It’s that time of the year again. Schools around the country are back in session, the weather is about to start cooling off, and we are just a mere eight days away until the college football kicks off and the long tumultuous offseason is finally over. In ten days, the Alabama Crimson Tide will kick off their season in Bryant-Denny Stadium against Kent State.
The offseason always seems to drag on forever, but it’s finally coming to a close and we can now shift our focus toward the season. This will be part one of my three part Crimson Tide season preview, with defense and special teams next, followed by my schedule breakdown.
Alabama enters the season with lofty expectations as they begin the year ranked second in both the AP and Coaches polls. The team is hungry to make another magical run toward a National Championship, after a disappointing 2010 season that started with the highest of expectations and ended with a 10-3 record as the Tide watched their most bitter rival capture BCS glory.
Last season’s Iron Bowl is fueling the team this season as posters of “Never Forget” are plastered all over the weight room. That game epitomized all of the team’s shortcomings in 2010, and was everything that Nick Saban has preached against in his four years as the Tide’s head man. It has
long been Saban’s philosophy to finish games, and after jumping out to a 24-0 lead over the top-ranked Tigers, Alabama did everything but. The team is determined to never again let a collapse like that happen.
Offensively, the Crimson Tide return seven starters from a year ago, but will have to replace a few key components in quarterback Greg
McElroy, former Heisman winning running back Mark Ingram, and All-American wide receiver Julio Jones. Alabama has plenty of talent at its disposal to fill the shoes of those who were lost, but young players will have to step up and prove their blue-chip worth.
Projected Starter: AJ McCarron (So.) or Phillip Sims (Fr.)
It would be merely a guess if I were to peg a projected starting quarterback at this point. Nick Saban has yet to do so, and has said many times that he plans to use both quarterbacks at least in the early part of the season. It’s well known that Greg McElroy wasn’t the most physically gifted
quarterback, but he made up for that with his football IQ, and his ability to manage a game and not make the critical mistakes to lose the game.
That is what will be asked of either McCarron or Sims when they step onto to the field to lead the Crimson Tide offense. Both of these guys are physically talented, but neither has taken a meaningful snap other than McCarron’s ill-fated attempt to lead Alabama back in the Iron Bowl after McElroy was knocked out with a concussion.
McCarron and Sims have proven that they can lead this team, and that they are worthy of being starters at the SEC level. McCarron has the
edge in experience, and has seen playing time in mop-up duty and the aforementioned Iron Bowl debacle. In his brief action, the sophomore has
completed 63% of his passes for 389 yards and 3 touchdowns to 0 interceptions.
Phillip Sims took a redshirt in 2010, and spent the season holding a clipboard and learning the offense. But, even without having taken a snap at this level, he’s impressed the coaching staff enough to battle to a draw with McCarron to this point. They are going to see split-time in the
season opener against Kent State, and we may not have a starter named until Alabama opens up SEC play against Arkansas. Saban deciding not to name a starter until at least after the first game could be a clever way of preventing the loser of the quarterback battle from transferring to another school.
Behind these two are redshirt freshman Blake Sims, and true freshman Phillip Ely. Sims seems to have settled in as the team’s third quarterback, but could also see playing time as a running back or receiver. Sims is too talented to sit on the bench, and in the unlikely case that both
McCarron and Sims are knocked out with injuries, then Blake Sims would take over. He provides a true dual-threat weapon when he’s in at quarterback, and it could be interesting to see him lined up as the quarterback in the wildcat package with his ability to throw and run the football.
As for Ely, it’s almost certain that he’s going to be redshirted in 2011 as he has long been thought of as a developmental project.
Running Backs: A
Projected Starter: Trent Richardson (Jr.)
Backup: Eddie Lacy (So.)
Usually, when you lose a Heisman Trophy winner in the backfield, the ground game takes a step back. But, that’s not the case for the Crimson Tide as Mark Ingram’s backup, Trent Richardson, could make his own run toward the stiff-arm trophy in 2011. We all saw what Richardson could do as a starter last season, when he stepped in seamlessly for Ingram when he missed the first two games of last season after knee surgery. Richardson wasn’t needed much against San Jose State, but he rushed for 144 yards the next week against Penn State.
He rushed for 700 yards last season on 112 carries for an average of 6.3 yards per carry. He averaged over 145 all-purpose yards a game last season, which was good enough for 21st in the nation. Pretty good for a backup, huh? Richardson could very well be a better overall player than his predecessor Ingram, with his ability as a receiver and return man.
Complimenting Richardson will be sophomore Eddie Lacy, who saw a lot of action last season in games that Alabama had well in hand. Lacy will be able to take some of the load off of Richardson’s shoulders, and should be a great backup. Lacy averaged 7.3 yards per carry last season, but admittedly that is inflated by the level of competition he was usually going up against. Even still, Lacy has looked impressive when he has gotten an opportunity to run the ball, and has cut down on the fumbles that plagued him early last season.
I expect Lacy to respond well to the higher number of carries in 2011, and he should have a pretty good year. It’s behind Richardson and Lacy where everything gets tricky. It’s been well documented that Alabama’s depth in the backfield took a hit this offseason with the departures of Demetrius Goode and Corey Grant, who both decided to transfer. If that wasn’t enough true freshman Dee Hart, who was expected to make an immediate impact for the Crimson Tide, tore his ACL and will be lost for the season. So now, the running back depth is a question mark.
The third string back will be sophomore Jalston Fowler, who is a big, bruising runner, who could be utilized near the goal line. After that, true freshman Brent Calloway could see some time, and if need be, Blake Sims could move into the backfield.
WR: Marquis Maze (Sr.), Darius Hanks (Sr.), DeAndrew White (Fr.)
TE: Michael Williams (Jr.)
H-Back: Brad Smelley (Sr.)
The biggest loss for the Alabama offense in my opinion was Julio Jones. He’s somebody that just cannot be replaced. He was Alabama’s go to receiver the last three years, and there isn’t a player on the roster that can match his physical ability. But, there are a number of receivers that should be solid weapons for either McCarron or Sims. Marquis Maze is the top returning target with 557 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns last season. He’ll have a much bigger role this season, and might be in for a big senior year.
Darius Hanks will be forced to sit out the first two games by the NCAA, but he should line up on the outside opposite Maze. Hanks caught 32 passes a year ago for 456 yards and 3 touchdowns. Hanks is a pretty sure handed receiver, but doesn’t have the same kind of speed or size that Julio had to gain separation on defensive backs.
The surprise of the offseason so far has been the progression of redshirt freshman receiver DeAndrew White. White was a four star receiving recruit out of Galena Park, Texas, and redshirted in 2010. White has been the recipient of a lot of praise from head coach Nick Saban, and coming from a coach that doesn’t give out praise that much, it is obviously saying something. White has great speed, and should be Alabama’s 3rd receiver this season. White should be the #2 receiver for the first two games while Hanks sits out.
Obviously, Alabama’s receiving core was expected to get a boost from JUCO transfer Duron Carter, but he has still not been cleared to play. At this point, it would be overly optimistic to expect Carter to make too much of an impact early in the season with as much practice time as he has missed. If and when he is cleared, Carter could in the very least make an immediate impact in Alabama’s red zone offense. He has the size
to go up and catch passes in the end zone, and even if that’s all he’s able to provide, it would be a big boost.
Brandon Gibson, Kenny Bell, and Kevin Norwood should all see time at wide receiver as well. At tight end, junior Michael Williams will take over starting duties from the graduated Preston Dial. Williams caught 8 passes for 100 yards last season, but should see more targets this season. Brad
Smelley will occasionally line up at tight end, but he will be the starting H-back.
Chris Underwood, Brian Vogler, and Malcolm Faciane should all have an opportunity to see the field this year.
Offensive Line: A-
Projected Starter: Barrett Jones (Jr.)
Backup: Cyrus Kouandjio (Fr.)
Projected Starter: Chance Warmack (Jr.)
Backup: Alfred McCullough (Sr.)
Projected Starter: William Vlachos (Sr.)
Backup: Kellen Williams (So.)
Projected Starter: Anthony Steen (So.)
Backup: John Michael Boswell (Sr.)
Projected Starter: DJ Fluker (So.)
Backup: Arie Kouandjio (Fr.)
This will more than likely be the starting five on the offensive line for Alabama
at the start of the season. The unit has four returning starters from last season, with Anthony Steen the lone first-time starter. Barrett Jones is making the transition from right guard to left tackle to replace the departed James Carpenter. It’s not ideal for Jones to play left tackle, but right now he gives the Crimson Tide the best shot of winning, and he’s undoubtedly the team’s best blocker. If the unit struggles out of the gate, look for Jones to move back to right guard and for true freshman Cyrus Kouandjio to step in and start at left tackle.
You never want a freshman to have to start at the most important position on the offensive line, but Kouandjio is as good as we thought he would be. He has lived up to the hype in fall camp, and it’s going to be hard to keep off of the field. He’s certainly the future at left tackle, but Saban and company would prefer he get some experience before throwing him out there.
Chance Warmack struggled at times last season, but he will start at left guard for a second straight season. Alfred McCullough is listed
as his backup, but McCullough is more of the line’s sixth man. He’ll likely step in anywhere but center or left tackle in case of an injury.
William Vlachos also seemed to take a step back in 2010, after a strong sophomore season at center. He needs to get back to dominating if the unit is going to revert back to its 2009 form. Kellen Williams has looked good working with the second team at center, and he’s likely going to be
Vlachos’ replacement in 2012.
Anthony Steen stepped in and started a couple of games last season at right guard when Barrett Jones was hurt, and he’s made major strides this offseason. He’s done so well that Nick Saban felt comfortable moving Barrett Jones to left tackle. John Michael Boswell is a solid backup at right
guard, and is finally looking capable of playing at this level.
DJ Fluker was great last season in his first year as the starting right tackle, and he should show further improvement in his redshirt sophomore season. At 6’6 335, Fluker is physically imposing, and he could contend for All-SEC honors if he continues his progression. Behind Fluker is redshirt freshman Arie Kouandjio, the brother of stud freshman Cyrus. Arie was a heavily recruited offensive tackle in his own right, and he’s another player that is versatile enough to play a number of positions on the line.
Overall, the unit looks impressive, but it’s going to have to gel if the team wants to be successful. The best five guys will play, and
this may not be it, but these will be the guys that Saban sends out for the season opener against Kent State.
The Alabama offense has a wealth of talent, but blue chip prospects don’t always pan out. On the surface, this offense looks good enough to challenge for a second National Championship in three years. In order for that to happen, AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims will have to be efficient throwing the ball, and the offensive line will need to dominant like it did in 2009 to give the quarterbacks time to throw the ball, and to open up running lanes for Trent Richardson.
Next up, I will preview the defense for the Crimson Tide and that is tentatively scheduled to be posted on Friday.