24 August 2009
This is a big and talented group of sophomores on this Alabama football team. There is a solid mix of guys from the class of 2007 that redshirted their first season and guys from the class of 2009 that played last year - as well as a guy who played as a freshman and took a redshirt last year.
In all there are 23 players that make up this sophomore class, and among them are as many as eight guys who could start the opener for the Tide in Atlanta. I believe this to be the most talented class on the team this season, and we will see contributions by more than a dozen of these guys.
Mark Barron - #4 - S - 6-2 - 215 lbs
After being a heavy special teams contributor in 2008, Mark had an explosive fall camp that propelled him into a possible starting role for the Tide. He entered the camp behind Justin Woodall and fellow sophomore Robby Green at safety, but was named by Coach Saban as one of the three players he considers to be starters at the position.
He has been getting increasingly more snaps with the first unit as practice has continued - taking mostly from Green, but also occasionally from Woodall. Regardless of whether or not he ends up being one of the starting safeties, he will heavily contribute in 2009.
Right now I think he is still slightly behind Green and Woodall, though he is likely to be the primary player at the money position - the sixth defensive back in the dime defense. If this is his primary role, expect him to continue to be a special teams force. If he takes over one of the starting safety spots, we'll probably see his special teams role lessened a bit.
John Michael Boswell - #67 - OL - 6-5 - 300 lbs
He was the least heralded of the three linemen that Bama brought in during the class of 2008, but he was the first one to earn playing time. The fact that he is from Tuscaloosa, and was able to attend most of the 2008 spring practice certainly helped with that. The fact that he was healthy all year also contributed to it.
What also helped was the fact that he is a versatile player, and Coach Saban loves that type of guy. After battling for the starting right guard spot in the spring, he spent most of fall camp running with the second group at right tackle. Now he's working with the second group at left guard.
He could factor into the depth chart at multiple positions, and that's why he is almost certain to make an impact in 2009. He won't play meaningful snaps unless there is an injury to one of the starters, but that exact situation earned him a lot of playing time in 2008.
Josh Chapman - #99 - NG - 6-1 - 305
This guy is, flat out, the most underrated player on the team. Terrence Cody is an absolute beast in the middle, and an all-american... and there is not a serious drop-off when Josh enters the game. He is the prototype size for a 3-4 nose guard, and is one of the strongest players on the team.
What makes him extra effective is that he plays a different technique than Cody, lining up in a different alignment opposite the center. This means that teams have to prepare for both he and Cody, and in turn that makes both guys more effective.
As good as he is, there is no danger of him replacing Cody in the starting lineup. As much as I praise him, Cody is a more destructive force. As such, Josh will serve in pretty much the same capacity as last year. Cody, like almost all defensive linemen, isn't an every down type of player. So Josh will get plenty of opportunities to impact games in the 2009 season - and to cement his starting role for the 2010 season.
Marcel Dareus - #57 - DE - 6-3 - 280
The only reason that Dareus isn't the most underrated player on the team is that he is starting to get recognized for his skills. This guy is an absolute freak combination of strength and speed, and was a destructive force in his limited time in 2008.
He looks to get even more playing time in 2009, with some of that coming in a more specialized package that sees him slide inside on obvious passing downs. His ability to collapse the pocket from the middle makes him ideal to play in the package that we've seen practiced throughout fall camp. In this package he and another defensive end both slide inside as defacto defensive tackles, flanked by Eryk Anders and Dont'a Hightower.
He'll likely get plenty of snaps behind Lorenzo Washington at left defensive end in the base defense, as well. He's certainly big enough to play the run well, and has made a recent big impression on Washington. This past week Lorenzo referred to him as a "three year player", or someone who is likely to be headed to the NFL after his junior season.
Expect him to make a huge impact in 2009.
Nick Gentry - #58 - DL - 6-1 - 254
At this point Nick is still struggling to find a role. He's under-sized for a 3-4 nose guard, and not quite quick enough to play defensive end. Despite that he continues to grade well with the coach in the conditioning program, due to a great work ethic.
I'm sure he would love to make more of impact on the field in 2009, but I think he's probably destined to spend another year on the scout team. Drew Davis spent three years there before finally adding the weight he needed, so Nick is by no means a lost cause.
His contribution on the scout team shouldn't be over-looked. Having a guy with his fundamental skill set and motor working against the offensive line in practice every day should make the offense better.
Brandon Gibson - #11 - WR - 6-1 - 196
After grading hugely well in the off-season conditioning program for the second consecutive off-season, Brandon looks poised to make an impact on the wide receiver rotation in 2009. He was ranked as one of the nation's top 100 players coming out of high school, but has been "out of sight, out of mind" for far too many folks.
He had a fantastic fall camp, and looked to be pushing Mike McCoy for time in the playing rotation. He is likely still fifth or sixth in the rotation, but Bama should rotate six or seven guys at the position. I don't think he's ready to have a break-out type 30 or 40 catch season, but he should be able to make a solid contribution with 10-20 grabs.
He'll have to demonstrate the ability to carry out the parts of the receiver position other than catching the ball - blocking and running routes when not the primary receiver. The fact that he is a very fundamentally sound player makes me guess that he likely will be able to do those things quite well. If he can demonstrate the ability to do those things very well, he could jump past several of the guys ahead of him very quickly.
Denetrius Goode - #6 - RB - 5-10 - 190
A major knee injury in his second practice two years ago wiped out his freshman, and most of his sophomore season. Some players are able to recover quickly from a torn ACL, while others take considerably longer. Goode is a player that relies on explosive quickness, and the ability to make quick, sharp cuts. That is, unfortunately, the type of player that takes longer to recover.
He spent some time last season learning to play defensive back, though he was moved over there mostly to try and help him recover the confidence in his knee's ability to make hard cuts. He was moved back to running back, and unfortunately for him, there is a lot of talent ahead of him.
It is unlikely that Demetrius will have a real shot at meaningful carries in 2009, but he could develop quickly into a special teams force. He is fast, and his experience at defensive back should help him find a spot on the kick coverage teams.
Robby Green - #23 - DB - 6-0 - 180
He received very little attention as a part of last year's recruiting class, but comes from one of the nation's premiere high school programs. The coach he had at the secondary level prepared him to compete immediately at the college level, and he very quickly became one of the best tacklers on the football team.
And that was when he played corner. During the spring he moved to safety, and in the course of two days grabbed the starting spot opposite Justin Woodall. It looked like he would easily hold onto the position, and attempt to play the safety position the way that Rashad Johnson played it in 2008.
And then Mark Barron blew up. So Robby is now immersed in an intense position battle. Much like Barron, if he doesn't win the starting spot, he'll likely play as the money in the dime defense. With his experience at corner, he could also become a factor in the battle to find the star back in Bama's nickel defense.
Either way, Robby is a very fundamentally sound and extremely intelligent defense back. Defensive backs with those qualities tend to find their way into a Nick Saban secondary quickly. Expect him to play a lot, and be a major contributor.
Jeramie Griffin - #34 - RB - 6-0 - 228
Having a unique skill-set is one of the quickest ways to find yourself a role on a football team. And Jeramie was likely going to have a role as Bama's "big back". Coach Saban also talked about needing big, fast guys to play special teams. Jeramie was likely to have a role there, as well.
Unfortunately he tore his ACL last week and will miss the entire 2009 season. He had surgery on the 14th, and he is expected to make a full recovery.
Darius Hanks - #15 - WR - 6-0 - 172
He was a practice warrior in each of the last two seasons, and it looks like he is finally poised to take things to the playing field. He made almost no impact until late in the season, but then made eight catches in just eight games.
He is now running right behind Marquis Maze at the "Y" receiver spot, and could possibly be the #3 overall guy in the receiver rotation.
Coach Saban recently praised his toughness, which was one of the knocks on him last season. He runs good, crisp routes, and appears to have very good hands. As with Gibson (and all other young receivers) he will have to learn to carry out the other roles required of a receiver. If he can do that, he stands a strong chance to remain in the rotation.
With the search for a secondary receiver to Julio Jones ongoing, Darius could factor into that battle.
Jerrell Harris - #5 - LB - 6-3 - 215
After spending all of 2008 at the sam linebacker, he has spent all of the fall at the will linebacker. He started getting more opportunities late in the season, and gave the impression that he is just one of those players that you can not keep off of the field.
My guess is that he's been moved to the will so that he can be sub in for Dont'a Hightower when Dont'a slides outside in the pass rush package. Jerrell spent some time in the spring working at the money position, though, since he is linebacker, it's tough to actually justify that he was playing a defensive back position.
Regardless, he will likely be a heavy contributor on special teams, and will see time behind Hightower. He should see most of his meaningful time in one of Bama's many specialized packages. I look for him to make a serious push for one of the inside linebacker positions next season when Rolando McClain is playing in the NFL.
Dont'a Hightower - #30 - LB - 6-4 - 250
Speaking of McClain.... Dont'a is following a similar career path. Both guys started ahead of a suspended Prince Hall when they were freshmen, before ultimately taking the position away from the departed Hall. Both guys had times where their inexperienced was exploited, but both guys also had sustained periods of absolute excellence.
While McClain is now taking on the role of making the on-field defensive calls, Hightower is now learning multiple positions to possibly set up a move to the mike linebacker to replaced McClain in 2010. Lots have folks have assumed that he would end up moving to the jack this fall, but that move has only seen one day of practice. Every other day has seen Dont'a working at his accustomed will linebacker spot.
He has worked, a lot, on the outside in a specialized pass rush package, which is something that we saw a little of in Bama's final two games in 2008. He'll see a good bit of time there, in special situations, but for the most part, he will line up alongside McClain to form the best middle linebacker duo in the nation.
It's unlikely that either of these guys will have the type 100+ tackle season that jumps off of the stat page, because they will take too many tackles from each other. Don't be shocked to see them both in the top four on the team in tackles, with Hightower also ranking in the top four in sacks.
The only thing that will keep him from being a first team all-sec player is the existence of McClain and Florida's Brandon Spikes as inside linebackers. Otherwise, expect a huge season for Dont'a.
Mark Ingram - #22 - RB - 5-10 - 215
After setting the Alabama freshman record for touchdown runs, mostly by being the short yardage back, Ingram added 10-15 pounds of muscle during the off-season. To say that he looks like a different player is an understatement. He looks like an absolute beast, that is prepared to be Alabama's #1 back this season.
Yes, Nick Saban likes to use multiple backs, but we saw last year that he will ride a hot back, since Glen Coffee had 90 more carries than Mark. With Roy Upchurch and Trent Richardson biting at his heels, he'll be pushed every day. And that's likely why he'll just continue to get better.
In the most recent scrimmage he became a threat in the passing attack, which leaves blitz protection as the part of his game in need of the most improvement. If he struggles with that, he'll lose some time to Upchurch. If he locks that part down, it will be tough for anyone to get this guy off of the field.
He doesn't have the explosive speed that some of the other guys have, but that is a similar criticism to what was made of Coffee last off-season. He is plenty fast enough to get the separation needed, especially when you consider that the vast majority of his runs will come between the tackles. Last year he, at times, appeared to look for contact. Now that he's bigger and stronger, expect to see more of that.
Also expect to see more than 1,000 yards rushing.
Julio Jones - #8 - WR - 6-4 - 210
I don't know about you guys, but I'm just not convinced that this guy has what it takes to play at the college football level.
Okay... I'm kidding. This is one of the most naturally gifted players to ever play at the University of Alabama. Add to that the fact that he is extremely coachable, and a very hard worker, and you get a guy that becomes an instant legend.
The fact that he played almost all of the 2008 season with a sports hernia, a sprained wrist, and a sprained shoulder, and still managed to be one of the most physical receivers in the nation - as a freshman. I don't like putting unrealistic expectations on a kid, but this guy is good enough that I don't worry about it.
Yes, he will face more double teams, and more boxed zones this season. He was also limited in 2008 to one receiver position, and just a handful of routes. He's had the playbook opened to him, and he's going to play all of the receiver positions. He'll be put in motion more, as well.
Basically, Julio was injured and limited during almost all of the 2008 season... and he still managed almost 1,000 yards. He is dealing with a slight ankle sprain, but I expect we'll see far more from Julio in 2009 than we did last year.
If Ingram tops 1,000 yards rushing, and Julio tops 1,000 receiving, they will become the first duo to accomplish that in the same season in Alabama history.
Chris Jordan - #36 - LB - 6-2 - 220
Chris began his career at Alabama at running back, though it didn't take very long for him to realize that his quickest route to the field would be at linebacker. He contributed some there in 2008, and some on special teams.
He spent this off-season bulking up considerably, and has looked great in fall practice. The only thing likely to keep him off of the field is that he has the nation's best linebacker playing in front of him at the mike position.
Chris should see some time late in games, but should also see significant time on special teams. The kick coverage units is where I expect him to become a leader. He should use that time to continue to develop, and he will play a major role into determining who the starting mike linebacker is in 2010.
Marquis Maze - #4 - WR - 5-9 - 171
I love to hear fans talking about Maze was open "all the time" in 2008. I will grant that Marquis was Bama's best downfield option last season, but he struggled a lot of the time to get off of the line of scrimmage. That's a typical problem for receivers his size, and was his secondary point of emphasis this off-season.
The primary point of emphasis is improving on his ball catching skills. Marquis has a tendency to drop passes, and that's not something you want in your #2 receiver. Thankfully he has improved in this area, as well as his strength and "avoidability" at the line of scrimmage.
He looks like the most likely candidate to start at the receiver spot opposite Julio. If A-Day is any indication, it looks like Jim McElwain will attempt to get him the ball in space more often. Look for screens, reverses, and lots of crossing routes to make use of his elusiveness. He is still the best deep threat on the team, but he'll have to show more versatility in his routes to become the true secondary receiving threat.
It looks like that is exactly what has happened during fall camp, and the two scrimmages.
Alfred McCullough - #53 - OL - 6-2 - 292
After bouncing around to several different positions in 2007, Alfred made the move to the offensive side of the ball in 2008, and took a redshirt year while he learned the position. During the spring that position was tackle, where he worked on both the right and left side.
So where did he begin fall camp? Right guard, of course. After working with the first unit for a handful of days early in camp, Alfred is back at tackle, where he is currently working with the second group at left tackle.
Forgetting the exact placement for a minute, it is likely that he and Tyler Love are having a battle over who the #3 tackle will be. Both guys have worked on both the right and left side, and the coaching staff has shown a tendency to have one guy be the primary backup at both positions.
With James Carpenter likely to have the left tackle position locked down, it is unlikely that Alfred will see meaningful playing time without an injury to a starter. The fact that he worked some at guard does increase his overall value to the team, and could allow him to serve as a utility backup at multiple positions.
With two members of the 2009 offensive line being seniors, it could be 2010 when Alfred has his first real chance to earn a starting spot.
B.J. Scott - #1 - DB - 5-11 - 196
After spending the 2008 season at wide receiver, B.J. made the move to defensive back in the spring. A lot of recruiting experts seemed to think he had more potential on the defensive side, anyway, but his overall athleticism forced the coaches to give him a look on offense first.
He has struggled a bit during the fall camp to do things exactly the way that the coaching staff wants. That might be an over-simplification of things. After all, Nick Saban primarily coaches the corners, and he is enormously picky about things being done an exact way. It is taking B.J. - who has never been solely a QB - some time to lock down his fundamentals.
That's typically a problem for a lot of guys who play six or seven positions in high school, as they typically rely on their superior athleticism. B.J. is taking some time, but he is adjusting. The thing most likely to keep him off of the field this season is the level of talent ahead of him.
If he has a great final two weeks, he could push for playing time at the money and star positions, but the most likely early-season contributions will be on special teams. Every day that he works at corner, he gets better. So he could push harder for playing time the later the season roles on.
Don't be surprised to see him play a ton... also don't be surprised to see him play very little. The learning curve for defensive backs under Nick Saban is steep, and it is an up-hill climb. He's talented enough to overcome it, thankfully. When that happens is the only question.
Brad Smelley - #17 - TE - 6-3 - 217
It took until the Ole Miss game in 2008 for Smelley to see the field, but he immediately made an impact. Of his eight catches last season, seven of them resulted in a first down, and six of those came on third down. He not only made catches, but he made important catches.
That sets him up nicely to have a great 2009 season. Jim McElwain loves to use his tight ends... Greg McElroy will probably be given a lot of safety routes... and Bama is replacing two departed starters at tight end. Throw all of that in the mix, and I expect Brad to make a major impact from the "H" tight end spot.
He will still need to develop as a blocker, which is understandable, considering he played quarterback and receiver in high school. Both Travis McCall and Nick Walker were solid blockers, and replacing them will be a major focus for tight end coach Bobby Williams.
How well Brad develops as a blocker could determine whether he becomes the primary overall tight end after Colin Peek departs.
Chris Underwood - #87 - TE - 6-3 - 224
If Smelley struggles as a blocker, Chris could be the beneficiary. He was known as a blocker in high school, and he has developed nice hands in college. He is still behind several other players at the position, though that could change this year.
As I mentioned above, I expected dump routes to the tight end to be a major part of the offense in an attempt to get Greg McElroy into a comfort zone. With Colin Peek having a foot injury, and Brad Smelley a little small to be a primary blocker, one of the other tight ends could have to fill that void.
While Preston Dial is a better receiver, and Baron Huber a better blocker, Chris could be the best combination. "Could" is the operative word, as he still has to continue to develop. He had a solid spring, and has practiced well this fall. He also has to hold off two talented redshirt freshmen who are "big" guys that could take the blocking role from him.
Courtney Upshaw - #41 - LB - 6-2 - 230
It looked like all of the stars were aligning for Courtney. He was a special teams beast last season that developed into a very solid pass rusher over the second half of the season. Returning starter Brandon Fanney was dismissed from the team, appearing to possibly open a spot for Courtney to start at the jack linebacker.
Throughout fall camp he ran with the second group at the position, behind Eryk Anders, but continued to make a strong push for more playing time.
Then came the unfortunate arrest on Wednesday night. Coach Saban has indicated that there will be no suspension, but Courtney will have to do some things to re-establish himself into the playing rotation. Coach Saban also indicated that Courtney is a kid of strong character that should have no problem doing those things.
I expect that he will continue to be a monster on the kick coverage, and could get some time at the jack if Anders struggles against the run. He is too talented to keep off of the field, and should factor heavily into the defense in 2009. A solid year this year could propel him into the starting jack spot for the 2010 season, as well.
William Vlachos - #73 - C - 6-0 - 305
After an intense battle during the spring with David Ross over the starting center job, it has been all Williams this fall. While he lacks the savvy and experience of Antoine Caldwell, he has been getting rave reviews from his coaches and teammates all throughout the fall.
One place where William has the advantage over Caldwell is in brute strength. That doesn't guarantee success, but it certainly helps a player that is playing a position that typically has to fight off a defensive linemen who gets to hit him before his hands come back up from snapping the ball.
He is one of the two strongest guys on the team (Josh Chapman), and is an absolute work-out warrior. His efforts in the weight room have been lauded, as a good sign of his leadership. That's exactly the type of thing you want to have from the guy who has to captain the offensive line.
I expect that he'll start every game at center this season, and I also expect him to play very well. Caldwell was the Rimington Award winner (given to the best center in the nation), so there will probably be a bit of a drop-off. How well William minimizes that drop-off could go a long way towards determining the success of the offense.
Alex Watkins - #91 - LB - 6-3 - 225
At this point Alex is buried on the depth chart at the jack linebacker spot. With former defensive ends Milton Talbert and Glenn Harbin now working at the position also, he has a huge climb ahead of him for playing time. And right now, he is not physically ready to make that push.
That's not to say that he's a lost cause, because he was considered to be a bit of a project when he signed. The fact that he's not more ready to play in three years is a little disappointing, but not a total shock. He was recruited to play in a different defensive scheme, so he is having to make major adjustments.
His best bet this season is to attempt to earn his way onto the kick coverage units. If he can add another 10-15 pounds over the course of the season and off-season, he could factor into the jack linebacker rotation in 2010. For now, though, he'll probably make his contributions on the scout team.
By my count there could be as many as 19 of these guys that make a contribution on offense, defense, or special teams. That should demonstrate exactly why I think this is the Tide's most talented class of players. The fact that they are just sophomores should also give us a good indication of what the future will be like under Nick Saban.
The football team will head back to the practice field after consecutive days off on Tuesday. We'll have our normal coverage.