Alabama Football: More dark horse candidates heading into spring practice

Clay-Chalkville's Jaylen Mbakwe (9) eludes Saraland's Jermaine Paramore, Jr., (88) and Camron
Clay-Chalkville's Jaylen Mbakwe (9) eludes Saraland's Jermaine Paramore, Jr., (88) and Camron / Mickey Welsh / USA TODAY NETWORK

With the Crimson Tide kicking off spring practice this week, there are several players that will push for playing time or even starting positions. Alabama has plenty of returning talent that Coach Kalen DeBoer was able to retain, and will supplement its roster with one of the best 2024 recruiting classes in the country as well as a low-quantity but high-quality haul of transfer additions. 

Last week, I discussed three returnees that have breakout potential and illustrated the opportunities in front of each of them. Redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Elijah Pritchett, redshirt freshman edge Keon Keeley, and sophomore safety Tony Mitchell could all be in for big seasons in 2024, but will need to separate themselves from crowded position rooms this spring. Several more players will have similar opportunities, including the three listed below. 

Junior wide receiver Emmanuel Henderson Jr. is one of the more intriguing players on the roster. A borderline 5-star running back in the class of 2022, Henderson almost immediately switched to receiver upon arriving on campus. While he was a versatile athlete in high school, it was certainly unusual to see a player so highly ranked at a particular position end up elsewhere. 

Still, Henderson has performed well in his role by all accounts. Through two seasons on campus, he has been a special teams standout while sparingly making appearances at receiver. He has drawn positive reviews from the coaching staff, including Coach Saban himself, and has made big plays in scrimmage settings. Henderson has dealt with some minor setbacks due to injury, but should be firmly in the mix at wideout if he can stay healthy. 

Redshirt sophomore tight end Danny Lewis Jr. could wind up being a key cog in the Alabama offense this year. I was bullish on Lewis heading into last season, but it never quite panned out with CJ Dippre, Amari Niblack, and Robbie Ouzts eating up most of the snaps at tight end. Perhaps I was just a year early on Lewis. With Niblack hitting the portal, there is an opportunity for Lewis to step into the role as Bama’s pass-catching tight end. 

If incoming freshman Caleb Odom transitions to wide receiver as expected, Lewis likely becomes the most athletic of the Alabama tight ends. Further, Danny Lewis Jr. is more well-rounded than the receiving tight ends Bama has fielded in recent years, such as Amari Niblack and Jahleel Billingsley. He is already more physical and SEC-ready as a blocker, and could be a valuable piece for the Tide in the mold of an Irv Smith Jr. 

True freshman Jaylen Mbakwe has an opportunity to start from day one at the cornerback position. Mbakwe could theoretically follow the same career trajectory as Bama standout and 2024 draft prospect Kool-Aid McKinstry.

Like McKinstry, Mbakwe was a 5-star in-state product and a versatile athlete who was recruited to Alabama to play corner. Once he got on campus, Kool-Aid McKinstry worked his way into the rotation as a freshman and is expected to be a first-round draft pick after three years in the program. 

Mbakwe’s situation is perhaps even more favorable. The Alabama cornerback room was left almost completely vacant after two NFL Draft early entries and a string of transfer portal departures.

Jaylen Mbakwe comes in as one of the best in-state recruits in recent memory, and the most highly-regarded of three 5-star defensive backs in Bama’s 2024 recruiting class. If he can earn a starting role at such a difficult position before the season even kicks off, he will instantly become a fan favorite. 

Stay tuned to Bama Hammer, as we will be rolling out news and updates on a daily basis throughout the spring practice period!