Alabama Football: Top 6 Storylines to Watch Entering Fall Camp
With memories of hoisting a crystal football on the Superdome’s floor in its rear-view mirror, Alabama will begin the quest to claim its 15th national title in school history when fall camp opens on Friday.
Despite losing of host of veterans that were catalysts for Alabama’s title runs in 2009 and 2011, the talent on hand for Nick Saban is plentiful—albeit young and devoid of major experience.
With a marquee matchup on the horizon for Alabama in their season-opener against Michigan, the Crimson Tide will look to find answers to their most pressing issues before turning their full attention towards the Wolverines.
So which concerns will Saban and his staff focus on over the next few weeks?
Here are six major storylines to watch for Alabama as it begins fall practices.
6. Who Will Emerge at Wide Receiver?
Although the Crimson Tide must replace 2011 starters Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, the 2012 roster features a versatile and talented group of pass-catchers that most Tide supporters expect to improve from last season.
Juniors Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood figure to enter camp as the prohibitive favorites to earn the starting nods, but there are several intriguing options behind them capable of stepping up to claim those spots.
Sophomores Christion Jones and true freshmen Amari Cooper and Chris Black each made strides in spring practice, while sophomore DeAndrew White is another solid contributor from last season that figures to be a part of the receiver rotation this fall.
Also, true freshman and former 5-star recruit Eddie Williams will enter the mix as well.
As the season approaches, it will be interesting to see if Bell and Norwood can hold off the horde of young challengers nipping at their heels.
5. Position Battles in the Secondary
A pair of veterans—senior safety Robert Lester and junior corner Dee Milliner—figure to anchor a secondary that needs to replace three starters from last season.
The battle at the corner spot opposite Milliner between junior John Fulton and JUCO transfer Deion Belue will carry over from spring—with Belue appearing to have the upper hand by the slimmest of margins.
Meanwhile, sophomore safeties Vinnie Sunseri and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix will fight for the right to lineup alongside Lester—with each player carrying positive momentum from strong performances in Alabama’s spring game into fall camp.
Regardless of the way each battle unfolds, all four players figure to play prominent roles on the field for the Crimson Tide this fall—but the competition can help each individual player improve and help build depth for the long season ahead.
4. Depth on the Offensive Line
Alabama’s biggest strength on paper entering the season appears to be its offensive line—with center Barrett Jones anchoring a group that figures to be one of the nation’s best in the trenches.
However, like most programs across the country, the Tide could be in trouble if any of its starters are forced to miss action this season.
A trio of redshirt sophomores—guard Chad Lindsay and tackles Austin Shepherd and Arie Kouandjio—all have game experience to their credit, with Shepherd appearing in seven games as a backup to right tackle D.J. Fluker while Kelly and Kouandjio appearing in only two games in 2011.
Redshirt freshmen Ryan Kelly (center) and Isaac Luatua (guard) figure as the backups to Jones and Anthony Steen, respectively.
Junior Kellen Williams—who saw action in five games last season—is a versatile lineman capable of providing depth at a number of positions, but figures to be the main backup to Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle this season.
Considering Arie Kouandjio’s health concerns (missed spring recovering from knee surgery), there are several question marks for the Tide’s backups aside from Shepherd and Williams.
Building solid depth and avoiding injuries will be paramount for this group in fall camp.
3. Continuity on Offense
With Doug Nussmeier beginning his first season at Alabama as the offensive coordinator, fall camp will serve as a dress rehearsal for the Tide’s new play-caller.
Luckily for the former Washington offensive coordinator, he has the good fortune of relying on returning starting quarterback A.J. McCarron and the aforementioned veteran offensive line.
However, it will be important for his offense to gain a rhythm while integrating the newcomers at the skill positions, especially when you consider that the Tide's most experienced returning weapon—running back Eddie Lacy—missed the spring to nurse a toe injury.
The need for the offense to click becomes magnified considering the showdown with the Wolverines looming in week one.
2. Which Newcomers Will Step Up?
Saban brought in the nation’s top recruiting class for 2012—with a handful of players from that group expected to contribute in their first year in the Crimson Tide program.
Aside from the previously mentioned JUCO corners Dixon and Belue, plus freshmen wideouts Cooper and Black, the main newcomer to watch could be reigning A-Day MVP running back T.J. Yeldon.
One of the nation’s top running back prospects for the 2012 class, Yeldon put on a show accounting for 180 yards of offense (89 rushing, 91 receiving) and staking his claim to the backup spot behind Lacy.
In a deep class filled with quality and quantity, it would not be a total surprise see a few more names turn heads in fall camp and earn their way onto the field this season.
1. Backup Quarterback
With the transfer of backup quarterback Phillip Sims to Virginia, the depth behind McCarron consists of redshirt freshman Phillip Ely and true freshman Alec Morris.
Considering that neither of them have taken a snap in college, Nussmeier has the added challenge of preparing a game plan for both should anything force McCarron to miss any action.
Additionally, the learning curve for both Ely and Morris will be accelerated with Nussmeier’s main challenge being to identify their strengths in case either is needed for an extended period this season.
Ely had a solid spring and figures to have a leg up on the backup job, plus he could gain significant experience this season in mop-up duty in games that the Tide put away their opponents early.