Alabama Football: Redshirt freshmen primed for breakout seasons

Alabama v Auburn
Alabama v Auburn / Michael Chang/GettyImages

The 2023 recruiting class for Alabama Football was the top class in the country, and is considered to be one of the best recruiting hauls of all time.

Unfortunately, the retirement of Coach Nick Saban triggered the exit of three of the top players from this class. 5-star safety Caleb Downs was the best true freshman in the country last year. 5-star offensive lineman Kadyn Proctor went through growing pains but started every game at left tackle, one of the toughest positions on the field. 4-star cornerback Dezz Ricks did not see much playing time, but had an opportunity to compete for a starting spot in 2024. 

Sure, Bama would have liked to keep this talent in house (especially Caleb Downs). However, the focus should not be placed on these departures.

Contrary to the national narratives, the vast majority of the 2023 class (23 of 28 signees) has stayed put through this earth-shattering transfer of power.   

A handful of players from this class contributed in 2023 and will return as sophomores, including running back Justice Haynes, wide receiver Jalen Hale, and defensive lineman James Smith. However, a large chunk of the class redshirted in year one and will have an opportunity to compete as redshirt freshmen this year.

Alabama Football: Redshirt freshmen to keep an eye on

Former 4-star offensive linemen Wilkin Formby, Miles McVay, and Olaus Alinen will all be redshirt freshmen this fall after spending 2023 learning and growing behind guys like future NFL draft selection JC Latham.

Alabama Football has a wide-open competition for both starting tackle spots, and this trio of youngsters will have an opportunity to prove themselves in spring ball. Their development could determine whether or not Bama goes into the portal for an offensive tackle later this spring. Another redshirt freshman, Texas A&M transfer Naquil Betrand, will be in the middle of this competition as well. 

Similarly, a trio of edge rushers on the other side of the ball could burst onto the scene in 2024. Bama loses Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell on the edge, potentially both as first-round draft picks, and will still boast arguably the most talented edge room in college football. 

Keon Keeley, Qua Russaw, and Yhonzae Pierre were all considered 5-stars by at least one publication in the 2023 class. Keeley is the biggest name, and was dubbed a consensus top-5 player in the country by the recruiting industry. He has a Will Anderson Jr.-type ceiling, and could be next in a long line of first-rounders at the position for Alabama Football.

There is little to no dropoff with Pierre and Russaw, both elite talents that have had a year to develop in the program. These three will have to out-compete veterans Quandarrius Robinson and Keanu Koht on the edge, but I expect to see at least one of them emerge as an impactful contributor. 

Cornerback Jahlil Hurley may be the most important redshirt freshman on the roster. He is the only scholarship corner returning from the 2023 roster, and will likely be a first-team cornerback by default in spring practice. Bama will probably pursue at least one transfer portal cornerback, but Hurley will have the first opportunity to lay claim to the starting position.  

Running back Richard Young is expected to remain behind the duo of Jam Miller and Justice Haynes, but Young is supremely talented in his own right. Even if he stays at RB3, he could have meaningful opportunities within the framework of the offense. Under Coach Saban, Bama’s third back almost always got some run, so it will be interesting to see if that committee approach continues under Coach DeBoer and offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb. 

Lastly, former 3-star kicker Conor Talty might have the most difficult job on the team. Talty was perhaps the best kicker in the class of 2023 and is very capable, but he is quite literally following an Alabama Football legend in Will Reichard.

Talty was fortunate enough to share a position room with Reichard for a year, and hopefully learned a lot from college football’s all-time leading scorer. Bama fans have a long-standing traumatic relationship with the kicker position, and Conor Talty will be assessed with as much scrutiny as anybody on the roster. He would do well to keep a short memory and trust the work that he has put in to get here, and I think Talty will do very well at Alabama.

One of the greatest recruiting classes Coach Saban ever landed will one day be remembered as the core of Coach DeBoer’s first Alabama Football teams. These redshirt freshmen will help set the tone for the Kalen DeBoer era in Tuscaloosa.