Alabama Football: 6 First-Year Starters That Must Step Up for Chance at Repeat
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Fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide may still be trying to soak in the reality of a 14th national title, but for the players it's already 2012. If they are to have a chance at bringing home number 15, these six players really have to step up.
The depth chart is far from confirmed, but educated guesses backed up by the play on the field can give us a good idea of who will be next year's starters.
The talent is there but only time will tell if these players have enough experience to become the first team ever to win back-to-back BCS National Championships.
Here are those six players with their future class listed.
Junior, Wide Receiver, 6'4", 210 lbs.
Duron Carter should finally be eligible for game time this year. He was able to contribute during practice and was used to represent scrambling LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson in practice.
He's nearly the same size as Julio Jones, but it is yet to be seen if he can be as productive.
Carter is not nearly as fast as Julio was, but his route running and soft hands should make him an easy target for A.J. McCarron to hit.
McCarron lacked a solid target for the entire 2011 season. Marquis Maze was good, but he wasn't exactly Ryan Broyles from Oklahoma, and Maze's small hit-box was a challenge for McCarron on long passes.
Carter has the genes to become a great; his father, Cris Carter, is a NFL Hall of Fame finalist after all.
If there is to be a chance at a repeat, A.J. McCarron needs a tall, long-armed receiver to be a serious red- zone threat.
Duron Carter fits the bill. If he can't step up, I'm sure Kevin Norwood is eager to prove that his stellar play in the title game against LSU wasn't just a fluke.
Sophomore, Tight End/H-back, 6'4", 248 lbs.
Harrison, the younger brother of Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones, isn't quite as big as his older brother, but he is the ideal size for a Nick Saban H-back.
Though the new, unknown offensive coordinator may have a bit of a new game plan, it is almost certain to include the two tight-end set, a staple of Alabama football for years.
The H-back must be big enough to take on linebackers to clear room for the running backs, and he is the go-to tight end in the passing game.
Scout.com listed Jones' flaws as "blocking ability and size." Back when they made these remarks and awarded Jones a 3-star status, he only weighed 225 lbs. He weighed in at 248 lbs. before the 2011 season started.
Harrison Jones has a chance to do something no Alabama tight end has done under Nick Saban: rack up over 400 yards receiving.
The emphasis on the passing game will probably increase in 2012 as the score will likely be closer than a 30-point spread, and the Tide won't be able to run the ball 30 or 40 times a game.
Nothing increases the other wide receiver's productivity like a dangerous receiving tight end that must always be accounted for.
Catching tight ends may be one of the most underrated positions in all of college football, and Harrison Jones could exploit this.
Jones was senior Brad Smelley's back up this year and looks to be his clear-cut successor.
Jones' work ethic on the field and in the classroom rival that of his older brother. His combination of talent and dedication will make him a dangerous weapon for the Tide.
Sophomore, Left Tackle, 6'6", 322 lbs.
With a rookie quarterback to protect, Cyrus Kouandjio became the No. 1 backup for left tackle Barrett Jones. That's quite a feat for a true freshman left tackle, no matter how physically gifted he is, especially in the SEC.
If the younger Kouandjio brother heals well from his torn ACL, he should easily take the starting left tackle job. Barrett Jones is likely to be needed to play center next year.
The decision will come down to this: Saban will use a somewhat experienced, supremely gifted left tackle (Kouandjio) or an untested, unproven center (Chad Lindsay). Whichever one he chooses to go with, Barrett Jones will play the other.
I fully expect Jones to play center.
Again, Kouandjio's recovery will play a big part. It's not easy for guys that weigh over 300 lbs. to recover well from one of the worst injuries a football player can experience. If he recovers like Dont'a Hightower did, starting slow and sluggishly, he just won't have the speed to play left tackle in the SEC just yet.
Whenever Kouandjio is 100 percent, expect him to be the most dominating offensive linemen the Tide has seen since Andre Smith.
Sophomore, Safety, 6'1", 217 lbs.
To quell the rumors, Vinnie Sunseri will not be following his father, Sal, to Tennessee. Why would he, anyway? Alabama is poised to make a run for a title every single year and the young Sunseri is likely about to become a starter.
Sunseri outplayed his fellow freshman safety, 5-star Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, the entire year on special teams and earned himself solid playing time behind Mark Barron. Clinton-Dix will likely move to cornerback anyway, in my opinion.
Barron is finally headed for the NFL and leaves quite a void behind him. Under Nick Saban, I don't think I've seen a player pick up the defensive scheme as quickly as Sunseri has, and I fully expect him to succeed Mark Barron. He's played almost flawlessly on special teams as well, throwing key blocks and never missing a lane.
With Will Lowery out with a torn ACL, Sunseri participated heavily in the Iron Bowl while Mark Barron dealt with an injury, and was the No. 1 backup safety in the national championship as well.
Sunseri didn't accumulate a tackle in the game, but that's understandable as it seemed like LSU was punting on every other play. With virtually no opposing offense, Sunseri didn't have a chance to do much.
He's already displayed his ability to commit brutal hits on ball carriers, blockers and would-be tacklers alike.
Vinnie Sunseri is almost identical in size to Mark Barron, who also became a starter as a sophomore.
2009, Barron's first year as a starter, was supposed to be a "rebuilding" year for the Tide with a rookie quarterback (Greg McElroy) and a 3-star running back (Mark Ingram).
Vinnie Sunseri hopes to take the same path as Mark Barron in his first year as a starter: a path to the BCS National Championship Game.
He'll make a great wing man for Robert Lester.
Some may think Will Lowery will be the next starting safety, but his physical abilities aren't quite what the team needs as a full-time safety. It pains me to say that, as he's my favorite player on the team, but he will be invaluable to the team regardless.
There have been rumors that Lowery will not play next year due to his injury, but his Twitter profile states otherwise: "Entering my senior year and last season of football at the University of Alabama. Finance major and defensive back for the Crimson Tide. Roll Tide!"
Jack Linebacker, Sophomore, 6'4", 240 lbs.
Taken right out of Mark Richt's and the Georgia Bulldogs' backyard, Dickson was a superb defensive end in high school, racking up 94 tackles and 12 sacks his junior year.
He should be closing in on 250 plus lbs. by the start of the 2012 season, which makes him undersized for a Nick Saban defensive end in a 3-4 scheme. However, he is ideally built to succeed Courtney Upshaw as the Tide's new No. 1 pass-rushing linebacker.
Adrian Hubbard will compete fiercely for this position, but I expect Dickson to get the nod. Hubbard will probably move to the other linebacker position, replacing Jerrell Harris and Alex Watkins, who are both graduating.
Fellow standout linebacker Trey DePriest will not compete for this position, as he is too valuable for middle linebacker depth and will make a push for the starting job there.
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Nose Tackle, Senior, 6'4", 320 lbs.
Jesse may not be a first-year starter in 2012, but I felt like he should be included, as his position change is big enough to be considered "first year."
He played left defensive end this year but will, undoubtedly, be transitioning to the nose tackle position. It is a very different position and he will be required to command more double teams than he had to in 2011.
Heading into the season he will probably be the strongest player on the defensive line, if not the entire team with William Vlachos and Josh Chapman both graduating.
Brandon Ivory could be expected to make a push for this position, but it is unlikely that he will get the nod over Williams.
Jesse Williams has things his two predecessors, Josh Chapman and Terrence Cody, lacked in one way or another: the ability to play every down and the ability to rush the passer.
Cody didn't have the kind of motor that Williams has and had to be spelled early and often. Chapman couldn't rush the passer and was spelled by undersized Nick Gentry, who turned out to be one heck of a pass rusher.
Jesse Williams, physically, is the total package for a nose tackle. He's extremely powerful but fairly lean for a 320 lb. man.
The nose tackle is the most important—and most underrated—part of a 3-4 scheme. A weakness at any other position can be covered, but without a dominating nose tackle the system fails, and dominating nose tackles can be difficult to find.
That's why Nick Saban had to find a guy from Australia that was going to school in Arizona to get what he needed.
Make no mistake, Jesse Williams was recruited to be a future nose tackle, and he will be an outstanding one in 2012, his final year of eligibility.