Outland Trophy for best interior lineman — There is no one with the preseason reputation that Cam Robinson had in 2016, but Jonah Williams was considered one of the best freshmen in the nation as a first-year starter at right tackle. He was a Freshman All-America and second team All-SEC and was named by Bama coaches as a player of the week in nine games.
Rimington Award for best center — Alabama’s Ryan Kelly won the award in 2015 after his predecessor, Barrett Jones, had won it in 2012. Last year it looked up until game week that Ross Pierschbacher would take over at center after working there through the spring and most of fall camp, but prior to the opener Pierschbacher went back to his left guard spot and Bradley Bozeman — who had previously played center, guard, and tackle for the Tide — took over at center. He started every game and was excellent, earning coaches’ player of the week honors in eight games. The senior should get promotion for all-star recognition this year.
Chuck Badnarik Award and Bronco Nagurski Trophy for defensive player of the year — Jonathan Allen played somewhat in the background to outstanding defenders prior to his senior season, when he had the breakout year that made him the nation’s No. 1 defensive player and award winner. Although Allen did everything exceptionally well, his two fumble recoveries and returns for touchdowns were spectacular difference making plays for Allen. These awards frequently go to defensive ends or linebackers and Alabama will have new men at most of these spots. One of the new ones is Da’Shawn Hand, who has played behind very fine players in his Bama career — notably behind Allen. He seems likely to win the job at left end this year and with his size (6-4, 278), strength, and speed has a chance to be another in a line of top Alabama defenders.
Jim Thorpe Award for best defensive back — A year ago there were expectations that Eddie Jackson would be in contention for this award, but he was lost for the season with an injury after eight games. This year returning first team All-America Minkah Fitzpatrick should be a leading candidate. Fitzpatrick, who played nickel most of his freshman season and earned Freshman All-America, took over at strong safety after Jackson’s injury and was a semifinalist for the Thorpe. He has the Alabama record for most interceptions returned for touchdowns with four and led the Tide and the SEC in interceptions with five for 158 yards last season. He also had seven pass breakups, caused a fumble, and was fourth for Bama in tackles with 56 in 2016. He had three interceptions against Arkansas last year, tying the Alabama record, and returned one 100 yards for a touchdown, a first in Tide history. He also returned an interception for a touchdown in the SEC Championship Game win over Florida.
Lott Trophy for defensive impact player of the year — Because of all he does on defense — pass defender and tackler — Fitzpatrick is a strong possibility for making the most impact for his defense.
Dick Butkus Award for best linebacker — Alabama lost three starting linebackers to graduation, including the Butkus Award winner in Reuben Foster and outside stars Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson. Shaun Dion Hamilton suffered a knee injury in the SEC Championship Game, but is expected back at the middle linebacker spot in 2016. Before being injured he had 64 tackles to rank fifth on the team, and had 9 tackles for loss, including 2 sacks. He also caused a fumble and had 2 pass interceptions.  In his absence, Rashaan Evans moved up to a starting spot, and Evans was already considered a first team player by the Alabama coaching staff. Evans had 53 tackles including 4 sacks, broke up 2 passes, caused and recovered a fumble, and had 6 quarterback pressures. With Alabama expected to have another very fine defensive line, that sets it up for inside linebackers to make a lot of plays.
Ray Guy Award for best punter — JK Scott should have won this award in his freshman year when he was a finalist after having the best season in Alabama history with 55 punts for a 48-yard average and 46.4 net average. He followed that with a solid sophomore season in which he had 70 punts for a 44.2 average and 40.2 net. Last year he had 64 punts for a 47.2 average. He had 29 punts over 50 yards and 7 over 60 yards, and 25 inside the 20. The two-time All-America is a tremendous “flip the field” weapon who was a choice by Alabama coaches as a player of the week in nine games. His 189 career punts have averaged 46.3 yards and he has put 81 of them inside the 20.
Lou Groza Award for best placekicker — Alabama lost its placekicker of the last three years, Adam Griffith, and signing a new man was of utmost importance. After securing an early commitment from an All-America kicker in Brandon Ruiz, but shortly before Signing Day Ruiz recommitted. No problem. Bama went out and signed another All-America in Joseph Bulovas. You won’t find Bulovas on the 2017 signee list, but he has pledged to arrive in August. Bulovas comes from the renowned Chris Sailer kicking school. He was outstanding in the Army All-American game with field goals of 34 and 49 yards and all three extra point tries. He won’t be on the summer watch list, but he has talent.

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