Alabama Football: Power Ranking the 5 Best New Starters
The unfortunate thing about the end of the football season is seeing key components of a national championship team play their last downs as amateurs. The positive that emerges from it, though, is that a new crop of starters will be ready to fill the voids when fall arrives.
Fortunately, Alabama head coach Nick Saban has a stocked pantry of ready, willing and able replacements.
While there is always uncertainty from one season to the next, the Crimson Tide program is so well equipped to handle the minor changes it faces next season that the inevitable bumps in the road should be minimal.
With yet another amazing recruiting class added to an already loaded roster of top-notch talent, Alabama will once again reload rather than rebuild.
Here is a speculative glance at the top five new starters that Alabama will likely field this fall.
5. O.J. Howard
Brian Vogler and Harrison Jones may be more obvious, more prepared choices to replace the departed Michael Williams at tight end.
Joining them in the competition this fall, however, is incoming freshman O.J. Howard. The Prattville native was rated nationally as the top tight end in this class by Scout.com.
Saban has proven before that he has no problem rushing freshmen into the action as he did with T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper this past season.
With his size, unusual speed and ability to be more of a deep threat than most at his position, Howard will most definitely be given every chance to make the cut this fall.
He is thin and has work to do, but it would not be at all surprising to see Howard break the starting lineup early and become an impact player as a freshman.
4. Ryan Kelly
Replacing possibly the best offensive lineman to ever play at the Capstone in Barrett Jones will not be an easy task. In fact, it may take a generation to find another one as good as he was.
Rising sophomore Ryan Kelly will be the first one to try it, though.
In a backup role last season, Kelly saw action in nine games and earned a spot on the All-SEC Freshman Team.
The much-coveted center hails from Ohio and will join Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen, among others, as a key part of the revamped offensive line.
Kelly is capable of playing multiple positions, but look for him to get the nod at center for the Tide.
3. Vinnie Sunseri
I know, Vinnie Sunseri was a part-time starter in 2012. In fact, he started six games for the Tide.
With the changes that will face the 'Bama secondary evolving as they likely will throughout the spring and summer, Vinnie Sunseri has the inside track to become a full-time starter in his junior season.
After playing primarily on special teams in his freshman campaign, Sunseri improved enough to break the regular rotation last year in "dime" situations and finished the year fourth on the team in tackles.
He is by no means perfect, but the constant hustle and tenacity that Sunseri plays with is quickly making him a fan favorite. The coaching staff has noticed as well.
Sunseri is not the fastest, biggest or strongest, but he plays with the heart of a champion, and it is that heart that will help him to replace Robert Lester as a bona fide starter for the Tide.
2. Jeoffrey Pagan
Jeoffrey Pagan came off the bench in every game as a sophomore in 2012, accounting for 22 total tackles with four of them for loss and was in on two sacks.
He is an athletic pass-rushing type and could be the difference Alabama needs up front, providing the kind of pressure on opposing quarterbacks that the Tide often lacked a year ago.
Pagan will have his work cut out for him in replacing Quinton Dial and Damion Square, who were both lost to graduation. Having said that, he has earned enough playing time over the last two seasons that he should be prepared to step in right away.
If Pagan can live up to his capabilities, the Alabama defense will have a chance to be as good, if not better, than it was a year ago.
1. T.J. Yeldon
Even in a backup role, the freshman Yeldon rushed for 1,100 yards in 2012 and finished in the top 50 overall in rushing yardage. Among rushers with over 150 carries, Yeldon finished seventh in the land in yards per carry with a 6.33 average.
With the departure of starter Eddie Lacy, the role of feature back will clearly fall to Yeldon.
It would be safe to guess that Yeldon will gain upwards of 50 more carries as a sophomore, and if he stays healthy, could end the year with close to 1,500 yards.
He has amazing field vision and maintains his balance well enough to avoid multiple tackles before turning on the jets and dusting secondaries with his impressive speed.
As impactful as he was as a true freshman beginning with his debut effort against Michigan, it would be no surprise to see Yeldon holding up a Heisman Trophy before his days at Alabama are done.