Every year, the Alabama Crimson Tide have a breakout star or two that make a big impact on the team’s fortunes. Last season it was a pair of freshmen in running back T.J. Yeldon and wide receiver Amari Cooper.
Yeldon was the team’s second leading rusher with 1108 yards and 12 touchdowns on a 6.3 yards per carry average. Yeldon, along with junior Eddie Lacy, provided the Crimson Tide with one of the most lethal backfield combos in the country.
Alabama didn’t have a go-to receiver on the 2011 BCS National Championship team after seeing Julio Jones leave a year early for the NFL Draft. But freshman Amari Cooper emerged as that guy on last season’s team. Cooper solidified himself as one of the best receivers in the nation with 1000 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in his inaugural season at the Capstone.
He was at his best on the biggest of stages as he caught 8 passes for 128 yards and the game-winning touchdown against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, and caught 6 passes for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns in the BCS title game against Notre Dame.
Cooper’s 1000 receiving yards were more than double any other Tide receiver.
Who are going to be the breakout stars for the 2013 Crimson Tide? Here are five guys with the potential to have big seasons:
RB Derrick Henry, Freshman
The five-star freshman running back suffered a setback with a fractured leg in spring practice, but all signs point to him being healthy for the season opener against Virginia Tech, and being a major contributor in 2013. He tweeted on Monday that he was 90 percent.
Henry broke the all-time high school rushing record during his senior season, and never rushed for less than 100 yards in a game. The 6-foot-3, 240 pounder is a load to handle for opposing defenses. He has good speed for his size with the ability to run around you, or more times than not, run right through you.
Henry is a monster. I mean, just look at how small he makes 6-foot-1, 240 pound Jalston Fowler look in comparison. Some doubt Henry’s ability to play running back at the college level due to his size, but I have no doubt that Henry will make an impact on Alabama’s offense next season.
T.J. Yeldon is the unquestioned No. 1 running back for the Tide, but Derrick Henry is fighting with sophomore Kenyan Drake for the No. 2 spot.
Also don’t be surprised to see Henry lineup as a fullback in some situations like Jalston Fowler did last season before blowing out his knee against Western Kentucky. Alabama could conceivably put Fowler/Henry at fullback, and the other at running back in some packages. Good luck to defenses trying to stop that.
TE O.J. Howard, Freshman
The five-star freshman tight end brings a whole new dimension to Alabama’s offense with his size, speed, and versatility. Howard stands at 6-foot-6, 237 pounds, and provides the Crimson Tide with a dynamic option at tight end or H-back for next season.
Howard is a spectacular receiver with enough athleticism to play either tight end or H-back, along with lining up at receiver in some packages. Having a guy like Howard lining up at tight end or H-back provides Alabama with a weapon on offense that they haven’t had in quite some time. The Crimson Tide has one of the deepest receiving rotations in college football, and now they have a guy in Howard who will provide matchup nightmares for opposing linebackers.
The one thing holding Howard back as of now, and the one thing that could prevent him from having a breakout season is his blocking. He wasn’t asked to do much blocking in high school, but if he is going to be on the field for enough snaps to make a serious impact for the 2013 Tide, then Howard is going to have to seriously improve as a blocker in both running and passing situations.
The guys he is competing for playing time against – Brian Vogler, Harrison Jones, Malcolm Faciane, etc. – are all further along in their progression as blockers, but none of them have near the amount of potential Howard possesses as a receiver.
Hopefully Howard will improve enough as a blocker to see the field on a consistent basis this season, but regardless, Nick Saban and Doug Nussmeier will find a way to get him on the field; he’s far too dangerous of a weapon to leave on the bench. In the very least, look for Howard to have a role in Alabama’s red-zone packages.
DE Jeoffrey Pagan, Junior
As a sophomore in 2011, Jeoffrey Pagan proved himself as one of Alabama’s best backups on the defensive line, and was firmly apart of the rotation. Pagan had 23 tackles, including four for loss and 1.5 sacks as he came off the bench in all fourteen of Alabama’s games last season.
Now, with Damion Square having graduated, Pagan is the frontrunner to take over a starting role on Alabama’s defensive line this season, on the opposite end of senior Ed Stinson. Much like his predecessor, Pagan is at his best as a run stopper, but he certainly has the athleticism to become a force as a pass rusher.
Alabama is looking to get after opposing quarterbacks more and accumulate more sacks this season. Pagan could be a major contributor in that area, but in the very least Pagan is likely to make a name for himself as an immovable object on the end during running plays. Look for Pagan to also shift inside to defensive tackle when Alabama moves to the 4-3 in certain situations. Pagan has showed marked improvement in his first two years in Tuscaloosa, and he should do so again in his first season as a starter.
CB Geno Smith, Sophomore
While Deion Belue seems to have locked up the No. 1 corner spot, sophomore Geno Smith and senior John Fulton will compete in the fall for the right to start on the opposite side of the field. Replacing an All-American and a Top-10 draft pick in Dee Milliner will not be easy, but Geno Smith flashed his immense potential late last season.
Smith was a reserve early in the 2012 season, but became a starter late in the year at the “star” position in Alabama’s secondary, which is the extra defensive back when the Tide moves to nickel and dime defenses.
Smith really came into his own, and played a great game in the SEC Championship against Georgia. Smith’s emergence really improved Alabama’s secondary as they struggled earlier in the year when they played a safety at the star.
Smith has the potential to be a star in his own right at corner, and regardless of whether or not he starts alongside Belue next season, I think he will have a prominent role on the Tide’s defense next season.
S Landon Collins, Sophomore
As a freshman, Landon Collins made his bones on special teams. He had 17 total tackles, 9 solo, and blocked a punt against Missouri. It seemed like Collins was always in the right spot, and made big play after big play for the Crimson Tide’s special teams unit.
Now, with Robert Lester having graduated, Collins has his eye on a starting role in Alabama’s secondary alongside Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who has emerged as one of the best safeties in the country.
Collins, a former five-star recruit from Geismar, Louisiana, made national headlines when he spurned the home-state LSU Tigers to come to Tuscaloosa to play for the Tide. Collins has a lot of potential, and if he lives up to it as a sophomore, Alabama could have the most talented duo of safeties in the country.
Vinnie Sunseri has the experience, but Collins definitely has a greater upside. Sunseri struggled mightily at times last season in coverage. They both will have a role in 2013, and I expect Collins to be a breakout star on the Crimson Tide’s defense.
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