TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When some of Alabama’s top juniors were making their decisions on whether to stay in school or leave for the NFL, Crimson Tide linebacker Ryan Anderson said they didn’t consult each other during the process.
But once they realized who all was coming back, they began talking about how good the team could be if they put in the effort.
Of the players who could have left on defense, Anderson, outside linebacker Tim Williams, safety Eddie Jackson, linebacker Reuben Foster and defensive end Jonathan Allen all chose to return and defend Alabama’s latest SEC and national championship. Tight end O.J. Howard’s decision to stay for his senior season bolstered the offense.
“When we all decided we were going to come back, (we knew) it was going to be special,” Anderson said. “We all wanted to work for it and just reach our full potential.”
In that defensive group, Alabama brought back its top-three sack artists, the team leader in interceptions and the second-leading tackler. The group can certainly be special, but Anderson said the team is a long way from where it needs to be.
“You can have all the pieces to a puzzle, but that don’t mean you’re going to put it together,” Anderson said. “So I feel like everybody who came back has to work and help all the younger guys get better so we can get back to where we just came from. We’re starting all over. This is a whole new team, a whole new unit. We’re trying to find our identity. So that’s what the spring, that’s what the fourth quarter (offseason training program) is about.”
Last season, defensive front depth was one of the biggest keys to the Tide’s national championship run. But a big part of that group has moved on. Starters Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson, Reggie Ragland, Denzel Devall and Dillon Lee as well as key backups D.J. Pettway and Darren Lake are all gone. From the secondary, starters Cyrus Jones and Geno Matias-Smith, along with key reserves Jabriel Washington and Bradley Sylve are gone as well.
But don’t worry, Alabama fans. Talent won’t be an issue.
“I mean, our coaches did a pretty good job of recruiting a No. 1 recruiting class — top recruiting class every year,” Anderson said. “So we have guys that are capable. As the older guys and (myself being) a leader now, that’s our job to get these guys ready to play. We have to bring them along.”
Younger players like Daron Payne, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison and others are expected to have even bigger roles this season.
Elite prospects like Ben Davis, Lyndell Wilson, Terrell Hall and others are scheduled to join the mix this summer, and the expectations will be high for a lot of them.
Anderson was in their shoes once. A highly-rated prospect in the 2012 recruiting cycle, Anderson remembers his early years on campus and on the team being a “culture shock” as he was asked to do stuff he “was never asked to do before.” In his own words, Anderson was “stubborn” and “got in my own way.” Two years ago, Anderson said things changed for the better as he “started trusting the coaches and the process.” He hopes the lessons he learned can help his younger teammates adjust quicker.
“I always see younger guys in the same place that I was in — moping around and stuff like that,” Anderson said. “There’s a time and a place to do things and a right and a wrong way to do things. If you have to go on the scout team, don’t go over there and just not go hard. The best thing you can do is get better every day. Make those guys better. It’s going to make you better. So I just stress that to the younger guys.”
Offensively, replacing Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, quarterback Jake Coker and three-year starter at center, Ryan Kelly, won’t be easy, but a receiving corps of Howard, Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and a healthy Robert Foster should help soften the blow. Howard, Ridley and Stewart were the Tide’s top three receiving targets in terms of yards and receptions a season ago. This summer, Alabama will also add transfer Gehrig Dieter, who caught 94 passes for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns at Bowling Green last season.
Guys like Cam Sims, Daylon Charlot, Derek Kief and others are also eager to prove their worth and compete for a spot in the rotation. Howard said his performance in the national championship game is something that could be done on a regular basis with all of the options Alabama has in its passing attack.
“We have so many weapons like Calvin, ArDarius, Robert — all those guys,” Howard said. “With our receiving corps plus our tight ends, we can be elite in the passing game. We can do that almost every other game. Just have guys — not even me having that many yards in one game, every guy could do that. That’s how we could be, and that’s how I think we’re going to be once we get everything going.”