You can't complain about two National title in three years but at Alabama they aren't going to stop until they have all of your crystal. This years Crimson Tide team is deep and stocked with talent but has some definite question marks because of the loss of their elite running back and a host of great defensive players. We caught up with our Alabama guy to get his take on some of the most pressing question marks for the 2012 Alabama Crimson Tide:
CFBZ: TJ Yeldon had quite a spring. Do you see him overtaking Eddie Lacy for the starting job?
Jay: Yeldon clearly made the most of the extra reps he picked up this spring due to Lacy's injury. As the low man on the Tide's running back totem pole heading into spring practice, the question facing him was if he could even work himself into the playing rotation as a freshman. But following his 179 total yard MVP performance in the spring game, in which he flashed an exciting mix of strength between the tackles and elusiveness in the open field that evoked not-too-distant memories of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, the question suddenly became, "How presumptuous should we be that Eddie Lacy is the starter?"
Granted, a veteran like Lacy isn't going to lose his job while he's on the shelf with an injury. And no matter how much Yeldon continues to impress, Lacy is still the odds-on favorite to take the first snap in Cowboys Stadium. But I think the odds just got a lot stronger in favor of Yeldon being the first back off the bench against Michigan (which I didn't think was very likely at all before). And at that point, all bets are off, because from then on, playing time will be dictated by production. Saban will almost always favor "the hot hand" in the rotation. And I don't think Lacy is as entrenched in his position at RB1 as post-Heisman Ingram was in 2010 when he kept getting all the starts despite Richardson probably having surpassed him by then.
But regardless of whether it happens this year or next, go ahead and put me on the record: This kid is the next great one.
CFBZ: With the new offensive coordinator, what changes do you see in store for the Bama offense this season?
Jay: I've actually been watching a lot of tape on Washington's offense from the last few seasons to get a feel for what new wrinkles Doug Nussmeier might bring over from Steve Sarkisian's system to the Tide offense, but mostly what I'm finding is strikingly similar to what Bama has done for the past 4 years under Jim McElwain: a multiple-set pro-style offense that uses lots of pre-snap shifts and motion, understands the importance of establishing the run, appreciates the value of a tight end, has a deep repertoire of screen passes, etc. Schematically, the only significant difference I've seen is that Sarkisian likes to use a true fullback, whereas Saban prefers more of an H-back (and I don't see that changing).
My thoughts are that the biggest winners in the change to Nussmeier will be versatile running backs like Yeldon and Dee Hart. Trent Richardson caught a lot of passes under McElwain, but they were mostly screens, little throws into the flats, check downs, and maybe the occasional wheel route. At Washington, they seemed to have a lot of clever ideas on how to get Chris Polk the ball down the field and in space to create explosive plays. Yeldon and Hart are both talented enough receivers that they were actually recruited as such, at least at one point or another, by Alabama, so it will be interesting to see if Nussmeier can inject that creativity into Bama's offense.
And as much as I hate to even consider it, I think Nussmeier's experience with dual-threat quarterbacks like Jake Locker and Keith Price could come in handy should AJ McCarron be lost to injury at some point. The departure of Phillip Sims has left the Tide with no experienced backup quarterback on the roster. Rather than entrust the entirety of the offense to freshmen like Phillip Ely or Alec Morris, it might make more sense to rebuild around the athleticism of Blake Sims at QB. Saban has even hinted at the possibility in recent interviews. Hopefully, it won't come to that, but if it does, Bama at least has an OC with some experience at conjuring production out of a QB with wheels and suspect passing skills, as Washington often did with Jake Locker.
CFBZ: Based on spring practice, who do you see stepping up at receiver this year?
Jay: If nothing else, I feel confident saying it won't be Duron Carter. Though there has been no official word as of this writing, the scuttlebutt is that Carter has left Tuscaloosa and is looking to transfer to a lower-level program in Florida. So it looks like you can file that whole escapade under "much ado about nothing." Kid just couldn't get his act together.
The guy who made the most noise this spring was Christion Jones. Jones played as a true freshman last year, but he didn't see many balls thrown his way and made his most significant contributions backing up Marquis Maze on returns. He drew a constant stream of praise from coaches and teammates alike during spring drills and posted some impressive stats in scrimmages, including a dazzling touchdown snag at A-Day. However, it helps to keep in mind that DeAndrew White was the spring standout in 2011, and that didn't translate into much during the season. But if nothing else, he looks like a good fit for Maze's old spot.
As of now, it looks like Jones, Kevin Norwood, and Kenny Bell will be the top three receivers heading into next season. Early enrollee Amari Cooper out of Miami made a few waves in the spring and seems physically developed enough to see the field this fall. Also, redshirt freshman Danny Woodson displayed some impressive run blocking skills at A-Day, and, as we all know, that is the fastest way to Saban's heart. Those are a handful of guys I would watch out for.
CFBZ: Bama lost a ton of defensive talent to the NFL in this years draft. Who do you see filling the vacancies that have been left?
Jay: Josh Chapman: It may take two men to fill Chapman's shoes. As far as who will be filling in at nose, it appears the Aussie, Jesse Williams, will be the man for that job. If he can mentally handle getting double-teamed more often (which is something he has admitted to struggling with), he'll do great, as he's by far the most athletic guy Saban has had at that spot. But as far as the crucial leadership vacuum that Chapman left behind, I'd look to veteran weakside defensive end Damion Square.
Don'ta Hightower: At 6'3", 250 pounds, senior Nico Johnson is a good physical match for Hightower and should slide over into the Mike linebacker position with ease. He played at Will alongside Hightower and Rolando McClain, so he has essentially been apprenticing for this job under a pair of 1st round draft picks for the past three seasons. The only thing he doesn't bring to the table is Hightower's ability to put his hand in the dirt and be a fierce edge rusher. Saban will have to find some other way to account for that loss.
Mark Barron: Unless incoming freshman Landon Collins takes fall camp by storm, sophomore Vinnie Sunseri will be inheriting Barron's starting spot, but leadership in the secondary will fall to redshirt senior Robert Lester. I actually thought Lester had a better, more consistent year in 2011 than he did in 2010 (when he finished ranked second nationally with eight interceptions). As productive as he was as a sophomore, he often seemed just as likely to make a big play for the opponent as he was the Tide. While not as flashy, his play last season was much more consistent and representative of someone I can see evolving into the into the steady, reliable leader in the secondary that all these new faces will need.
Courtney Upshaw: The battle for Upshaw's Jack linebacker spot is still evolving, but the top contenders are Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard. At 6'3", 240 pounds, the true freshman Dickson's physique is comparable to Upshaw as a youngster, and he seemed to have the lead for the starting spot throughout spring. However, when A-Day came around, it was Hubbard running with the first team, and he played extremely well, accounting for 3 solid sacks that would have gone as such even without the touch rules. But Hubbard is more of a rangy kid (6'6", 235-ish), and it's difficult to imagine him playing with his hand in the dirt 75% of the time like Upshaw did. Ultimately, I think Dickson gets the Jack job, and maybe Hubbard tries his hand at Sam and gets used as a specialist pass rusher like Hightower did. It would definitely be a big boost for the Tide if Dickson & Hubbard can become the new Upshaw & Hightower on 3rd and long.
Dre Kirkpatrick: Perhaps the biggest surprise of the spring was the emergence of Deion Belue. He originally signed with the Tide in 2010, but he didn't make the grades and went the JUCO route. What's interesting is that, while it was assumed he'd have a spot at Alabama when he was eligible, no one was really sure if there was actually a place for him in this recruiting cycle. Many insiders said he wasn't coming, and the whole thing was kind of a mystery up until the day he enrolled. He was almost a "throw-in." And all he ended up doing was having the best spring of any defensive back. He's the new apple of Saban's eye and seems certain to start at one of the corners, alongside two-year starter Dee Milliner. He's not quite as tall as Kirkpatrick, but he definitely fits the Saban mold of big corners.
DeQuan Menzie: Menzie is a tricky guy to replace because he was a swing player. In the base 3-4, he payed corner, and in the nickel package, he slid inside to play Star, which in itself is a tricky spot to play because you have to be physical enough to blitz and take on blocks but still shifty enough to cover slot receivers. The guy to watch out for here is another JUCO transfer, Travell Dixon. Unlike Belue, Dixon is more of a hired gun in the mold of Terrence Cody, Jesse Williams, and Menzie himself. Saban saw a hole in the depth chart and searched out a JUCO guy to fill it. And he doesn't search these guys out to have them sit on the bench. That said, Dixon notably struggled this spring, though Saban was quick to note that he was learning multiple positions, likely indicating that he's being groomed for the Menzie role. If Dixon can't pull it together, the job will probably fall to rising junior John Fulton. He's on the small side for a Saban DB, and struggles with zone coverage (that did in Internet legend BJ Scott, if anyone recalls), but he's the most experienced guy left on the depth chart.