Alabama Football: Predicting the Depth Chart Heading into Fall Camp
Alabama fans are all too familiar with Nick Saban’s dislike of preseason depth charts.
As AL.com’s Michael Casagrande explained during spring practice, Saban prefers that his players focus on improving daily in favor of jockeying for roster position.
"I think some guys about now start to worry about the depth chart and where they are on the depth chart," Saban said. “Well we really don't have a depth chart.”
However, with fall camp set to get underway in early August, the picture will begin to become clear as to which players will find themselves in good position to take the field in the Tide’s season opener against West Virginia on Aug. 30.
Which players have an inside track on securing a spot, and which positions will feature the most intriguing battles in fall camp?
Starter: Jacob Coker
Backups: Blake Sims, Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris, David Cornwell
Analysis: Despite the buzz surrounding the arrival of Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, Saban made it clear during SEC Media Days that Coker hasn’t earned the starting quarterback job yet.
"That's really not internally the perception by me, our staff or our players," Saban told ESPN.com’s Alex Scarborough. "Jake Coker has the opportunity to come in and compete for the position."
Senior Blake Sims, who drew praise from Saban for his body of work during the spring despite a poor finale in the team’s A-Day game, appears to be Coker’s main competition.
Even though Saban is doing his best to quell the optimism surrounding Coker, it’s hard to ignore the 6’5”, 230-pounder’s seemingly enormous ceiling.
The beginning of camp should prove to be interesting, particularly if Coker struggles to find his rhythm. However, in the end, Coker’s physical tools—and his experience plying his trade under noted quarterback guru Jimbo Fisher for three seasons—should help him adjust quickly enough to earn the starting nod.
Starter: T.J. Yeldon
Backups: Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, Altee Tenpenny, Tyren Jones
Analysis: The analysis for Alabama’s backfield rotation can be copied and pasted from the previous five seasons. Simply put, the Tide are loaded.
T.J. Yeldon enters his junior season coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but the hot name in Tuscaloosa is rising sophomore Derrick Henry.
At 6’3”, 238 pounds, Henry offered a glimpse of his enormous potential by gashing Oklahoma on a pair of scoring plays longer than 40 yards in the Tide’s bowl game.
Junior Kenyan Drake is another talented rusher who has proven to be effective in limited action over the last two seasons.
The key to fall camp will be the continued development of Henry and the staff’s handling of Drake—who may be skating on thin ice after being arrested earlier this month on a misdemeanor charge of obstructing government operations, as noted by AL.com’s Mike Herndon.
Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones are former stud recruits itching to jump into the rotation, and veteran Jalston Fowler—who could also see the field in an H-back type role—offer Lane Kiffin plenty of options and versatility within the Tide’s rushing unit.
Starters: Amari Cooper (X), DeAndrew White (Z), Christion Jones (Y)
Backups: Cam Sims (X), ArDarius Stewart (X), Robert Foster (Z), Raheem Falkins (Z), Chris Black (Y)
Analysis: As talented as the Tide’s running back unit is, their receiving unit may be better. In terms of experience, talent and depth, Alabama’s pass-catching unit is among the nation’s best.
Headlining the group is junior All-American candidate Amari Cooper. After a slow start to his sophomore campaign, Cooper rebounded with monster efforts in each of the last two games.
Seniors DeAndrew White and Christion Jones will flank him, and their experience will prove to be invaluable in easing the transition for whichever player emerges to win the quarterback job.
Robert Foster and Chris Black lead a strong contingent of underclassmen hoping to establish a spot in the rotation during fall camp.
The starting trio appears to be set, but establishing a clear rotation at each position will be among the tasks charged to Kiffin and the offensive staff during camp.
Starters: O.J. Howard (TE), Jalston Fowler (H-back)
Backups: Brian Vogler (TE), Malcolm Faciane (TE), Kurt Freitag (H), Ty Flournoy-Smith (TE)
Analysis: While Saban has fielded his fare share of freaks during his tenure in Tuscaloosa, he’s never had a tight end with star potential such as sophomore O.J. Howard.
The 6’6”, 237-pounder and former 5-star recruit flashed at times last season as a freshman—most notably, on a short pass he caught and raced 52 yards for a touchdown against LSU.
Fall camp will be Howard’s first test in preparing to handle a larger role in the offense. Fowler is a versatile weapon who can contribute at H-back or running back.
While Howard’s strength lies as a pass-catching option, the Tide have plenty of big bodies who can handle the blocking responsibilities normally reserved for the position in previous years.
Senior Brian Vogler (6’7”, 260) and junior Malcolm Faciane (6’5”, 267) have combined to record only 13 career receptions, but each player brings the size and physicality required to act as extra linemen in the run game.
Incoming JUCO transfer Ty Flournoy-Smith is another option that could give the staff flexibility at tight end and H-back.
Starters: Cameron Robinson (LT), Arie Kouandjio (LG), Ryan Kelly (C), Leon Brown (RG), Austin Shepherd (RT)
Backups: Brandon Greene (LT), Dominick Jackson (LG), Isaac Luatua (C), Alphonse Taylor (RG), Grant Hill (RT)
Analysis: Perhaps of all the positions, Tide fans will most anxiously follow the camp developments along the offensive line.
Ryan Kelly, Austin Shepherd and Arie Kouandjio all return after starting last season, and the spring saw senior Leon Brown and elite true freshman Cameron Robinson step up and earn time with the starting unit.
However, due to the Tide’s struggles toward the end of last season, Mario Cristobal’s unit has work to do in establishing the right chemistry among the eventual starting five.
Before then, expect camp to feature its share of battles and experiments with moving players around in an effort to get the five best players on the field.
A decorated offensive line class is already making its presence felt—with Robinson in line to assume the vacant left tackle spot, as detailed by BamaOnline’s Marc Torrence.
The most intriguing newcomer from the summer arrivals could be JUCO transfer Dominick Jackson—who has the frame and athleticism to make an impact at tackle or guard. Grant Hill and Alphonse Taylor are promising underclassmen who could make a move toward a starting nod with a strong camp.
Starters: A’Shawn Robinson (DE), Brandon Ivory (NG), Jonathan Allen (DE)
Backups: D.J. Pettway (DE), Jarran Reed (DE), Dee Liner (DE), Dalvin Tomlinson (DE), Darren Lake (NG)
Analysis: Saban’s shift toward employing a more versatile and athletic defensive line appeared to take a step forward in the spring.
The emergence of sophomore defensive end Jonathan Allen—who recorded a pair of sacks and blocked a field goal in the Tide’s spring game—and the arrival of talented JUCO defensive ends D.J. Pettway and Jarran Reed give Bo Davis a plethora of options to place alongside preseason All-SEC end A’Shawn Robinson.
The debut of former stud recruit and true freshman Da’Shawn Hand is another storyline worth watching in camp.
Senior Brandon Ivory returns to his role at nose guard, but Darren Lake and talented true freshmen Josh Frazier, Johnny Dwight and O.J. Smith will get chances to push for playing time during camp.
Overall, the battle between Reed and Allen for the end spot opposite Robinson may be the biggest battle. However, the bigger story will be the Tide’s continued push to get more athletic bodies up front who can be more effective in pass-rushing situations.
Starters: Dillon Lee (Sam OLB), Trey Depriest (Mike ILB), Reggie Ragland (Will ILB), Denzel Devall (Jack OLB)
Backups: Tim Williams (Sam OLB), Shaun Hamilton (Mike ILB), Reuben Foster (Will ILB), Xzavier Dickson (Jack OLB)
Analysis: The loss of C.J. Mosley is easily the biggest hole Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have to fill.
Junior Reggie Ragland, who snared an interception in the Tide’s spring game, will get the first crack at the position. Fellow junior Dillon Lee is the front-runner to land the spot outside vacated by Adrian Hubbard.
The return of starters Trey Depriest and Denzel Devall gives the defense a pair of solid and dependable anchors in the middle level.
Despite the new faces, Alabama’s linebacker segment is still loaded with talent and experience, and it will get a boost from a decorated crop of incoming freshmen.
Sophomores Tim Williams and Reuben Foster are intriguing young talents with a chance to establish themselves in the rotation with a strong camp. Rashaan Evans and Christian Miller are among the many pieces from the 2014 recruiting class hoping to make an instant impact during camp.
Starters: Cyrus Jones (CB), Tony Brown (CB), Geno Smith (S), Landon Collins (S), Jarrick Williams (Star)
Backups: Bradley Sylve (CB), Eddie Jackson (CB), Marlon Humphrey (CB), Jabriel Washington (CB), Maurice Smith (CB), Nick Perry (S), Laurence Jones (S), Jonathan Cook (S)
Analysis: Landon Collins enters fall camp as the most stable piece in the secondary. The All-American candidate is one of the nation’s best playmakers and will serve as the glue to a unit undergoing a bit of a facelift.
Senior Jarrick Williams found a home last season at "Star"—the Tide’s extra defensive back in nickel sets. His experience and versatility are a plus at a critical position.
The pieces who will surround them in the season opener remain a mystery.
At safety, junior Geno Smith heads into camp as the favorite to land the spot opposite Collins. Smith and Williams appear to be interchangeable parts at safety and star.
The corner position figures to serve as one of the headlines of fall camp, with both starting positions wide open. The indefinite status of sophomore corner Eddie Jackson—who suffered a torn ACL in spring practice—further clouds the picture.
Junior Cyrus Jones is the team’s most experienced returning corner—despite making the switch from receiver only prior to last season. Fellow junior Bradley Sylve has battled injuries throughout his career, but he has a great opportunity to snare a spot in the rotation if he remains healthy.
However, the biggest buzz surrounds hotshot recruits Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. With so little returning experience and no spots in the rotation set in stone, both former 5-star prospects stand a great chance to see snaps early in the season, provided they quickly adjust to the college level. In Brown’s case, he could be in line for a starting job if he continues to progress.
Starters: Adam Griffith (PK, KO), JK Scott (P), Christion Jones (PR, KR), Chris Black (KR)
Backups: JK Scott (PK), Alec Morris (P), ArDarius Stewart (PR,KR)
Analysis: Christion Jones’ presence as a return man gives the Tide one of the most explosive special teams weapons in the country.
The only question for the return units is finding a consistent sidekick to pair with Jones on kick returns, and the Tide aren’t hurting for options. Receivers Chris Black and ArDarius Stewart and corner Cyrus Jones are just a few of the candidates who could wind up earning that job.
However, the kicking game—which has bitten the Tide in recent years—remains the biggest concern.
Adam Griffith’s spring struggles (hit only one of three field-goal attempts in spring game) did little to inspire optimism. However, the arrival of freshman JK Scott will add to the competition and the sense of urgency to rectify what has been a problem area in big games recently.
If Scott can’t beat out Griffith as the Tide’s placekicker, he still figures to get first crack at replacing the departed Cody Mandell at punter. While Alec Morris has made little headway in his quest to earn the starting quarterback job, he filled in admirably at punter during the A-Day game and could be a decent alternative in case Scott struggles.