Cecil Hurt: For Alabama football, some new freshman names in prominent places
If National Signing Day is the Christmas for college football fans eager to know what additions their team will make for the coming season, then the Monday before the first game, the traditional day when depth charts are released – even by the depth-chart averse Nick Saban – is the first clue as to which of the newcomers have stood up to the grind, sort of the way that Tonka trucks are built to take the unrelenting punishment a 3-year old can administer.
This year, the depth chart might have been more eagerly anticipated than ever because, well, 2020. The coronavirus wiped away spring practice and any chance to get a glimpse of the early-entrant players. Since the resumption of practice, access has been restricted for media and other observers. That doesn’t mean that hints don’t slip out here and there of a player who looks promising, but it’s hard to administer the eye test from three miles away.
Monday’s depth chart doesn’t mean that anyone at the University of Alabama has been discarded, or is about to be. There’s a tendency to treat a depth chart as if it were carved in granite, establishing a pecking order that will remain constant through the year. It’s not. If anything, it’s a photograph of a moving stream. There are permanent touchstones in that stream, of course. No one didn’t anticipate seeing Najee Harris or Evan Neal or Patrick Surtain in the spots they held in 2019. But there is also a flow, a tendency to rise or fall.
Alabama’s first 2020 depth chart featured 14 true freshmen, counting special teams players. Who knows which one will prove to be the most important. If Sam Johnson, the walk-on punter from Oak Mountain, listed as sort of a first-among-equals at the position where competition is certainly not over, can have an impact, who knows if that will affect the outcome of a game?
Much of the early buzz about Alabama’s recruiting class, understandably, included the anticipation of a highly-rated quarterback, maybe the best one coming into college football this year, Bryce Young. That’s partly just the nature of the position and Tuscaloosa’s undying 60-year romance with “the other guy” at quarterback. Young never had a great shot once spring practice was canceled, and he also missed some time this fall for reasons best left to your logic. Plus, and this is critical, there was a player with talent and experience in front of him.
That’s hardly the case at other positions. Nothing speaks more to the state of Alabama’s 2019 defense than the fact that two crucial positions – the jack linebacker and the star – have been turned over to true freshmen. No one questions the talent of Will Anderson, Drew Sanders, Brian Branch and camp surprise Malachi Moore. But that talent also didn’t have a lot of proven players to move aside.
"They're very good competitors,” Saban said on his Monday Zoom call. “They were able to learn and grow in the system very quickly. We needed young guys to come through at certain positions, and they did."
There are other names to watch as well: Tim Smith, Demouy Kennedy, Javon Baker, Traeshon Holden. If the fragile eggshell that is keeping COVID-19 positives and contact tracing from taking out a Missouri position group holds, more names will emerge.
Again, a depth chart is one photograph of a moving stream, but after six months, you can learn a little bit just by looking at the water.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt.