In the fourth installment of my pre-spring preview, I move over to offense and take a look at the backfield.
QB Greg McElroy graduated
RB Mark Ingram left early for NFL
QB Phillip Ely true freshman arriving early
RB Demetrius Hart true freshman arriving early
Alabama's backfield has been solid for the last several years but Alabama's runners were banged up last year and depth did not develop as some expected. This spring, Alabama will be looking for its next leader at quarterback and will have to redefine itself at running back.
For the first time in a while, Alabama will have a significant quarterback battle on its hands this spring. Redshirt sophomore AJ McCarron vs. redshirt freshman Phillip Sims and true freshman Phillip Ely. All three quarterbacks were high school elite 11 participants.
AJ McCarron will begin the spring as the man to beat. At 6'4" and 190 lbs., McCarron has a height advantage and is the only quarterback to have taken snaps in a live situation. McCarron can best be described as a gunslinger. He's a threat to go downtown at any moment. He has a quick release but isn't overly mobile. He also isn't very thick, making some wonder if he can take a pounding.
Many compare McCarron to former Alabama quarterback Brody Croyle. There are some similarities in appearance and abilities. From observation, I believe McCarron to be more accurate than Croyle and he will have a vastly better offensive line in front of him and better receivers to throw to.
From his backup position, some felt he regressed during the season, but in my opinion what you saw was McCarron beginning to read defenses and look for the open man, rather than just slinging it towards the deepest receiver.
While this is a good thing, his success rate in hitting those deep receivers is hard not to get excited about.
McCarron's main competition is Phillip Sims. Sims was even higher rated in high school than McCarron and is Virginia's all-time passing leader.
Sims isn't as tall as McCarron, but at 6'2" and 214 he is more sturdily built. Sims also isn't much of a threat to run, but has a lightning quick trigger and has shown some accuracy under pressure.
Unfortunately, most of his time under center has come away from public view, so this spring will be our first significant look.
McCarron and Sims form the most talented quarterback contenders we have seen at Alabama in a very long time—perhaps since the Bryant era. McCarron may be the man to beat, but Sims has the talent to overcome the experience gap. This should be a true competition.
True freshman Philip Ely is somewhat similar to former quarterback John Parker Wilson, but may be more accurate and have more upside. He's not as big as the other quarterbacks, but he was signed to develop in the long term.
If either McCarron or Sims takes over the quarterback job completely, it's possible the other will transfer eventually. The job could easily fall to Ely at some point in the future. Ely is a smart, versatile player who can run most any type of offense.
Alabama has one more player that as of this moment is still listed as a quarterback—Blake Sims. Blake was originally recruited as an athlete. He had a better-than-expected senior year throwing the ball, but was still not considered a major recruit at quarterback.
He was, however, considered a major athlete. He struggled to get eligible and did not qualify and arrive until the last minute this fall. As a result, his year on the scout team was assured. There, he often portrayed the athletic quarterbacks Alabama faced, and in doing so, earned a reputation as a very hard player to catch.
No one outside the program knows where Blake Sims is going to play. He could stay at quarterback, he could be a wildcat option, he could play receiver, running back, or defensive back. Right now, the thoughts are that he is too dangerous a ball carrier to move to defense.
My money is on a little bit of everything. I believe he will provide a passing threat from the wildcat for some special situations and will otherwise be employed at multiple positions to see what works.
At running back, Trent Richardson is similar to Mark Ingram, but with more speed. Ingram may have had a few more moves, but Richardson may catch up with more carries and he has a similar ability to break tackles. Richardson is bigger than Ingram and could have even more potential given the No. 1 spot.
Richardson was slowed by several injuries in high school and though he had a great freshman year, he was injured again last year and didn't appear to bounce back until the bowl game.
If healthy, there isn't a better combination of power, speed and moves in college football—Heisman consideration is not out of the question.
Behind Richardson, however, things aren't so clear. This time last year, it was assumed that redshirted runner Eddie Lacy would be the next great back in line. It started well for Lacy this fall, but several early fumbles, in the red zone no less, planted his derrière firmly on the bench.
Lacy started last year at 6'0" and 212 lbs. and looked heavier by the bowl game. I don't know if the weight gain is good or bad, but he still possessed a wicked spin move and true breakaway speed that is hard to find. There is no question the staff will continue to coach Lacy about ball security and hopefully turn him into a top-flight back.
The stakes for Lacy are enormous because Richardson will be draft eligible by the end of the year and if he wins the No. 2 job, he will likely be the starter in 2012 should Richardson leave.
If Lacy isn't there, the most likely player to see carries is senior Demetrius Goode. Goode was buried on the depth chart last year, but some serious weight room work turned him into a fairly solid 220 lb back.
He lacks great moves but had good speed and runs north to south. He won't dance, he will get what he can as fast as he can. He's also a good receiver out of the backfield, and to my knowledge hasn't fumbled the ball before.
Goode could give Alabama a good third down option that has been missing since Roy Upchurch graduated.
After Lacy and Goode, Alabama has three players who could have a roll but are more specialized.
The most intriguing is Jalston Fowler, a hulking 236-pound north-south battering ram with good speed and little desire to avoid a tackler. Fowler could move back to linebacker, but most fans are hoping he continues to develop as a runner.
It's been a long time since Alabama had a true big back of note. Fowler may get significant goal line work this year—much of it may be lead blocking, but he may also get some carries. He would be an almost unfair advantage against tired defenses in the fourth quarter. In 2010, Fowler averaged a ridiculous 7.9 yards per carry in 14 attempts.
Alabama has two smaller backs that might be considered scat backs—Corey Grant and Demetrius Hart.
Of these two, Grant is more than likely going to play a combination of running back and slot receiver. We will know much more about him after spring practice, because his scout team work has been behind closed doors.
Demetrius Hart looks like a scat back at first glance, but may be much more. Rated the No. 1 all-purpose back in America by Rivals, Hart has a powerful build and seems to have room for more muscle to go with it. He's got above-average speed and is electric with the ball in his hands.
His performance in the US Army All-American game was legendary and running backs rarely do well in all-star formats due to the emphasis on passing.
Hart will likely remain solidly at running back and could provide a more versatile third down option than Alabama has had under Nick Saban.
If Goode can supply Alabama with a great third down option this year, look for Hart to redshirt. If something happens, or if Goode falters, Hart could be someone to watch closely this spring. His early arrival on campus will give him a better than average chance to break into the rotation as a true freshman.