With Staff Virtually all Intact, Tide Football Looks Ahead to Next Year
By: Larry Burton
When you’re the reigning national champion, there’s nowhere to go but down. Saban and his staff knows this and was happy to hear the players saying they were going to “work their butts off” to be in a position to be back next season in the playoffs yet again and to do better than they did this year. Indeed a little hunger is a good thing and revenge is an even stronger motivation.
Hunger from knowing they had a chance to go further than they did and revenge for people who delighted in finally seeing the mighty Crimson Tide fall to an Ohio State team they had heretofore owned.
Could a coaching staff ask for anything more than to have a motivated team full of top recruiting classes asking the staff to make them better, stronger and smarter?
Saban doesn’t think so and is eager to finish this year’s recruiting class, which by the way could be the best class in his tenure at Tuscaloosa. And if you don’t follow recruiting, that means more than you could ever know as Saban has traditionally either had the number one recruiting class in the country or at worst, simply one of the best.
And if you don’t know Nick, then you may not know that his number one joy in his career is coaching, teaching, molding and creating young men into great players and great men. It’s not winning on Saturday and lifting the trophies, it’s all the things you have to do to get that point.
Last season this team, the coaching staff and even Saban himself went to school. They all learned together how to run an up tempo offense. That made the practices different, the playbook different and the expectations different.
At times last season, the offense was a painful thing for the fans to watch. At times they danced with glee. Such is the way when changing to a different philosophy. First year starting quarterback Blake Sims had perhaps the number 1 receiving draft choice to lean on and he leaned quite heavily on him indeed.
This year’s quarterback may not have Cooper to rely on, but he will be emersed in the system and start with a higher degree of comfort than Sims began with. For those who forgot, Sims looked like a deer in the headlights in the spring A Day Game before gradually catching on.
Plus, he’ll have a plethora of outstanding pass snaggers to choose a favorite from. There are a bevy of talent here far too deep for any real concern. So for those who think the team will be lost without Cooper, the truth is the offense will miss Jalston Fowler even more. His ability to read rushers, lay devastating blocks, open running lanes as well as run like a back himself and have the soft receiving hands of the best receiver.
But if anyone can tinker with the loss of Fowler and utilize the talents of the players on hand it’s Lane Kiffin and he along with the rest of the offensive staff know that the talent is there, it’s just aligning the pieces correctly.
The real problem on offense in some eyes will be losing three starters on the offensive line. But the staff isn’t worried about the material they’re left with. The real key to a great line is gelling together as a unit and that shouldn’t take this line very long.
The two most critical to success will return. Center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson will build on his reputation and the talent is there to replace the two guards and right tackle. Second year player Bradly Bozeman, who filled in for Kelly at center for a few games this season should slide right in to one of those guard slots and Alphonse Taylor actually started two games last season and did well himself.
And I hope that fans remember that while Austin Shepherd was the model of consistency at right tackle, Grant Hill pushed him hard and almost took the job from him in 2013 and to back him up, a JUCO recruit, Dominick Jackson, a huge 6’7”, 320 pound transfer from California, is there to give him a good fight.
At running back, losing Yeldon to the NFL means losing a leader, but though most writers won’t say it, he was not the most productive runner in yards per carry on the Alabama team, it was his leadership that kept him that job. If Kenyan Drake recovers as expected the duo of Henry / Drake should put up better numbers than the Yeldon / Henry duo did this year, both in total yards and yards per carry. With a stable of even younger guns in the wings, only the number three job seems up for grabs.
The real question is quarterback. Maybe not so much on who it will be, but how will he be. Jacob Coker is expected to be the leader in the spring, but there are some who want to see if the Tide can develop a younger talent and have him for a few years over another one and done quarterback like Sims.
As said, Coker is the expected starter, but the same words were said last season and proved to be wrong. If he has not worked on speeding up his delivery, eliminating the hitch in his throwing motion and making quicker reads, fans may have yet another surprise on their hands next season under center. That would mean that unless he’s planning on a career as a coach, Coker would have wasted his two years at Alabama.
But with the talent surrounding him, this quarterback won’t have to be a superstar, he must simply wear the dreaded mantle of “game manager” to be successful. But one thing is for sure, the quarterback under center will have a higher ceiling than Sims had this season. The question will be, can he reach it?
On defense, Landon Collins will be gone to the NFL, another safety, Nick Perry will also be gone as will the star linebacker, Trey DePriest. Time will tell if Reed and Ragland stay and there are lots more people on defense who were contributors that will be gone, but the defense is full of future stars and defense may not the rebuilding project that many think it could be.
Alabama’s front seven could actually be better than last season’s squad as the depth of past recruiting classes finally start seeing the field.
The question of defense seems to be the same tired re-run of wondering about the defensive secondary. With both safeties leaving, it’s time for Geno Smith to step up and step up big at safety as both the vocal and on field leader back there and perhaps second year player Lawrence Jones to step up at the other spot. If he doesn’t then five star incoming freshman Deionte Thompson might get a long look as well as incoming freshman Ronnie Harrison.
At corner, I have faith that Eddie Jackson will recover physically by spring to become the star he could have been this season. If this comes through then the other side has some experience in Bradly Sylve and raw talent in a host of others. Marlon Humphrey and Tony Brown could finally develop into stars and incoming freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick is a five star, NFL future star kind of corner, but can he grasp Saban’s system that quickly?
But frankly, after the one of the worst years in a very long time and the worst in the Saban era, this secondary has nowhere to go but up. It is highly unlikely that this group could do worse with this talent. But the staff thinks that if they can keep injuries in check, this group could do well.
With hopes high and talent even higher, Alabama should begin and end the season in the conversation for another national championship. Whether they make it or not is the reason we enjoy the season.
Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter