05 August 2011
The University of Alabama football team will officially begin its 2011 Fall Camp at 9:30 on Friday morning with its first practice. As in year's past, the morning practice will consist of roughly half of the squad, with all of the players being returning guys. The other half of the squad will practice at 7:30, and will be the first practice for all of the new players. Coach Saban is expected to meet with the media between practices.
With camp beginning, it's time to take a look at the five big questions facing this year's team:
5) How will the Tide's receiving corps shape up with Julio Jones now playing in the NFL?
Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks are the only returning guys with more than six career catches at Alabama, so it's pretty much a given that they will be counted on heavily in the offense. Hanks will have to sit the first two games due to NCAA rules that require him to sit two games for every one game that he played during his true freshman season that was later awarded a redshirt. That means that Bama will travel to Penn State without one of its two truly experienced receivers.
There is a lot of talent behind these two guys, but very little experience. Brandon Gibson, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, and Michael Bowman have all taken snaps - and they have combined for a total of 12 catches. Obviously, that means that someone will have to step forward.
Among the talented guys who have yet to see time in the college game are DeAndrew White, Marvin Shinn, Bradley Sylve, Danny Woodson, Jr., and Duron Carter. We could also potentially see Blake Sims and Jabriel Washington take snaps at wide receiver, though my guess is that Sims splits time between quarterback and running back and Washington starts at corner. New wide receiver coach Mike Groh will get tested early in his ability to develop athleticism into production.
So how will it play out?
You can pretty much count on the fact that Brandon Gibson is going to play. He's a senior and has logged a ton of snaps in his career. While he only has six catches, he and A.J. McCarron seem to have a good rhythm together. Add to that the fact that he is an excellent blocker, and you get a guy who is likely to play a lot. A source who attended better than half of last year's practices tells me that there was serious consideration last season given to taking the redshirt off of DeAndrew White, and the staff seems to think that he as the skill-set to be a great receiver. Duron Carter had 13 receptions as a true freshman at Ohio State two years ago, and followed that up with 44 in junior college last season. Expect to see him seriously challenge for a starting spot immediately.
In case you were wondering, Carter was given #8, Shinn #80, Sylve #16, and Woodson #13.
4) How will the running back depth shape up behind Trent Richardson?
When the 2010 season closed, it looked like Bama was set to have a very deep stable of guys at the running back position. Then attrition started. It was no shock that Mark Ingram left for the NFL, but that was followed by Demetrius Goode and Corey Grant transferring. Then Dee Hart tore his ACL, and Eddie Lacy suffered a pectoral injury. All of the sudden the Tide will open fall camp with two returning players not wearing a black no contact jersey - Richardson and Jalston Fowler.
Lacy's injury is not thought to be serious, and it is likely that he'll be ready to go by Arkansas. That means that Fowler immediately climbs into the #2 spot in the rotation, unless Lacy recovers quicker than most expect. Behind him, there is virtually no experience. In fact, short of someone moving from other positions, there are no other scholarship players. Walk-on Ben Howell has climbed to the top of the non-scholarship list, but with all due respect to guys like Rashad Johnson and Will Lowery, I don't think anyone wants to see a walk-on with meaningful carries at Penn State.
So how will it play out?
I expect that we will see Blake Sims take some reps at running back. He closed the spring as the #3 quarterback, and I think we'll still see him get some reps there just in case. But Phillip Ely will share the scout team quarterback duties with Morgan Ogilvie, so Sims will be free to work at running back. Most of his snaps this season are likely to come as the de facto quarterback in the wildcat formation, but if Lacy is out for a few games, he could get some carries as a standard running back.
True freshman Brent Calloway is still awaiting official clearance by the NCAA before he can practice. His facebook status on Thursday night was apparently one word - "Finally!". That could mean that the girl he has been asking out finally agreed to go on a date, but it's more likely that he's been cleared. If we don't find out during Coach Saban's press conference, we'll see during the evening practice. Interestingly enough, he and Howell have both been issued the number 21.
Richardson is going to the guy getting most of the carries, though Nick Saban has shown that he prefers to have at least two backs share the load. Having said that, in 2009 Bama's running backs combined for 520 carries and Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson combined for 416 of those. So, in reality, it's unlikely that more than two guys will get the bulk of the carries. Lacy will be back at some point in the first half of the season, and at that time, he will become the second guy. In the meantime, that load will fall onto the 246 lb. frame of Jalston Fowler. I'm a big fan of the way he runs the football, so I'm okay with that. Lacy is a more athletic player, and his skill-set will be a welcome addition to the rotation once he's healthy. But a duo of Richardson and Fowler is certainly good enough for Kent State and North Texas, and should be enough for the rushing attack at Penn State.
Sims has a new look, taking the #6 that Goode wore in 2010.
3) How will the Tide's defensive line look?
Marcell Dareus and Luther Davis are gone to the NFL and Kerry Murphy's knees degraded to the point that his football career is over. At one point last season that was Bama's defensive line. Thankfully the Tide had a heavy rotation, and there were also starts from Josh Chapman and Damion Square. Unfortunately it was announced earlier this week that Darrington Sentimore has transferred to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, so the Tide will be without one of its best pass rushers. MGCCC is where Terrance Cody came from, and there are some indications that Sentimore could be back at Bama in December, so don't close the book on him quite yet.
With Dareus, Davis, Murphy, and Sentimore out, that leaves just Chapman, Square, Nick Gentry, Undra Billingsley, and Brandon Lewis returning with game experience. Ed Stinson made the move from jack linebacker to defensive end in the spring, which gives new defensive line coach Chris Rumph another weapon. Stinson entered the spring listed at 252 lbs. - way too light for an end in a 3-4 set. He's entering fall camp listed at 279 lbs. If he has been able to maintain his quickness with the added weight then he will be an absolute terror off of the end.
So how will it play out?
Look for Chapman to start in the middle with Square and Stinson on either side. Behind them, there will likely be a heavy rotation with two junior college guys - Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial working at both end and nose guard. Nick Gentry has developed nicely over his career and will likely play in the middle a good bit, especially in passing situations. Brandon Lewis was hurt during most of his first season last year, but expect to see him get more playing time this season.
Behind them will be a large group of mostly untested players trying to work their way into the rotation. Undra Billingsley is a junior, but he spent a season and a half at tight end, so he doesn't have much experience on the group of returning young guys that includes Chris Bonds, William Ming, Anthony Orr, and Brandon Ivory. Ivory is a nose guard all of the way, while the other three guys are likely to stay at end.
There are potentially four incoming players on the line, though as many as three of them could end up moving to jack linebacker. LaMichael Fanning is a lineman all the way at 275 lbs. Xzavier Dickson, Jeoffrey Pagan, and D.J. Pettway are all expected to start out at end, with Dickson being the most likely guy to slide to linebacker.
How things shape up behind Chapman, Square, Stinson, Williams, and Dial is a great big unknown at this point. How each of the returning guys has taken to the teaching of Rumph will be a major thing to watch during the first two weeks of camp.
If you are building your own roster, remember that Stinson switched to #49 in the spring. Fanning will be #44, Dickson #47, Pagan #8, and Pettway #57,
2) Who will be Bama's starting quarterback?
You probably thought that was going to be #1. It will certainly be talked about the most, but Bama has two extremely talented guys at the position, and whether it ends up being A.J. McCarron or Phillip Sims, Bama will be fine at quarterback. I'd love to tell you that I have some inside knowledge of how things stand right now, but anyone telling you that (other than Nick Saban and Jim McElwain) is greatly exaggerating their "insider" status. McCarron likely had a slight lead leaving the spring, though I thought Sims had the better A-Day. How the guys developed over the summer will dictate who starts out as the #1 in camp. Though you can pretty much bet that Coach Saban will tell everyone that they are even during his press conference.
How will it play out?
Your guess is as good as mine. I think both guys will get meaningful snaps against Kent State - as meaningful as any snaps against Kent State can be. And I also think we'll see both guys play at Penn State, and again against North Texas. The guy who starts the Arkansas game will be the guy who has won the job. Is that a little terrifying? You bet. But this isn't a competition between Brandon Avalos and Marc Guillon. Both of these guys are elite talents, and Bama will fine with either one.
In case you were wondering how the two guys developed during the summer - McCarron is now listed at 205 lbs. (up 13 from the spring) and Sims at 217 (down 7 from the spring).
1) Which five guys will make up the starting offensive line?
It doesn't matter which guy wins the quarterback job, the backup running back job, or fills in the wide receiver rotation. If the offensive line isn't set and ready to go, the offense will be stagnant. New line coach Jeff Stoutland has a lot of talent at his disposal, and three of the positions are likely set.
William Vlachos will be the center, D.J. Fluker will likely be the right tackle, and Chance Warmack will likely be the left guard. The other two spots are wide open. Wide.
Barrett Jones was the starter at left tackle at the exit of the spring, but the staff would love to have him back at right guard, where he was a third team All-American. There was hope on the staff that Aaron Douglas would continue his development over the summer and seize the starting job during fall camp. As I am sure you know, Douglas was found dead in early May. His loss will be felt more emotionally off of the field than on the field - especially by Jones who had become very close to Douglas. That's saying a lot considering he was a strong candidate to be a starter on the line. You can expect that the Bama uniform will pay tribute to him all season, along with an acknowledgement of the April 27th tornado.
There are other candidates at left tackle. Alfred McCullough is more suited to play guard, but that didn't stop him from pushing D.J. Fluker all throughout the 2010 season and 2011 spring session at right tackle. He'll get a look at both tackle spots and is one of the reasons that I say Fluker is a likely starter and not a definite one. The other reason is Arie Kouandjio. The staff loved him during his redshirt year in 2010 and he could get a look at both tackle spots.
The other option is true freshman Cyrus Kouandjio. It's unlikely that Bama will start a true freshman at left tackle, but it is worth noting that Cyrus was given the #71. The last time the Tide had a true freshman at left tackle it was Andre Smith, who wore #71. I doubt we'll see Cyrus win the job, but he will absolutely get a serious look at some point during the spring.
It's not all about the tackles, though. If someone can lay claim to the right guard spot, the staff would feel better about Jones staying at tackle. Anthony Steen was the guy there at the end of the spring, and he'll be a serious candidate to win the job in the fall. Don't sleep on John Michael Boswell, though. He's played both tackle and guard in his career at Bama, and played as a true freshman ahead of Barrett Jones in 2008. Tyler Love is still around, and the former five-star recruit is still battling. He took some snaps at center in the spring, which tells me that he isn't a likely candidate for a lot of snaps. But he wouldn't be the first guy to have the light come on late in his career.
There are a handful of younger guys who will be in the mix to provide depth, but I doubt we'll see Kellen Williams, Austin Shepherd, Ryan Kelly (#70), or Isaac Luatua (#68) factor into the rotation this season.
So how will it play out?
I think we see this lineup for Kent State - Jones, Warmack, Vlachos, Steen, Fluker. It's not exactly going out on a limb to go with the same group that started A-Day, but I think the best Bama has to offer right now. If one of the Kouandjio brothers makes it into the mix, it throws everything into flux, but I think we're still at least a year away from seeing Cyrus and Arie bookend the Tide line.
The most likely person to change that lineup is McCullough. He could end up starting at left tackle, right guard, or right tackle. Either way, Barrett Jones will be a starter, it's just a matter of at which position.
Those are the five main things I will be watching for in the early days of fall camp. Of course we'll try to take a look at how the linebackers and secondary are shaping up, but there isn't likely to be much of a surprise out of either of those groups. The core units return there, and they will be the strength of the Tide defense.
And as a final note, here are the remaining jersey numbers for the new guys:
Hasean Clinton-Dix - #6
Malcolm Faciane - #85
Christion Jones - #22
Jabriel Washington - #26
The Tide will practice twice on Friday, and we'll do our best to give you a full report from both practices.