Stuart McNair

Alabama is regarded as the nation’s best college football team, but there are questions

Da’Shawn Hand will be replacing Jonathan Allen on Tide defensive line

The perception of Alabama football under Nick Saban is the Crimson Tide loses excellent players at the end of every season and just reloads with another group of five-stars. And maybe that is more than perception based on results.

As journalists gather to question coaches and players at Southeastern Conference Media days this week, the likelihood is that Alabama will be the overwhelming favorite to win this year’s championship. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t questions about this year’s team.

Saban will answer any number of questions about college football in general, perhaps about the SEC, and certainly about the 2017 version of the Tide.

Regarding those players about this year’s Bama, some that might come up are:

Jonah Williams was a freshman All-America at right tackle last year, but moves to left tackle replacing All-America Cam Robinson this season. The question is not so much about whether Williams can do the job, but what happens on the right side of the offensive line?

Last year there was some shuffling at right guard with Lester Cotton starting the season and Korren Kirven finishing up the year as the starter. Kirven has graduated and Cotton has since moved to right tackle (though he could be back at guard), but Josh Casher was the backup right guard at the end of last season and was No. 1 there in the spring. Matt Womack, who was Robinson’s backup at left tackle last season, was No. 1 on the right side in the spring. True freshman Alex Leatherwood and junior college transfer Elliot Baker were newcomers in the spring working at right tackle.

And there’s also the possibility that redshirt freshman tackle Scott Lashley and redshirt freshman guard Deonte Brown could end up in the right side, as could soph Brandon Kennedy and redshirt freshman Chris Owens.

What about the other side of the line? Alabama’s defensive front lost the most decorated defender in Tide history in end Jonathan Allen, along with another starting defensive end in Dalvin Tomlinson, and the linebacker corps lost Butkus Award winner Reuben Foster and outside forces Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams to the NFL draft.

Two questions arise:

Can Da’Shawn Hand bring his considerable potential to all-star level as the successor to Allen at defensive end?

Good news for Bama is that Hand will be operating next to junior nose tackle DaRon Payne, one of the best in the nation and a man who occupies two blockers on every play. Moreover, Hand has shown in his opportunities playing behind the likes of Allen and A’Shawn Robinson that he can do the job. He was very impressive in the spring. (At the other end, redshirt freshman Quinnen Williams and sophomore Raekwon Davis had spirited and quality competition.)

The second question, regarding the linebacker corps: Can Shaun Dion Hamilton be the player at middle linebacker he was before suffering a knee injury in the SEC Championship Game against Florida? If so – and Saban expressed confidence in the spring – Hamilton brings invaluable experience at the key defensive position.

There are other very good inside linebackers, including Rashaan Evans, who moved from an outside spot to replace Hamilton at the end of the 2016 season. Look for Mack Wilson to have an expanded role this year, too.

Alabama has a new offensive coordinator this year in Brian Daboll, most recently of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Saban has said in the past that he doesn’t bring in a new offensive coordinator to remake the offense, but rather to run Bama’s offense. But Saban also accepts new wrinkles from new blood. The question is not whether Daboll will be effective in his role, but whether his experience as the tight ends coach for the Patriots might make the tight end a greater weapon for the Tide?

In the spring, the most experienced tight ends – Hale Hentges, who is usually on the line in the traditional role, and Miller Forristall, used more often as a slot tight end, much like the graduated O.J. Howard – came in for much praise. And then in the A-Day Game sophomore Irv Smith, Jr., had an excellent showing.

The Alabama offense has a lot of playmakers, and if the tight end becomes a major weapon, the addition of Daboll might be a great one.

Finally, who is going to kick field goals and extra points?

Adam Griffith has graduated and the A-Day Game was not a confidence builder. Transfer Andy Pappanastos was listed as the primary placekicker, but punter JK Scott was called on for double duty. Scott was very effective as a kickoff kicker in the spring, and might hold that job regardless if he is also kicking extra points and field goals.

Alabama does expect a true freshman to come in and challenge for the job. Joseph Bulovas was chosen for the Army All-American game and had field goals of 34 and 49 yards and was good on all three of his extra point attempts.

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