If there’s one thing that University of Alabama coach Nick Saban is exceptionally good at, it’s turning a weakness into a strength.
Although there are different ways he may go about doing so, including hiring a new assistant coach or moving players to different positions, his evaluation process never stops.
But Saban, who has had an All-American player at every position except tight end and punter, especially excels at it through recruiting. While there’s always an ebb and flow to that process as some years are better for certain position groups than others, and so on, sooner or later he seems to always succeed.
Consider the last three national signing days.
2014: With the Crimson Tide having a huge need at cornerback, Saban signed two of the nation’s top three prospects in Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey.
“I like both guys because they are big. They are long and they have great speed,” Saban said. “The way we play here, the guys you've seen who were first-round draft picks we had three years in a row had them, they all fit that criteria of guy. That's the type of guys we like because when you play up on people that it's important to have those characteristics. You have to have ball skill and you have to be able to tackle.”
2013: With more opposing offenses going to spread, no-huddle attacks, Alabama made changes in its recruiting philosophy of defensive front-seven players. Among those it added were A’Shawn Robinson (who led the Crimson Tide in sacks as a freshman), Tim Williams, Dee Liner and Jonathan Allen.
“I think we added fast-twitch, pass-rushing athletic guys to the defensive line category as being a higher priority because of spread offenses, more spread offenses, more athletic quarterbacks,” Saban said.
2012: When Alabama won the 2011 national championship, it did so without having too many big-time playmakers on offense, players who could turn a short pass into a big gain. Julio Jones was long gone and the primary starters at wide receiver had been Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks. Alabama added wide receivers Amari Cooper and Chris Black and running backs T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake.
“We started out with a goal of explosive players on offense, running back and receiver, those kinds of guys,” Saban said. “We felt good about the guys we were able to attract from that standpoint.”
Here’s a look at Alabama’s strengths, weaknesses and surprises heading into the 2014 training camp.
Talent, talent and more talent
As recently noted, the Alabama roster is absolutely loaded, with 15 5-star players (six on offense, nine on defense) and 50 (25 and 25) who were rated as 4-star prospects. There isn’t another coach in college football who can claim to have anything close to that.
The support staff
From the assistant coaches to the interns with the trainers, the Crimson Tide program is determined to have the best comprehensive support staff in college football. Alabama was one of the first programs to have a full-time nutritionist, it’s seemingly never quiet in the new weight room and there are four former Division I head coaches serving as assistant coaches.
As previously noted, finding more explosive players was a recent priority and Alabama now has depth at all of the skill positions. While many consider the running back group of Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Drake to potentially be the nation’s best (and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin recently said it might be better than any trio in the NFL), the other spots are impressive as well. The wide receivers go three deep and Alabama also has sophomore tight end O.J. Howard, who is a nightmare matchup for defenses.
Where is Alabama the weakest heading into the 2014 season?
Alabama doesn’t have anyone on the roster who has started a game at the collegiate level. Jacob Coker has transferred from Florida State and is eligible to play because he already has his degree with two years of eligibility remaining. Senior Blake Sims led the offense through the spring while redshirt freshman Cooper Bateman will also challenge for the starting job. There’s plenty of talent at the position, just very little experience.
Last year’s starters in the season opener against Virginia Tech were Deion Belue and John Fulton at cornerback with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri at safety. All are now gone. Junior safety Landon Collins will lead the unit, so the real concern is at cornerback. Sophomore Eddie Jackson sustained a knee injury during the spring, but it appears to be just a matter of time before Brown challenges for a starting job.
There were obviously some issues last year when Alabama lost its final two games and then players started saying that others weren’t focused or working hard enough. Senior linebacker Trey DePriest will be heavily leaned upon to fill C.J. Mosley’s leadership absence on defense while the offensive chemistry will need some time to develop.
DeAndrew White/Christion Jones
When Saban made a spring reference that Cooper nearly always needs to be defended by two players, it was almost as if he was begging opponents to do just that. White is probably Alabama’s most underrated player and Jones, likely the best kick/punt returner in the Southeastern Conference, is extremely dangerous in open space.
Alabama aims to attack offenses and quarterbacks in waves this season, beginning with a front three of A-Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Brandon Ivory. Each of them is listed at 6’4”, 310 pounds. Add in players like Allen, D.J. Pettway, Dalvin Tomlinson and Dee Liner, and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has numerous ways to attack at his disposal.
The biggest problem Alabama’s offensive line had last year was that it no longer included the three All-Americans of D.J. Fluker, Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack. While the unit may no longer have 5-star quality—except at left tackle, where true freshman Cam Robinson will go into camp as the player to beat—there could be seniors at the other four spots. The more they come together, the more potent Alabama’s running game and offense will become.
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.