Spring Practice: 5 Questions Alabama’s Staff Must Answer (Guest Blog)


Alabama fans aren’t known for their patience or understanding when it comes to their football team. Truth be told it’s fans become concerned at any sign of malaise or ineptitude within any of it’s sports programs. Their tolerance of such things is magnified a thousand fold when it comes to their football team.

Luckily for Tide fans, Coach Nick Saban is every bit as bothered by such problems as they are, maybe more so. That’s why it wasn’t very surprising when he brought in Lane Kiffin this past December to offer his thoughts on the offense. Particularly after a disturbing loss to arch rival Auburn in which the Tide offense struggled to put away an inferior Tigers squad.

Those questions and others, lingered after an uninspired bowl loss to an Oklahoma team that had struggled on offense most of the 2013 season.

As spring practice prepares to open for 2014, the Alabama staff will look to answer as many of those questions as possible. Here are five whose answers will have to be found if the Tide hopes to challenge for it’s 16th National Title.

  • Will the hiring of Lane Kiffin to replace departed Offensive Coordinator Doug Nussmeier, finally produce the results Saban and Alabama fans have been looking for?

It’s not like Alabama struggled to produce points in 2013. It’s offense ranked 17th in the nation with 38.2 points per game. So why the change? It’s appears to be a mutual decision on the part of both parties. Despite his success running the Alabama offense Nussmeier never was really comfortable calling plays under Saban. It takes a certain type personality to call plays under Saban and have long term success. Former OC Jim McElwain who moved on after the 2011 season to become the head man at Colorado State, had great success at Alabama. McElwain  was able to field his head coaches concerns during a game without allowing it to undermine his play calling. something Nussmeier reportedly struggled with.

It’s no stretch to assume Kiffin has the confidence to stick to his guns in the 4th quarter when his head coach is suddenly second guessing what he wants to do.

  • Who will replace record setting quarterback AJ McCarron in 2014 and can Tide fans reasonably expect him to compete at the same level?

Kiffin will have his hands full this spring evaluating and coaching up a list of potential candidates including Senior Blake Sims and underclassmen Alex Morris, Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod, and newcomer David Cornwell. Despite the outcome of the spring battle things won’t be truly settled until the fall when Jacob Coker has his say in things. Odds are it will either be Coker or Sims taking that first snap in Atlanta on August 30th.

Whoever it is will have more talent surrounding him than any new quarterback in the country. Still it would be unreasonable to expect them to match the play of a fifth year senior. Their job will be to limit mistakes and make sure to get the offense into the right play and formation against certain fronts. Accomplish that and the Tide offense should have no problem having enough success to win the SEC.

  • What leaders step up to replace AJ MCarron on offense and CJ Mosely on defense?

Alabama found out in 2010 what the consequences were of little to no team leadership among the players. There were even questions this past season about whether there was enough leadership on defense after safety Vinnie Sunseri went down with a knee injury. Not only is it important that leadership emerge but that it be the right leadership. Some guys just don’t carry the same weight in the locker room as others. When DJ Fluker starts tearing people a new one and telling them to get their act together it carries a lot of weight. If it comes from some first year starter, not so much.

  • Does Alabama get the play it’s used to at corner. Something it didn’t get in 2013? What about the play at safety?

Alabama fans had to be thrilled with the signing of not one but two five star cornerbacks in the 2014 recruiting class. The play of their 2013 corners was considered sub par, at least by Tide standards. Looking to improve on last seasons play are Bradley Sylve, Cyrus Jones, Maurice Smith  and Eddie Jackson. They all showed potential at certain times last year, particularly Jackson. The sophomore appeared to have locked down one corner spot after Alabama’s shut out win over the Ole Miss Rebels. Jackson promptly disappeared from the playing rotation however after the then freshman struggled picking up subsequent game plans.

True freshman Tony Brown enrolled early for a shot at locking down one of the two starting corner spots. Spring practice could prove invaluable for him in doing so. Fellow five star signee and Tide legacy Marlon Humphrey will likely need fall practice and the first half of the 2014 season to get up to speed with Saban’s complicated coverage schemes.

Landon Collins will take on a prominent role in the Alabama secondary with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri moving on to the NFL. Collins will likely be helped out by Geno Smith who will probably see a more prominent role there and at star. Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry will return for their senior years and provide some much needed experience at the position. Sophomore Jai Miller will have his chance as will Jabriel Washington and could see wide receiver ArDarius Stewart join them in a spring positional experiment. True freshman Laurence “Hootie” Jones enrolled early and will have his chance at earning playing time as well. Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart will transition back to coaching safeties from coaching linebackers the last few years. Having him there will undoubtedly help Landon Collins with making needed defensive calls.

Part of the Tide’s struggles in the secondary were likely due to a glut of seasoned senior quarterbacks in conference play. The majority of them moving on to the NFL could be as big a help to secondary play as any other factor.

  • Will Alabama finally be able to exert pressure on opposing quarterbacks? What about the play of it’s defensive line?

Okay that’s really two questions but since they relate to each other it seemed appropriate to hit them both.

Perhaps the Tide’s biggest success in what’s being called maybe its best signing class of all times, was in its potential at rushing the passer. Alabama hit the junior college ranks looking to provide instant experience on it’s defensive line and hit homeruns with the signings of tackle/noseguard Jarran Reed and defensive end/jack linebacker DJ Pettway.

Reed has the potential to step in at noseguard and provide the push the Alabama defense lacked last season. Last years starter Brandon Ivory returns and with another year in the program and the benefit of new defensive line coach Bo Davis’s tutelage, he should show improvement.  Without someone capable of drawing double teams the Tide’s middle linebackers often found themselves having to take on blockers who got a free pass to second level blocks. Improved play and talent should help remedy that this season.

Pettway’s history at Alabama is well known. He could provide the Tide with its best pass rusher since Courtney Upshaw. Outside linebackers Denzel Devall, Ryan Anderson and Jonathan Allen all return a year older and more experienced. Allen will actually spend time at end particularly against spread and HUNH teams with his lighter and quicker frame.

The unknown is Dalvin Tomlinson who should be recovered from his second knee injury since signing with Alabama. Headed into last season he was expected to provide much needed help rushing the passer before tearing his ACL in the opener. If he can return to form and stay healthy it would be a huge boost to the Tide’s defensive line play.

Last years find A’Shawn Robinson finished the year with five and a half sacks to lead the team. While that wasn’t considered among the leaders in the league he should have no problem duplicating those numbers with teams having to focus on improved play elsewhere.

Alabama will begin spring drills on March 15th before wrapping things up with it’s annual A-day game on April 19th.

Author: Doug Webb

Twitter: @drweb66