Alabama wants to get back on the field. As springtime approaches, many battles will occur to see which players are ready to take the next step. A Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State made one thing clear for Alabama.
If it wants to claim another national championship, the Crimson Tide has to return to a physical style of play. It loses many pieces to the 2015 NFL Draft, but Alabama returns a roster littered with talent. Here are the top five best returning players in 2015.
5. Cyrus Jones, Senior, Cornerback
Cyrus Jones has vastly improved since transitioning from wide receiver to cornerback in 2013. Former Alabama safety Landon Collins took Jones under his wing and built his confidence. He solidified himself as a lock down corner, totaling 46 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 2014.
Jones accounted for 13 pass breakups (team high), and made his presence felt in five games this season. He recorded his first collegiate touchdown as a defender against Ole Miss.
Jones stripped the ball away from running back I’Tavius Mathers and returned it for a 13-yard touchdown. He registered three tackles and two pass breakups against the Rebels.
Jones held LSU’s true freshman receiver Malachi Dupree to one catch for 14 yards. He collected three tackles, a pass breakup and an interception in Alabama’s 34-20 victory over Tennessee. Jones was one of three Crimson Tide players that put an end to Dak Prescott’s Heisman run.
He had four tackles, two pass breakups and an interception against Mississippi State. Jones had two tackles, four pass breakups and an interception in Alabama’s 42-35 loss to Ohio State.
Jones has an opportunity to improve his NFL Draft stock. He’s a secure tackler who plays above his size (5-10/194). Facing the ball is an area of weakness for Jones. He’s constantly in the right position, but tends to not get his head turned toward the ball at times. Improvement in this area could result as the difference between Jones being a first-round or late-round pick.
4. JK Scott, Sophomore, Punter
An average year was expected of him, but there is nothing average about JK Scott. His opening statement to college football was a 62-yard punt in Alabama’s season opener against West Virginia. Rather than diminish, Scott’s leg strength grew with each game in 2014.
He finished his freshman campaign, posting an average of 48.0 yards per punt. 31 of Scott’s 55 kicks pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line. He had 23 punts in excess of 50 yards. Scott’s efforts paid off for Alabama against Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tennessee and LSU. He excelled at flipping field position against Ole Miss and Ohio State, despite losses against both teams. Scott was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award.
3. Ryan Kelly, Senior, Center
Ryan Kelly returns as Alabama’s most experienced offensive lineman in 2015. Cam Robinson exceeded expectations as a freshman, but still has more to learn. Kelly’s communication skills must improve in deciphering run blocking and pass protection schemes. He helped anchor an Alabama offense that averaged 36.9 points and 484.5 yards per game in 2014. Kelly guided Alabama’s back to 206.6 yards per contest with 35 touchdowns.
2. Derrick Henry, Junior, Running Back
Derrick Henry has earned the role of being a featured back. He was a phenomenon as a freshman, but developed into a balanced running back in 2014. Henry accounted for 990 yards and 11 touchdowns on 5.8 yards per carry.
He totaled 100+ yards rushing against West Virginia, Florida and Missouri. Henry caught five passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns. He was the lone bright spot for Alabama in a second consecutive Sugar Bowl.
Henry recorded 149 all-purpose yards (95 rushing, 54 receiving) and a touchdown against Ohio State. Henry and Kenyan Drake together in 2015 could give offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin an Alabama version of LenDale White and Reggie Bush.
1. Reggie Ragland, Senior, Linebacker
C.J. Mosley was missed, but Reggie Ragland was clutch in 2014. He had six tackles in his linebacker debut against West Virginia. Ragland was stellar against the run, and did a decent job in pass coverage. He anchored a solid run defense for much of the season.
Ragland finished second on the team in tackles (95). He registered 10.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three pass breakups, three fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and an interception. Ragland’s return helps improve his draft stock, but it also gives him a chance to captain Alabama’s defense. Trey DePriest’s departure to the NFL Draft gives Ragland the torch as the Crimson Tide’s next talented inside linebacker. Alabama may feature two freshmen in the secondary next season. It will be Ragland’s job to make the correct calls on defense.