Apologies for the lateness of this, but believe me I do intend on finishing these spring practice reviews for all of LSU's 2013 opponents. It's that time again, time to get a couple of notes on the evil empire. For those of y'all that didn't know, Roll Bama Roll has come under some new management, and editors Slice of Life and Erik_RBR were good enough to fill us in on how practice went over at the Capstone.
1. Well, we know the main names back on offense for Bama, but they're all skill guys. How'd the revamped offensive line fair this spring?
Slice: The development of the offensive line was probably the most pleasant surprise of the spring. We started the spring needing to replace the left guard, center, and right tackle. At left guard, redshirt junior Arie Kouandjio (older brother of soon to be all-everything and #1 draft pick in any draft that doesn't include Clowney - left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio) stepped up in a big way, and the left side of the line should be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
At center, redshirt sophomore Ryan Kelly seems to have locked up the honor of trying to fill Barrett Jones' sizable cleats. Kelly was the go to backup at the position last year, and played in nine games last year while spelling Jones.
Finally, at right tackle, redshirt junior Austin Shepherd is stepping in to replace the massive man-beast D.J. Fluker. Shepherd has played in 16 games as a backup in his time at the Capstone, and judging from his performance in the A-Day game, will be a more than capable replacement in the fall.
2. Given that there's not much in the way of a backup to A.J. McCarron, keeping him upright has to be one of the team's biggest concerns, yes?
Slice: There really is no overstating this point. With AJ healthy, this team can legitimately go undefeated and threepeat. Without AJ, that simply won't happen. Keeping him healthy is easily the biggest concern for this team. It may sound crazy to say given the talent lost on the offensive line, but I truly don't expect a dramatic drop-off in pass protection. In fact, I think this could end up being the second best offensive line Saban has had at Bama, right behind last year's fantastic unit.
3. T.J. Yeldon looks poised to be Bama's next offensive star. Do y'all think he's ready to take on the workload of bigger backs like Eddie Lacy and Trent Richardson, or will one of the Tide's mass of freshmen backs step in to help lighten his load?
Slice: Do I think he is ready to take on such a workload? Yes. Do I anticipate him having to take on such a workload? No. In their heaviest years, Ingram had 271 carries, while Richardson had 283 carries. Last year as the backup, Yeldon had 175 carries. This fall, I look for him to carry the ball around 225 times. Given the experienced backs already on campus (Jalston Fowler and Kenyan Drake), and the crop of true freshman phenoms (Derrick Henry, Tyren Jones, Alvin Kamara, and Altee Tenpenny) coming in, there really shouldn't be a need this year to stretch Yeldon beyond that modest number.
4. Bama lost a number of big names on defense, but still returns some quality starters as well. Who are some of the new names that emerged this spring?
In this stretch of great defenses fielded by Bama, one thing that has not been abundant is top-tier NFL defensive linemen. With that in mind, my two biggest names to watch out for are Jeoffrey Pagan and Dalvin Tomlinson, both of which are DEs. Both should provide a pass rush rarely seen from that position under Saban, while remaining stout against the run.
Some other new names to look out for: Cyrus Jones, a converted wide receiver that was playing CB with the first team in the spring game. He's a young guy with good upside, and the fact that he apparently beat out the more experienced Geno Smith says a lot about his potential. Finally, at safety, be on the lookout for Nick Perry, a senior that has played in 28 games as a career backup but looks to be making a strong push in his final season, and Landon Collins, the true sophomore phenom that can do big things if he's learned the system well enough.
5. Finally, with this unprecedented run and a relatively easy schedule in the fall, everybody knows the expectations. So how does this particular team deal with them?
Erik: The expectation game: Every year, from the ink that is spilled, it seems as though Saban's Alabama teams must deal with this question. And, from a fan perspective, Alabama's expectations are no greater than -say, LSU's or Florida's: challenge for the division, make it to Atlanta and be in the national picture. In Saban's six seasons at Alabama, we've done a good job of meeting this ridiculously high benchmark (admittedly, UA's three trips to Atlanta did not coincide with the three titles, but you already know that story).
But what fans want, and hold up as the expectations for the team, is very different from the internal team expectations of execution, excellence and "playing to a standard"...the so-called "Process." Just once in those six seasons can it be said that we played to a standard necessary to defeat all opponents. The Process is well-and-good on paper, but is a very different matter to have the mental wherewithal to execute 120 plays a game, for 12-, 13-, 14 games. And, it just takes one or two miscues to earn a loss in a conference and division this tough. Think of TJ Yeldon fumbling inside the TAMU goal line, or AJ McCarron throwing an awful pick late in the 4th of that same game. Nor are players limited to mistakes and mental errors. In arguably the biggest regular season matchup in school history, the Game of the Century I, Saban was badly outcoached on the largest of national stages. So, no one is immune to the pressure, and both coaches and players can fall prey to recklessly pressing for a game-changing moment, rather than playing within the system.
The coaching staff's mantra, every year, goes like this: This is a new team, new expectations, new goals. No one honestly believes that, of course, except for this year. Not since the 2007 season will the identity of the team change as radically as it will entering the Fall, especially on offense. Gone are stalwarts on the offensive line that defined the past several seasons. It's just difficult to believe that, with the absence of Fluker, Warmack and Jones, Alabama can easily pick back up steamrolling most teams. And, the worst part, from an expectation perspective, is that the remaining guys remember what they just accomplished Miami. If Saban can keep these guys' heads straight and focused, while integrating several new pieces, it could be his best coaching job at Alabama. If not, then a three-loss, 2010-type season (or worse) is easily foreseeable.