FOOTBALL

Here are the sophomores Alabama football needs to have a big 2022 season

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

Alabama football has its cornerstones in place for 2022, but it needs more than headliners if it wants to win a national championship. 

Quarterback Bryce Young and edge defender Will Anderson Jr., two of the best players in college football, provide a strong foundation. But other Crimson Tide players will need to step up, too. 

Alabama has a veteran group on defense with nine starters from the College Football Playoff championship game returning, plus the combo of Brian Branch and Malachi Moore at the star position. The offense will have more new faces with six starters departing. Either way, young talent on both sides of the ball will be necessary for Nick Saban's squad to succeed in 2022. 

Sophomores, especially, could prove pivotal. Here's a look at five who the Crimson Tide needs to have strong seasons. 

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JC Latham, offensive line

There's definite buzz around the five-star offensive lineman. He saw duty at right guard in the postseason filling in for Emil Ekiyor Jr. and fared well. But tackle is likely where he has the best chance to contribute in 2022 unless Javion Cohen is moved to tackle. No matter the position, Latham has to be one of the early favorites to be a new starter on the offensive line as Alabama looks to fill two spots created by NFL Draft departures. 

“His intensity, his focus, a lot more mature now," Cohen said of Latham. "Very well-rounded. Can play inside, outside, both sides actually. He’s learning a lot from us, and we’re learning a lot from him as well.”

Ja'Corey Brooks, receiver

First and foremost, Brooks needs to focus on getting healthy. He's out for the spring, per Saban. Alabama needs Brooks healthy because he had valuable experience down the stretch at a position that overall lacks experience. The Crimson Tide lost all three of its starting receivers to the draft in Jameson Williams, John Metchie III and Slade Bolden, but Brooks had two starts in the postseason after Metchie went down with an injury. Late in the season, Brooks lived up to his five-star billing, catching a touchdown in the Cotton Bowl and another impressive one over the shoulder to force overtime in the Iron Bowl. He will be a key piece on the offense this season. 

Alabama defensive back Kool-Aid McKinstry (1) deflects a pass to Auburn wide receiver Shedrick Jackson (11) in the fourth overtime of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in Auburn, Ala. The deflection helped Alabama win the game on their following possession. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

Kool-Aid McKinstry, cornerback

The five-star cornerback gained valuable experience down the stretch in 2021 as starting cornerbacks Josh Jobe and Jalyn Armour-Davis dealt with injuries. Now, both have moved on to the draft. It leaves Alabama with two starting spots open, but the Crimson Tide has players who have experience to fill them. McKinstry is among the leaders in that group as he begins his second season with the Crimson Tide. He will look to rebound from a performance that could have been better in the College Football Playoff championship, giving up four receptions on five targets. Alabama should have some elite defensive play in 2022, and it will need its corners to match that, starting with McKinstry. 

JoJo Earle, slot receiver/punt returner

Alabama needs all the athleticism on offense it can get with the receivers it has departing, and he can provide that. With Bolden gone, Earle has a chance to be a good weapon for Young in the slot plus an option at punt returner again this season. He and Aaron Anderson could be valuable inside receivers to pair with whomever Alabama ends up starting at the Z and X receiver spots.  

Dallas Turner, edge

He already had a strong freshman season, with 8.5 sacks all in the last seven games. Alabama needs him to build on that effort playing opposite Will Anderson Jr. Plenty of attention will be paid to the junior, so Turner will likely have more one-on-one opportunities. He must take advantage for the Crimson Tide defense to put together a strong year. 

Jan 10, 2022; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Alabama linebacker Dallas Turner (15) sacks Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Stetson Bennett (13) during the 2022 CFP college football national championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports