Alabama Football: Intriguing eligible returnees

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 22: Justin Robinson #18 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs hauls in a pass in front of Eli Ricks #7 of the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 22, 2022 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Brandon Sumrall/Getty Images)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 22: Justin Robinson #18 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs hauls in a pass in front of Eli Ricks #7 of the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 22, 2022 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Brandon Sumrall/Getty Images) /

With the postseason underway and potentially just one game remaining in the 2022 season for Alabama football, roster reconstruction for 2023 will become an increasingly important topic. Notable college football players are already entering the NCAA transfer portal, NFL draft decisions and opt-outs will begin to be announced later this month, and the early signing day is also on the horizon.

Pandemic waivers have further muddied the complicated waters of NCAA eligibility. As a result, Alabama football has a handful of experienced contributors who are widely assumed to be departing after this season, but will have the option to return.

Alabama Football: A couple key offensive pieces

On offense, senior tight end Cameron Latu could exercise his extra year of eligibility. Latu came to Tuscaloosa in 2018 as an outside linebacker, but eventually switched sides of the ball and found his niche as a tight end. He has been a significant part of the Alabama offense over the past two seasons, totaling 51 receptions for 733 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Should Latu head to the NFL, he will open up opportunities for Alabama’s younger tight ends. Physical sophomore Robbie Ouzts has seen an increased role in recent weeks, and true freshman Amari Niblack is a gifted pass-catcher who hauled in a touchdown pass earlier this season.

Senior offensive tackle Tyler Steen could also use his pandemic-year option. Steen arrived at Alabama via the transfer portal last offseason after spending four years at Vanderbilt. He started 33 career games for the Commodores, and then started all 12 regular season games for Alabama in 2022.

While Steen has not been exceptional, he has been a reliable piece at left tackle and helped to stabilize Alabama’s offensive line. Right tackle was a major weakness and instability for the Tide in the 2021 season, but the duo of Tyler Steen and sophomore JC Latham managed to solidify the tackle positions this fall. If Steen does decide to move on, he could potentially open up a starting spot for former 5-star tackle Tommy Brockermeyer.

Alabama Football: Potential returnees on defense

On the defensive side of the ball, senior defensive linemen Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe could be major returnees in 2023. Both players arrived in the 2019 recruiting class and have developed into leaders on the defensive front.

Byron Young has been the most productive member of the Alabama defensive line this season. Young has tallied 46 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks, and a forced fumble. He brings extensive experience to the Alabama defense, having been in the defensive line rotation since his freshman year.

Young has appeared in 44 career games, making 128 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, and 7.5 sacks. He would likely be selected in the 2023 NFL Draft, but he would have the opportunity to significantly elevate his draft status should he return next year.

Justin Eboigbe was lost for the 2022 season after four games when he suffered a neck injury that required surgery. He has played in 33 career games and notched 59 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss. Eboigbe has also recorded two sacks, two fumble recoveries, and an interception. His potential return would be big for an Alabama defense that will lose a lot of experience this offseason.

Junior cornerback Eli Ricks may be the most important player on this list. Despite seeing very little playing time this season, Ricks is still projected to be an early-round draft selection based on his potential.

In two seasons at LSU, Ricks recorded 31 tackles and five interceptions, returning two for touchdowns. He transferred to Alabama in the 2022 offseason, but injuries and other complications kept him out of the lineup for much of the season.

Ricks did not get his first start until the eighth game of the season, and then suffered another injury just two games later. He has not been able to put much on film this season, but he has bolstered the Alabama secondary when he has been on the field.

Eli Ricks possesses tantalizing physical tools and natural talent. If he returns and can play to his potential for a full season, he could be a top-10 NFL draft pick.

Could Reichard return for Alabama Football?

Senior Will Reichard has eased the anxiety of Alabama fans everywhere with his consistency as a field goal kicker. Reichard has been reliable since arriving in Tuscaloosa, and has been one of college football’s best kickers throughout his career.

Perhaps the one blemish on Reichard’s resume is a missed game-winner at Tennessee earlier this season. The misfire ultimately cost Alabama the game, and likely cost it a College Football Playoff spot and a chance at a national championship in Reichard’s senior year. Is this enough to fuel him to return for a redemption season?

If he does, Alabama football will have one less question mark heading in 2023. If Reichard opts for the NFL, he will still go down as one of the best kickers in Alabama football history.

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In the modern era of the transfer portal, essentially every player on the roster will have decisions to make after the season. Cameron Latu, Tyler Steen, Byron Young, Justin Eboigbe, Eli Ricks, and Will Reichard represent a group of players that would surprise no one if they went to the NFL. Each could make a unique and substantial impact if they choose to return in 2023.