TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Now that National Signing Day is in the rearview mirror, next up for the University of Alabama football team is spring practice.
Nick Saban hasn’t announced the schedule, but with A-Day set for April 21 things won’t get into high gear for another month while offseason conditioning continues.
Because there were 16 early enrollees last year a big emphasis was on getting as many of those players up to speed as possible. Saban called that record number from the Class of 2017 “a little bit of an anomaly.” This year there are only four early enrollees plus grayshirt linebacker Jarez Parks, who joined the team in January.
With Karl Dunbar’s departure to oversee the defensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Crimson Tide will have more new coaches than early enrollees. Brent Key, Pete Golding, Josh Gattis and Karl Scott have already been named to the staff. Former Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos is expected to be the quarterbacks coach.
As for the new players, defensive end Stephon Wynn, cornerback Saivion Smith, running back Slade Bolden and punter Skyler DeLong are already enrolled.
Consequently, a lot of the attention this spring will be on position battles, some of which won’t get settled until the fall. Five that stand out the most:
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. Jalen Hurts is going into his junior season as a two-year starter and will be working with his third offensive coordinator, Michael Locksley. Of course, Tua Tagovailoa led the comeback in the National Championship Game.
Saban’s big thing at the position is having someone win over the team, but Alabama probably won’t release any passing statistics from the scrimmages until A-Day. Fans shouldn’t expect the coach to make any announcements about who may be winning the competition, either.
— Jalen Hurts (@JalenHurts) February 8, 2018
Alabama has to replace all six starters, including those in the dime and nickel packages. Similar to the offensive line, the priority will be on getting the best players on the field, so expect some experimentation and jostling.
“We felt really, really good about the five guys we were able to attract at that position,” Saban said on National Signing Day. “Those guys are going to have a great opportunity to compete on our team.”
Safety Deionte Thompson filled in for an injured player in the title game, so he’s the closest thing Alabama has to an incumbent. Smith could be in the mix on Day 1 and the coaches are very high on Patrick Surtain Jr., although he won’t be on campus until the summer.
For now, the player to watch is Trevon Diggs, who after moving from wide receiver started the 2017 season opener at cornerback. He might have an even brighter future at safety, sort of like Eddie Jackson.
Here’s a look at Alabama’s secondary class after losing the whole secondary.
5* Patrick Surtain Jr. (No. 1 CB)
4* Jalyn Armour-Davis (No. 13 CB)
4* Josh Jobe (No. 14 CB)
4* Saivion Smith (No. 1 JUCO CB)
3* Eddie Smith (No. 42 CB)#RollTide
— Alabama DieHards (@AlabamaDieHards) February 7, 2018
3. Offensive line
Alabama has to replace only one starter while two players who were freshmen last season — Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills Jr. — have shown that they’re ready for bigger roles. Look for position coach Brent Key to do some experimenting at center, maybe giving Ross Pierschbacher another look there along with Jonah Williams. Brandon Kennedy was second on the depth chart before suffering a foot injury last season.
Alabama had so many injuries last season, and so many players step up, that there will have to be a sort of resetting at all the positions. The player to watch may be sophomore Dylan Moses, who was initially being groomed as an outside linebacker but moved to the interior. Chances are he and Mack Wilson will get the nod at the interior spots to get the best players on the field with Anfernee Jennings, Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller splitting duties at the outside positions. How things line up behind them is a huge question mark, especially with prize recruit Eyabi Anoma arriving over the summer and some more bodies needed on the defensive line.
5. Wide receiver
The natural inclination is for the three sophomores — Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III — to step in for the three starting seniors who left, and that might end up being what happens. But don’t rule out Tyrell Shavers, while Derek Kief could be the next Cam Sims, and Chadarius Townsend and Xavian Marks will push for more playing time.
Incoming freshmen Jaylen Waddle and Xavier Williams will start the next wave of receivers over the summer and could land immediate rotation spots.
“Jaylen is an outstanding young man. I mean really a good person,” Saban said. “We had him in a camp last summer and we’ve recruited him for a long time. He’s got great quickness on change of direction and run after catch. Really an outstanding overall receiver, but would work really well for us in the slot. Has really good run-after-catch speed. Maybe a little different than some of the guys we have right now, which is a really good thing.”
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