Alabama Football: 6 Players Who Should See Their Roles Expanded in 2014
One of the primary reasons Alabama has been able to maintain its status as a powerhouse is its ability to plug in new talents capable of replacing the decorated veterans who preceded them.
Nick Saban will have to replace 10 starters this season. However, there are plenty of former stud recruits he is currently grooming in spring ball who will take on larger roles in the fall.
Some players are looking to fill key holes for the Tide while others are budding stars who are simply too talented to keep off the field.
Which handful of players should Tide fans expect to see more of this fall?
6. Grant Hill
The offensive line has to replace two starters with both Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen off to the NFL.
As Andrew Gribble of AL.com notes, Grant Hill turned heads and was able to earn valuable snaps with the first team last season as a true freshman. In the process, he drew high praise from Kouandjio.
"Grant, he's a man-child,” Kouandjio said. “He's ready. He's ready to go in there. He might not be here for too long so you might as well put him in there."
Heading into his sophomore season, Hill is a versatile player who has the size, strength and athleticism necessary to contribute at either tackle or guard.
While the competition to fill out the offensive line is just beginning, Hill has the look of a player whose role is primed to grow this season.
5. Geno Smith
In recent years, Alabama has enjoyed the luxury of having both talent and depth in the secondary thanks to the coaching and recruiting ability of Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
In 2014, the Tide will still field one of the most talented secondaries in the country led by rising star safety Landon Collins.
However, depth at both corner and especially safety appear to be light on bodies that have any significant experience.
While Saban and Smart will have many options to choose from, the most seasoned and versatile option at their disposal may be junior Geno Smith—who has seen action at corner, safety and as the Tide’s extra defensive back in nickel packages over the last two seasons.
Considering the Tide have reloaded with a strong class of incoming freshman defensive backs, the time is now for Smith to seize the moment and earn a valuable role heading into the fall.
4. Dillon Lee
With the loss of C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard, Alabama will need to find a pair of new starters in the middle level of the defense.
Rising junior Dillon Lee—who has seen action both at inside and outside linebacker at various times in his first two years at Alabama—is a player who has already caught the eye of Saban, according to Marc Torrence of BamaOnline.
“I think Dillon Lee will be a really good player for us,” Saban said. “I think he has a good understanding of what we want him to do. He runs well. He's got good size and plays good block protection, especially at the line of scrimmage. We feel like he can be a very good player and competing for a starting job right now. We're confident that if he wins that job, he'll be able to do an outstanding job for us.”
With his versatility and that type of endorsement from his head coach, Lee is a player who has the experience and talent necessary to make an impact for the Tide’s defense this fall.
3. O.J. Howard
While the search for a new quarterback to replace AJ McCarron is one of the Tide’s biggest questions, an absolutely loaded collection of skill talent is sure to soften the blow of breaking in an inexperienced signal-caller.
Perhaps one of the most valuable weapons awaiting the new quarterback is rising sophomore tight end O.J. Howard.
The former 5-star recruit enjoyed a freshman season littered with flashes of his immense potential.
With a weapon as talented as the 6’6”, 237-pound Howard available to stretch the middle of the field, expect him to become a safety valve for whichever passer inherits the keys to the Tide’s offense.
2. Jonathan Allen
Perhaps the biggest impact from a freshman in the touted 2013 class came from 5-star defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson.
With the departures of starting defensive ends Jeoffrey Pagan and Ed Stinson, fellow 5-star and classmate Jonathan Allen is in prime position to join him as a catalyst on the Tide’s defensive line in 2014.
Allen saw action in 12 games last season and collected 15 tackles. While those numbers were modest, Allen—who racked up 43 sacks over his final three prep seasons—he’s made impressive gains in size and strength in the offseason, as noted by Travis Reier of BamaOnline.
With his pass-rushing skills and improved physical condition, expect Allen to emerge this spring and lock down a starting role before the season opener against West Virginia on Aug. 30.
1. Derrick Henry
After a largely quiet freshman season, Derrick Henry’s bowl performance against Oklahoma was equivalent to a volcano finally erupting.
Henry racked up 161 yards on nine touches with one rushing and one receiving touchdown in an effort that served as a bright light in an otherwise lethargic performance for the Tide.
Maybe of more significance for Henry was the fact that he was finally able to earn the trust of the coaching staff, which bodes well in his quest to earn more carries for the Tide as a sophomore.
He will still have to battle the likes of T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake for carries. However, considering that Henry averaged nearly 11 yards per attempt on his 35 carries last season, the former 5-star recruit enters spring with a ton of momentum and a chance to emerge as one of the most dangerous weapons at new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s disposal.