Even defending national champions have questions to answer going into the next season. That’s what fall camp is for in college football.
Not even Nick Saban, the game’s top coach, knows how things will play out in the next few weeks after the Alabama Crimson Tide opens practice Friday. UA will have competition at every position, and will have to develop crucial depth and figure out which players to focus going into the Sept. 1 season opener against Louisville in Orlando.
Here are five key issues Alabama will address in fall camp:
Minkah Fitzpatrick is gone to the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League. Also departed are the other top five players in the defensive backfield from last year’s championship run: Ronnie Harrison and Anthony Averett were also drafted, with Tony Brown and Levi Wallace signing as free agents; Hootie Jones graduated but was not drafted.
That leaves Alabama with no starter returning at either cornerback or safety spot, nor at the nickel or dime positions. In short, everything is up for grabs.
Alabama opens the season against a Bobby Petrino-powered Louisville passing game, faces pass-happy Arkansas State a week later and then opens SEC play against Ole Miss, which also likes to attack through the air.
Close roster-watchers may be familiar with Trevon Diggs and Deionte Thompson, who saw playing time last season at corner and safety, respectively. After that, get ready to learn some new names: junior college transfer Saivion Smith and highly-touted freshman Patrick Surtain are among the candidates to make an immediate impact.
2. Kicking game
JK Scott, a four-year weapon, is now punting for the Green Bay Packers. Andy Pappanastos, who made 18 of 25 field goal attempts in 2017, graduated. Alabama will need to find replacements at both crucial positions.
Two freshmen handled the vast majority of the chores in the A-Day Game in the spring: redshirt freshman Joseph Bulovas went 5 for 7 on field goals with a long of 49 yards and handled kickoff duties, while Skyler DeLong averaged 39.4 yards on 10 punts.
3. Running back rotation
Talent abounds in a backfield that has two-time 1,000-yard rusher Damien Harris at the helm with Najee Harris, Joshua Jacobs and Brian Robinson Jr. all capable of playing important roles. The UA coaching staff has to sort out the amount of touches to give each, and in what situations or what order.
Damien Harris is proven and dependable and knows how to move the chains. Najee Harris is both powerful and explosive, with perhaps the best breakaway ability. Jacobs is a whiz on screen passes and other plays that get the ball in his hands in open space. Robinson, a Hillcrest High School product, is a bruiser who could be ideal in short-yardage situations.
Last year’s distribution among the running backs was democratic, with near-equal shares at times. It’s hard to split carries among four backs, so there will be competition to stay near the front of the line. How and when each will be utilized, especially early in the season, is something that will be largely settled over the next few weeks.
4. Wide receivers
For much of Saban’s tenure, Alabama has had a go-to, big-game receiver. There was Julio Jones. Then there was Amari Cooper. Then came Calvin Ridley.
There’s no heir apparent after Ridley’s departure to the NFL. No returning wideout averaged more than one catch per game.
Jerry Jeudy averaged nearly 19 yards per catch as a freshman last year, and fellow rookie Henry Ruggs III averaged slightly more while hauling in six touchdowns among his 12 receptions. That’s a good start, and there are plenty of other talented candidates.
It remains to be seen if another superstar will emerge in 2018, or if the receptions will be more evenly spread among the receivers.
Oh yeah, those guys. There’s Jalen Hurts, a two-year starter with 25 victories under his belt, and Tua Tagovailoa, the second-half star of the national championship game.
One will take the first snap in the first game, and Saban will have the final say as to who that will be — but Alabama’s coach has hinted at finding a playing role for both, which would create nightmares for defensive coordinators who have to prepare for two different and capable talents.
The preseason will give Alabama’s offensive braintrust time to assess both candidates and formulate a plan to settle the question of which one starts, or whether Alabama will utilize more of a two-quarterback system.
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.