Position-by-Position Spring Practice Comparison of Alabama and Auburn
The Alabama-Auburn rivalry never sleeps in the Yellowhammer State, even in down years.
When both teams are ratcheted up to their current levels, though, the spotlight expands beyond the single-state stage and spills over nationally.
College football fans won’t soon forget how this year’s Iron Bowl ended, with Chris Davis returning Adam Griffith’s 57-yard field-goal try 100 yards for Auburn’s winning score.
The conclusion ranks among the most bizarre and spectacular in the sport’s wild history.
Both the result and the ramifications—Auburn ultimately advanced to the BCS National Championship Game for which Alabama seemed destined—almost certainly equates to greater attention on the game this season.
It’s never too early for Auburn and Alabama fans to think about next year.
With their spring practices set to open within the next week, it seems like a reasonable time to compare the two programs position by position.
To do so, we will examine only players who will be on campus for—and/or participating in—spring practice.
In other words, incoming players will not count in this comparison.
Here is a position-by-position comparison of the in-state rivals, both of which seem almost certain to open the year in the Top 10:
Florida State transfer Jacob Coker seems far more likely to start next year for Alabama than to sit the bench, but he won’t be with the Crimson Tide for spring practice.
Coker, who is scheduled to graduate from Florida State in May and would be eligible to immediately play this fall, won’t even be on campus during drills.
As a result, Coker isn’t factored into the position-by-position comparison.
Plenty of talent will compete to replace AJ McCarron, headlined by last year’s backup Blake Sims.
Other returning quarterbacks with experience in the system include Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman.
Sims is the only quarterback on Alabama’s roster who has attempted a collegiate pass.
This position serves as perhaps the greatest question mark in Tuscaloosa this spring.
Nick Marshall becomes the first Auburn quarterback to enter spring practice entrenched as the starter since Brandon Cox in 2007.
Having a returning starter will also be a new feeling for coach Gus Malzahn, who mentors the same starting quarterback for consecutive years for the first time in his college coaching career.
The Tigers opened the last seven seasons with different starting quarterbacks, yielding varying high and low results.
Can Marshall bring Auburn to stability?
That all depends on how much he progresses during spring practice.
There’s no questioning Marshall’s ability to break games as a rusher.
For Auburn to weather a brutal schedule, though, Marshall will need to develop as a passer.
Far too often, Marshall misfired on passes—specifically on middle routes.
He gave Auburn a lethal, albeit inconsistent, deep passing game, but better accuracy could have resulted in an even more potent offensive attack.
Auburn will have a dynamic offense even if Marshall doesn’t progress at all as a passer.
If he does, the Tigers attack could be scary good.
If quarterback is an area of concern for the Crimson Tide this spring, tailback is the exact opposite.
T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry took turns showing out as all-SEC worthy talents last season.
All three return having accounted for 2,311 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns in 2013.
Yeldon, a first-team all-SEC selection, rushed for 1,235 of those yards and posted six 100-yard performances in 12 games.
He did, however, have fumbling issues resurface toward the end of the season, which he will want to correct this spring.
Drake served as Yeldon’s primary understudy and ran for 80 yards or more four times.
While Yeldon and Drake have the experience, Henry will likely be the fan favorite.
He emerged as Alabama’s greatest offensive weapon during the Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma, rushing for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight rushes and adding a 61-yard touchdown reception.
Defenses will have their hands full regardless of which talented back gets the ball next fall.
Tre Mason’s early departure to the NFL leaves a void at tailback, but Auburn should have the horses to fill it quickly—especially in Gus Malzahn’s offense.
Who will emerge as the primary back remains to be seen but plenty of viable options will get chances this spring.
Cameron Artis-Payne ran for 610 yards and six touchdowns last season after transferring in from junior college. He is the bigger, more physical back, though he had fumbling issues in 2013.
Corey Grant, who transferred from Alabama, is the home-run threat. The question is, can he be an every-down back or is he better on the edge like Onterio McCalebb, who was the speed back before Grant?
Mason declared redshirt freshman Peyton Barber as the most likely candidate to break out in 2014.
Johnathan Ford, another redshirt freshman, has great athleticism as displayed when he filled in at cornerback because of glaring depth issues.
A potential favorite for the starting spot, incoming 5-star freshman Racean Thomas, won’t be on campus this spring.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
Receiver Amari Cooper and tight end O.J. Howard should be stars next year, regardless of who throws them passes.
Add Christion Jones and DeAndrew White to the mix and it’s easy to see the Crimson Tide will have weapons in the passing game.
Cooper endured a “down” season in 2013, partly because he had to work through toe and foot injuries. He still accounted for 736 yards—299 when he got healthy over the final two games of the season—and four touchdowns.
Cooper showed off his game-breaking talent early in the fourth quarter against Auburn when he hauled in a 99-yard touchdown pass.
Howard obviously doesn’t fit in this group. He only caught 14 passes, though with a 19.2-yard average, as a freshman.
Look for the starting tight end to make moves toward superstardom in 2014.
Jones and White both add solid depth. They combined for 883 yards and six touchdowns last year.
Another young pass-catcher to watch is Robert Foster, who took a redshirt last year but seems poised to break out on the scene in a big way.
Cameron Sims, a true freshman who enrolled early, should also get a look.
Sammie Coates opened the season as strictly a deep threat but developed more as a mid-range option as the year progressed.
He is the unquestioned leader of Auburn’s receiving corps after leading the team in receptions (42), yards (902) and touchdowns (7).
The biggest difference-maker could well be junior-college transfer D’haquille Williams. 247Sports rated Williams, who is already enrolled at Auburn, as the top junior-college prospect in the nation.
Al.com’s Joel Erickson opined that Williams could make a splash comparable to that of former Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson in 2012.
Ricardo Louis will forever be remembered for his game-winning touchdown catch against Georgia.
His big-play upside will continue to warrant chances—especially in the short-passing game and on end-arounds—but he needs to develop more consistent hands.
Tight end C.J. Uzomah caught only 11 passes last year but finished as a third-team all-SEC selection. He hauled in another game-winner—this one in the final seconds against Mississippi State.
Freshmen Tony Stevens and Marcus Davis should get the opportunities this spring to grow into their considerable potential.
Just when Alabama looks like it could take a step back along the offensive line, it makes a huge move in recruiting, like landing Cameron Robinson, heralded by 247Sports as the top lineman.
Robinson will be one of several contenders—a group that includes possible rising star Grant Hill—to replace Cyrus Kouandjio.
Both Kouandjio and guard Anthony Steen are headed for NFL careers, but three linemen return.
Guard Arie Kouandjio, center Ryan Kelly and tackle Austin Shepherd will be back to anchor the Crimson Tide line.
Kelly should rank among the best centers in the conference.
It’s now or never for Leon Brown, a junior-college transfer who came to Tuscaloosa with high expectations. He filled in—to mixed results—for Steen during the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama’s offensive looked horrible in its loss to Oklahoma.
Some will say the unit was exposed during the Sugar Bowl.
Others will realize even the best teams have horrible nights.
Regardless of which side you take, it’s clear to see there is work to do along a line losing two of its top performers.
Losing star tackle Greg Robinson hurts to be sure, but the Tigers do return four starting offensive linemen including center Reese Dismukes.
Auburn returns 101 starts along the offensive line, which opened holes for the nation’s top rushing attack.
The biggest question will be who replaces Robinson.
Avery Young could move from right tackle to left. Al.com’s Joel Erickson wrote Shon Coleman—a former 5-star prospect—and Patrick Miller will likely battle for the other tackle spot.
Dismukes will be among the best centers in the league again.
Guards Chad Slade and Alex Kozan gave Auburn a formidable interior offensive line that should only continue to develop and improve in 2014.
A’Shawn Robinson will start this season for the Crimson Tide. It’s simply a matter of where.
Robinson spent 2013 impressing as a defensive end, where he racked up 5.5 sacks as a true freshman.
However, he could also find a home at nose tackle—especially if Alabama wants to go smaller along the line.
If Robinson stays on the edge, Brandon Ivory will battle junior-college transfer Jarran Reed for the starting position at nose tackle.
The other end position is up for grabs.
Al.com’s Michael Casagrande predicted junior-college transfer D.J. Pettway, Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson would duke it out in spring practice.
Don’t discount Dee Liner—a highly rated 4-star prospect from the Class of 2013—as a potential difference-maker.
Defensive end Dee Ford posted a sensational career season as a senior.
Auburn is in great position to reload while trying to replace him, too.
Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel both showed a lot of promise during their true freshmen seasons.
Lawson, in particular, looks like a potential superstar. He posted 20 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and seven quarterback hurries in 2013.
LaDarius Owens, back for his senior season, started 12 games a year ago. He came to Auburn as a huge prospect and has one final chance to live up to his considerable hype.
Tackle Gabe Wright showed flashes of being a star, recording 8.5 TFLs.
The vacant tackle spot left by Nosa Eguae seems to set up a battle between Ben Bradley, Angelo Blackson and Montravius Adams—another true freshman who made an impact in 2013.
One of Alabama coach Nick Saban’s most admirable traits is his ability to reload after graduating top-level talent.
How the Crimson Tide moves on from linebacker C.J. Mosley could be a clinic of what makes Saban’s programs great.
It won’t just be Mosley Alabama has to replace. Starter Adrian Hubbard also declared for the NFL draft, leaving three voids at linebacker.
On a positive note, Trey DePriest elected to return this season after making 65 tackles, including 7.5 for loss.
Denzel Devall is the other returning starter. He registered 30 tackles, including five TFLs, in 2013.
Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart gets to select his new starters from several huge prospects, including Reuben Foster.
247Sports rated Foster, whom the Crimson Tide plucked out of Auburn, as the No. 6 prospect nationally in 2013.
Jonathan Allen, who also showed up in the defensive line discussion, could potentially land at linebacker instead of end. If he does, he will add immediate credence to the position.
D.J. Pettway is in the same position as Allen—potentially a defensive end and potentially a “Jack” linebacker.
True freshman Shaun Hamilton enrolled early so he can compete for playing time.
As the 2013 season progressed, Auburn quietly improved substantially at the linebacker position.
Auburn finally moved more to a lineup featuring Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy.
Senior Jake Holland still officially started 13 of 14 games, but Frost took on a substantially boosted workload.
It’s a good thing, too.
As much as coaches praised Holland for being an intelligent player, he never possessed the speed, agility or both to contribute as even an average starting SEC linebacker.
McKinzy led the team with 75 tackles, also scoring eight TFLs.
Frost, meanwhile, leveraged his additional snaps for increased production, earning 59 tackles including six for loss.
That duo seems the likely starting tandem in defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s customary 4-2-5 system.
Where the Tigers will find depth remains to be seen.
Anthony Swain and JaViere Mitchell could well find themselves as the top reserve candidates.
Keep an eye on Tre’ Williams, an incoming 5-star freshman who won’t be on campus in time for spring practice.
Until Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight scorched the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama seemed to have turned a corner in the secondary.
The unit made tremendous strides since earlier in the season when Texas A&M posted huge passing numbers.
Alabama’s cornerbacks were young—and getting younger this year—but also have a great deal of talent.
Cornerback Eddie Jackson, who won a starting job midway through his freshman season, needs to be a stabilizing presence at the position.
Deion Belue is gone, meaning Alabama must quickly find solutions at corner.
John Fulton started last season, but struggled—specifically against Texas A&M.
Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve offer intriguing options as well.
Incoming freshmen Tony Brown (enrolled) and Marlon Humphrey (not enrolled) have chances to earn immediate playing time.
The safety position is a bit more settled, despite losing both Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri to the NFL.
Landon Collins is the next huge thing to come out of the Alabama secondary.
Nick Perry, Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith—all of whom have experience—seem likely to battle for the other position.
Whichever of Perry or Smith who doesn’t win the starting nod could factor in as a nickelback.
For Auburn to weather the storms coming as part of its 2014 schedule, it must find answers in the secondary.
Chris Davis, the team’s top corner, is gone. So are secondary contributors Ryan White and Ryan Smith.
Now the Tigers must reload on the fly.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has the benefit of being able to call on safety Derrick Moncrief, rated by 247Sports as one of the nation’s top junior-college transfers.
Moncrief will team with Jermaine Whitehead as Auburn’s traditional safeties while Robenson Therezie should return as a starter at the “Star” position.
At some point, it seems likely the coaches will finally find a spot for Justin Garrett, who has drawn rave reviews from his practice performances in the past.
Cornerback isn’t as clear-cut.
Jonathon Mincy and Joshua Holsey seem to have the inside tracks to starting positions.
Depth beyond those two must surface, which is why the Tigers signed junior-college transfer Joseph Turner after national signing day.
Jonathan Jones saw some playing time last year but didn’t do anything to make a name for himself.
Incoming freshmen Nick Ruffin, Kalvaraz Bessent and Stephen Roberts should all have chances to see the field this year.
None of the three will go through spring practice, which could create a tense August camp.
Return specialist Christion Jones gives Alabama one of the best special teams weapons in the nation.
Adam Griffith seems the most logical contender to become the primary kicker.
True freshman JK Scott will likely take over as the starting punter, but he will not practice this spring because he won’t yet be enrolled in school.
Punter Steven Clark and kicker Cody Parkey are both gone, leaving Auburn trying to break in players at both positions.
Redshirt freshmen Daniel Carlson (punter) and Jimmy Hutchinson (kicker) are the logical favorites to win the battles.
Auburn must also find answers in the return game with Tre Mason and Chris Davis both headed for professional careers.
Quan Bray returns as a return specialist. Tailback Corey Grant would also seem to be a logical option.