TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — After months away, it was finally time to meet this season’s version of the Alabama Crimson Tide. Three weeks ago, at the team’s media day, we heard from coach Nick Saban, both coordinators and dozens of players. And, yes, after all the speculation and rumors since the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, we would get to speak with quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa face-to-face.
For the more than 30 media members in attendance, there might as well have been only two people in Tuscaloosa that day: Hurts and Tagovailoa, who were put on opposite sides of the field. With the exception of a few stray reporters, everyone huddled around the quarterbacks, lobbing question after question about the position battle. Hurts broke character, explaining his frustration with the way the coaching staff had handled the competition during the offseason, and all hell broke loose.
What was already the most compelling QB battle in college football went into overdrive that day, and it seemed as though everything else about Alabama and its quest to repeat as national champions went out the window. Every other question about this team — and there are many — fell by the wayside.
Not anymore. As the Crimson Tide close up fall camp and begin their first week of game prep, it’s time to examine all the questions facing the No. 1-ranked team in college football that have nothing to do with who starts at quarterback on Sept. 1 against Louisville.
How will the new-look coaching staff gel?
When Burton Burns moved from running backs coach into an off-field role, the last vestige of Saban’s original coaching staff from 2007 was gone. But it’s not just the long view that looks different. Saban shook up his entire coaching staff this offseason, adding six new assistants: Jeff Banks (special teams/tight ends), Dan Enos (quarterbacks), Josh Gattis (wide receivers), Pete Golding (inside linebackers), Craig Kuligowski (defensive line) and Karl Scott (defensive backs). What’s more, he elevated Mike Locksley and Tosh Lupoi to offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively. “It felt like we started a new program,” Saban said. While his new staff is much younger than the previous one and has already made a positive impact in recruiting, it has a lot to prove in terms of actual on-field production.
How will the distribution work at RB?
Burns had a gift for making the tangled web of a three-, four- or five-man rotation work. Take 2014 for instance, when he managed to keep future pros T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake all engaged. With egos and expectations, that’s no small task. Now that job falls to Joe Pannunzio to divide carries and lead a loaded backfield — one that Locksley considers the strength of the offense. “All four of those guys, when you talk about Brian Robinson, Josh Jacobs, Najee Harris and Damien Harris, all are uber-talented guys,” Locksley said. “I’d be an idiot to not find ways to get those guys involved in our system.” Harris, who is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, will be the No. 1 back, but don’t expect 20-30 carries a game when the rest of the supporting cast deserves touches as well.
No Calvin Ridley. No problem?
The numbers last season weren’t pretty. Ridley had 63 catches, but that was more than the next four receivers combined. “We’re a much better team when guys all feel like they have some ability to help,” Locksley said. And now that Ridley is gone, the hope for Alabama is that a handful of players step up as a replacement-by-committee, most notably Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III. All showed flashes last season as freshmen, but there’s a lack of experience there to consider. A few other names to watch in the passing game are newcomer Jaylen Waddle and junior tight end Irv Smith Jr.
Who will protect the QB?
For some reason, this question is taken for granted. Sure, there’s talent and experience on the offensive line, but it’s not exactly a sure thing. Ross Pierschbacher has shown that he’s a solid offensive guard, but how will he do in the transition to center where he replaces the sure-handed Bradley Bozeman? How about the development of Jonah Williams and Lester Cotton? Last year’s starter at right tackle, Matt Womack, is out for at least the next month with a broken bone in his foot. Will Alex Leatherwood or Jedrick Willis play in his stead?
What will the secondary look like?
In Saban’s eyes, this is the biggest challenge facing his team. Because it’s not just that Alabama has lost all four starters from last year’s secondary, including Mr. Everything and everyone’s All-American Minkah Fitzpatrick. It’s that the top six players overall are gone. Deionte Thompson has the look of an All-SEC caliber player at safety, but he started only two games last season. Shyheim Carter, Trevon Diggs and Xavier McKinney will move up the depth chart, but Saban needs to get newcomers Saivion Smith and Patrick Surtain II ahead of the learning curve and ready to contribute right away.
Another linebacker is injured? Again?!
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the QB competition that prompted Saban’s most compelling rant of the preseason. Rather, it was yet another season-ending injury at outside linebacker. “You just think whatever happens, we just s— another player,” Saban said. You can understand his frustration. A few weeks after learning that outside linebacker Terrell Lewis tore his ACL, he got the news from doctors that fellow outside linebacker Christopher Allen would likely miss the season with a knee injury. Now, outside of projected starters Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller, there’s little depth. Alabama navigated a rash of injuries at linebacker last season when Jennings, Miller, Lewis, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson all missed significant time, but this latest outbreak could test Saban’s ability to plug-and-replace talented defenders yet again.
And, finally, what about the specialists?
Yes, punters and kickers are people, too, and should be considered here. Alabama had one of the best punters in the country the past four years in JK Scott, and now he’s gone. His replacement, Skyler DeLong, has a big leg as well, but he has work to do to become the kind of impact player Scott was, responsible for consistently putting the defense in good field position. Meanwhile, the competition at place-kicker may have more upside considering how Andy Pappanastos struggled last season, but there’s no clear winner yet between Austin Jones and Joseph Bulovas.