The biggest jump in learning and production for any athlete – college or professional – is from freshman (rookie) and sophomore (second year) season.
With at least two years of academic material under the belt and one season of field action, sophomores are expected to know more and be able to contribute more at a high level.
For the University of Alabama, head coach Nick Saban looks for the football program to return to the College Football Playoff stage and win a national championship. To do this, he will need a few second-year players to prove to the coaching staff that they are ready to lead.
Defensively, the Crimson Tide has a clean slate.
The departures of Tosh Lupoi and Craig Kuligowski provide student-athletes a chance to show Pete Golding, Brian Baker and Sal Sunseri that they belong on the field. As spring practice starts in three weeks, listed below are five sophomores who are ready to take the next step.
Eyabi Anoma, OLB
He came to Alabama in 2018 with a natural instinct of dropping quarterbacks, but now Eyabi Anoma may have the coach that will trust him on the field.
A five-star from Maryland, he possesses a variety of pass rush moves needed to be special and has elite size at 6-5/250 to be explosive off the edge. Coaches in the Southeastern Conference seemed to like Anoma as he was named the league’s All-Freshman Team, following a decent freshman season in 12 games.
He collected nine tackles – including one for loss – and despite entering his name into the NCAA transfer portal, it was quickly removed a few days later. Tim Williams, Anoma’s predecessor and a player he is often compared to, did not see much action at all during his freshman and sophomore seasons.
The Louisiana native finally took over as a junior, posting 10.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 2015. He turned in 9.5 sacks with 16 tackles for loss in 2016, which placed him at 19.5 sacks and 28.5 stops for loss in two years.
Strong coaching put Williams for the National Football League and it should do the same for Anoma, seeing how Sunseri is about having playmakers on the field.
Also, keep your eyes on Christopher Allen as he returns from a knee injury that forced him to miss all of last season.
Jaylen Waddle, WR
He could not have scripted a more exciting rookie year; however, Jaylen Waddle is about to show Alabama fans more action on special teams.
As a wide receiver, the native Texan finished second in yards (848), tied for third in touchdowns (seven) and was third in receptions (45).
Waddle took home SEC All-Freshman Team honors from the league’s coaches, Football Writers Association of America and Associated Press. While he returned one punt for a score in 2018, Waddle spent much of the season signaling fair catch. Saban and special teams’ coordinator, Jeff Banks thoroughly understand the weapon they have in the five-star.
Look for the Tide to create ways for him to be more active in returning punts.
Patrick Surtain II, CB
Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis will both be studs before it’s all said and done, but Patrick Surtain II is someone who is going to be a lockdown defender.
He had a strong freshman year leading up to the CFP and even after the matchup against Oklahoma, Surtain will take the experience and use it to help him become more frustrating versus talented receivers.
Like Waddle, the Florida native was an SEC All-Freshman Team honoree from the league’s coaches, FWAA and AP for his efforts. Surtain had 37 tackles, seven pass breakups and one interception through 15 games, to help the Crimson Tide win a conference championship.
Phidarian Mathis, DL
A lot of players will compete to replace Quinnen Williams at defensive tackle; nevertheless, Phidarian Mathis should come out as the starter.
The 6-foot-4, 310-pound redshirt sophomore from Louisiana tallied 18 tackles and made the All-SEC Freshman Team for 2018.
He has the ideal size as a two-gap defender and is working on getting his hands quicker to affect the passing game.
Fellow sophomore Christian Barmore and a few talented true freshmen all look to impress Brian Baker – formerly of Mississippi State – but this is Mathis’ time.
Ale Kaho, ILB
Joshua McMillon and Markail Benton are both good players that will see action, but Brandon “Ale” Kaho is ready right now. Not only is he a beast on special teams, but Pete Golding really likes his quickness and intelligence at inside linebacker.
The return of Dylan Moses as a junior will slot Kaho at weakside for the upcoming season, but even that works perfectly for him.
A native of Reno, Nev., Kaho single-handedly pushed Alabama’s 2018 signing class into the top five after it at No. 6 before the summer came in. The 6-foot-1, 218-pounder has the build of former Tide linebacker, C.J. Mosley and fans are looking for a strong A-Day Game from him.
Putting Kaho and Moses together just feels like a deadly combination.
When it comes to other sophomores to watch, pay attention to Tyrell Shavers, Xavier Williams, Jerome Ford and Eddie Smith. The duo of Shavers and Williams at wide receiver learned a lot last year, and Shavers in particular has the body type (6-6/216) to be a feared red zone target.
In talking with a few players at the Orange Bowl, yours truly of Touchdown Alabama Magazine was told that Ford “is the real deal.” The Florida native played well on the scout team and provided Alabama’s defense with different looks.
As for Smith, the three-star continues to grow and teammates really like him to be a marquee safety at some point soon.
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