We’re a little more than a week removed from Alabama’s 16th national title — and still three days from the championship parade — but the “road to 17” has already begun with earnest.
Several prominent juniors decided to put the NFL on hold, ensuring that fans will see a legion of familiar faces on the field this autumn.
Make no mistake, though: There are huge question marks at key positions.
We put together a projected 2016 depth chart to give you an idea of how the Crimson Tide will line up for another title run.
Starter: Blake Barnett (R-FR)
Reserves: Cooper Bateman (JR)
Predicting who will win the Alabama quarterback job is risky business. Most pundits misfired when picking Jake Coker over Blake Sims in 2014, and Coker’s camp victory over Bateman last season was short-lived. While Bateman has a big edge in playing experience, beating out Barnett — a former five-star prospect recruited by Lane Kiffin — will be mighty tough.
Starter: Bo Scarbrough (SO)
Reserves: Damien Harris (SO), Ronnie Clark (SO), Derrick Gore (JR)
So long as Scarbrough leaves his eligibility and injury troubles in the past, he’s the favorite to take Derrick Henry’s role in the offense. There’s no question he has the talent to become Alabama’s next superstar. Harris made good contributions to the Tide in 2015, and will likely take a chunk out of Scarbrough’s workload.
Starters: Calvin Ridley (SO), ArDarius Stewart (JR)
Reserves: Robert Foster (JR), Cam Sims (JR), Daylon Charlot (SO)
Factoring in O.J. Howard (see below), there probably is not a better receiving corps in the country. These guys will make life a little easier for Barnett and Bateman. Ridley is a star in the mold of Julio Jones and Amari Cooper. Can he build on an outstanding freshman season?
Stewart broke out of an early-season slump to deliver several important grabs. And Foster — the No. 1 wideout before tearing his rotator cuff against Ole Miss — will see plenty of targets if opposing teams pay more attention to his teammates.
Starter: O.J. Howard (SR)
Reserves: Hale Hentges (SO), Dakota Ball (SR)
Howard’s national championship performance was stunning to many. It’s not that people didn’t think he was capable of a 200-yard day; it’s that Alabama had neglected him as a receiving option for much of the season. Howard’s talents are in the open now, and he’ll provide a potential All-American receiving option for the Tide quarterbacks when Ridley and Co. are locked down.
Starters: Cam Robinson (JR), Brandon Greene (SR)
Reserves: Charles Baldwin (JR), Jonah Williams (FR)
If Baldwin — a four-star JUCO transfer from Ontario — can impress early, he could take Greene’s starting spot. Williams — a five-star commit — is Alabama’s highest-rated early enrollee, though a redshirt could be in order if the coaching staff feels confident about its more experienced players. Robinson (sprained knee) had a spotty 2015. If he’s healthy, he has a strong chance to fill Ryan Kelly’s role as the Crimson Tide’s best lineman.
Starters: Ross Pierschbacher (R-SO), Alphonse Taylor (SR)
Reserves: Dallas Warmack (SO), Bradley Bozeman (JR), Richie Petitbon (R-FR)
Pierschbacher went from no-name to the glue holding Alabama’s line together in 2015. When Ryan Kelly went down with a concussion, Pierschbacher was the primary interior lineman in charge of plowing holes for Derrick Henry. Even with Kelly on the field, Pierschbacher stood out as one of the Tide’s best second-year players. Petitbon, a redshirt freshman, could be the “new” Pierschbacher if an opportunity opens up in front of him.
Starters: J.C. Hassenauer (JR)
Reserves: Brandon Kennedy (R-FR)
Despite the loss of award-winning senior Ryan Kelly, Alabama’s line should be in good shape next season. Hassenauer got some valuable experience filling in for Kelly, and there are a plethora of backup options besides Kennedy (guard depth) if the Wetumpka, Ala., native can’t hold down second string.
Starter: Da’Ron Payne (SO)
Reserves: Josh Frazier (JR)
Strength is key across the Alabama defensive line, but especially here. Payne’s brute force led to a breakout freshman year, and Frazier (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) is just as able to clog things up when his number gets called in the rotation.
Starters: Jonathan Allen (SR), Dalvin Tomlinson (SR)
Reserves: Da’Shawn Hand (JR), Quinnen Williams (FR)
Allen surprised many when he announced his return. Thought to be a first-round NFL prospect, he claimed to have received a second-round grade, and will continue terrorizing SEC quarterbacks this season. Playing 3-4 end in Alabama’s defense requires a blend of girth and agility. For example: Could you imagine 312-pound A’Shawn Robinson as a 4-3 pass rusher? No, but he was an adept space-clogger for the Tide. Williams, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound high-school tackle, will probably fit well into Alabama’s vaunted defensive line rotation.
Starters: Reuben Foster (SR), Shaun Dion Hamilton (JR)
Reserves: Walker Jones (JR), Adonis Thomas (R-FR)
With the departure of Reggie Ragland, Foster is freed up to be the next great Alabama linebacker. “When you think about Rolando McClain and Dont’a Hightower and C.J. Mosley, the next in line is Reggie Ragland, and then Reuben Foster next year will be a first-round possibility,” Kiper said last week. “I think it was smart for him to go back and be the leader of that defense as Reggie Ragland was.” Dion Hamilton was a stealthy contributor this past season, racking up 27 tackles, including 1.5 for loss.
Starters: Tim Williams (SR), Ryan Anderson (SR)
Reserves: Rashaan Evans (JR), Keith Holcombe (R-SO), Christian Miller (R-SO), Mekhi Brown (R-FR)
Williams and Anderson both had opportunities to go pro, but their return makes outside ‘backer one of the team’s deepest position groups. Counted on to rush the quarterback several times a game, this spot is crucial in passing situations. Williams was one of the country’s best at getting into the backfield, and fans should keep an eye on Brown, a second-year player with a 6-foot-5 NFL frame.
Starters: Marlon Humphrey (R-SO), Minkah Fitzpatrick (SO)
Reserves: Maurice Smith (SR), Tony Brown (JR), Kendall Sheffield (R-FR)
Along with safety Ronnie Harrison, Humphrey and Fitzpatrick were two of the team’s biggest surprises in 2015. The pair of freshmen were forced into serious pressure situations throughout the year, and while they didn’t hold up terribly well against Clemson, they made enough plays to help Alabama to a five-point win. Brown is currently suspended from the team after winding up deep in Saban’s doghouse. His potential reinstatement would be a boon for this unit, which often requires three players on the field at the same time for its “STAR” package.
Starters: Eddie Jackson (SR), Ronnie Harrison (SO)
Reserves: Shawn Burgess-Becker (SO), Deionte Thompson (R-FR)
Another deep position group, safety should be a strength for the Tide. Jackson collected six picks throughout the season, also proving to be a big help in run support (46 tackles). Meanwhile, Harrison learned the ropes and showcased his physical style. If he can leave some freshman errors behind him, teams will think twice before going up top against the Tide.
Starter: Adam Griffith (SR)
With prized recruit Eddie Pineiro out of the picture, Griffith will be able to kick without looking over his shoulder in 2016. He finished the year strong, making 23 of his final 28 field goals, and continued to provide a strong leg on kickoffs.
Starter: J.K. Scott (JR)
After an excellent freshman season, Scott was much shakier in 2015. His 44.2 average won’t raise any red flags, but Scott drilled at least one 50-yard punt in 11 of the final 12 games — meaning several sub-40 kicks dragged his average down throughout the year.
Starter: Damien Harris (SO)
Count him out if he becomes the featured back, but Harris returned nine kicks in Kenyan Drake’s absence this season. He could certainly fill Drake’s role as speedy returner and complementary runner.
Starter: Daylon Charlot (SO)
Cyrus Jones handled nearly every punt return this past season, with fellow senior Richard Mullaney picking up the scraps. So, who’s next? That’s anyone’s guess, but we’ll go with Charlot, a receiver who fits the short, speedy mold that Saban tends to gravitate toward.
We’re roughly two months from the beginning of spring practice, with the annual A-Day Game projected for its typical mid-April date. In the meantime, fans can hit up this weekend’s Tuscaloosa parade.