TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Spring is in the air at the University of Alabama, and while that means baseball, softball and a bunch of other sports, football again will take center stage when the Crimson Tide begin practices Tuesday.
While like usual that means position battles and tweaking the offensive and defensive schemes, which always seem to evolve under Nick Saban, what’s especially new this year are the numerous new faces.
With the departure of three assistant coaches, responsibilities were tweaked as their replacements were hired. Moreover, the three-time reigning SEC champions have a record 16 new players who have joined the team as early enrollees and junior college transfers.
Among them are quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones, who are the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster not named Jalen Hurts, and the versatile Chadarius Townsend. He might get a look at a couple of different positions, but is listed on the initial spring roster at running back.
Here are 10 things to look for and expect as Alabama works its way toward A-Day on April 22 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN).
1. How will Hurts work with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll?
Bringing in a coach from the New England Patriots signaled the offense will have more multiple looks while also playing to its strengths. Granted, the Crimson Tide’s offense set just about every offensive team record during Lane Kiffin’s three years in Tuscaloosa, but combined with the offensive line potentially getting a lot bigger, power football figures to be a big part of this team’s identity.
2. Where does Minkah Fitzpatrick play?
Replacing quality players like Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson never is easy, but when Jackson suffered a fractured leg against Texas A&M, coaches moved Fitzpatrick from cornerback to safety in the base package. He still landed All-American honors. How the younger defensive backs develop could dictate where the versatile Fitzpatrick plays, especially if someone like sophomore Shyheim Carter shows he’s ready to be an every-down starter at cornerback.
3. Who will step up at wide receiver?
ArDarius Stewart made an early jump to the NFL, Gehrig Dieter was a graduate transfer and Raheem Falkins no longer is listed on the roster, so there are spots to fill. Look for senior Robert Foster to be given every opportunity to win at least a regular rotation role, but otherwise the competition should be fierce. Cam Sims is expected to make a push for more playing time, while Trevon Diggs should become a regular contributor. With top prospects Jerry Jeudy and Tyrell Shavers already enrolled, and Devonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III due to arrive over the summer, a lot of players will be looking over their shoulders.
4. Who will earn starting and rotation spots on the defensive line?
Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson weren’t just defensive stalwarts, but well-liked team leaders who will be difficult to replace on many levels. Alabama has depth in terms of numbers, but after defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne (who doesn’t quite realize how good he is yet) a lot of it is unproven. Pencil in Da’Shawn Hand to start at one end spot, but everything else is up for grabs, with the competition including Josh Frazier, junior college transfer Isaiah Buggs, Quinnen Williams and Raekwon Davis.
5. Are offensive linemen Alex Leatherwood and Elliot Baker ready to challenge for starting jobs?
A staple of the Alabama program is anyone brought in as a junior college transfer immediately is expected to challenge for a starting spot. Granted, it doesn’t always work out that way, but if the 6-foot-7 Baker has a good spring, the size of the Crimson Tide’s line could go from big to huge. Leatherwood is listed at 6-6, 327 pounds, and Saban didn’t hesitate to plug in Jonah Williams as a freshman at right tackle last year. Regardless, look for Williams to get a long look at left tackle this spring.
6. Where will linebacker Rashaan Evans play?
Similar to Fitzpatrick, Evans is versatile enough play anywhere in his position group, and could go from the outside to the interior depending on the down and formation. Expect defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to move him around as a pass rusher when the season starts, but his base position likely will be influenced on how well players like Mack Wilson improve. Evans made his first start in the College Football Playoff against Washington while filling in for injured Shaun Dion Hamilton. He made 7 tackles and 11 more vs. Clemson.
7. How much can Najee Harris contribute from Day 1?
This true freshman was hailed by many as being the nation’s top prospect last year. He was rated as such by Rivals, Scout and PrepStar, and was third overall according to the 247Sports composite rankings. However, he’ll still have to earn his reps, especially with Alabama returning Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs at running back. When he was a true freshman, Derrick Henry saw playing time in the opener, but things didn’t really click for him until the bowl game at the end of the season.
8. Who contributes at outside linebacker?
Alabama has to replace Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams (in addition to Butkus Award winner Reuben Foster in the interior). While Evans obviously is a possibility for an outside spot, the players to watch are Christian Miller, Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Hall. All three earned playing time last season. Teammates have raved about Hall’s potential after he moved from defensive end, while true freshman Dylan Moses will aim to prove that the coaches can’t afford to not play him.
9. What does Alabama do at tight end?
The simple answer is that Hale Hentges will take over the every-down responsibilities with Miller Forristall the H-back as more of a receiving threat. However, Alabama has lost a lot of size at the position with O.J. Howard (who improved his blocking a lot last year) and Brandon Greene no longer on the roster. The coaches likely will try different offensive linemen at the tight end spot for short-yardage situations, but need to develop some depth at the position.
10. Who will return punts and kicks?
This may not get answered during the spring as it won’t be priority until the regular season approaches, but Alabama has a lot of options. Diggs and Xavian Marks probably will fill the roles as much as anyone else for now. However, most of the freshmen will learn very quickly that the fastest way to get on the field and contribute is on special teams. Experimentation will be the priority this spring.