1. Alabama's quarterback position has been unsettled for much of the spring. Did Jacob Coker's spring game vault him forward, or will one of the younger backups eventually pass him up?
I'm not certain if you actually saw the A-Day game, but there was a lot to recommend from Coker's performance, and you can understandably see why everyone praises his potential: Coker made several NFL caliber throws, his balls have zip on them, and he looked more comfortable with the offense, despite the loss of Amari Cooper. That said, many of the same issues that plagued him last season linger. Coker's mechanics and release are absolutely glacial, which not only will contribute to sacks and interceptions but will negate many of Kiffin's quick-hitting screens. For a player now in his fourth year, you'd certainly hope for better reads, particularly reading the underneath coverage. Also he still locks onto receivers. Some will say his progressions are better, but at this stage he screams "two interceptions a game," to me. His primary competition is David Cornwell, another big-armed kid who has a better release, better footwork, but simply isn't there with the receivers yet. This QB battle is in no way over. I'd expect both players to see snaps versus Wisconsin and MTSU, before the Ole Miss Rebels roll in on September 19th. Whoever is named the starter is not going to have a long leash. Hell, Saban was trying to pull Blake Sims for shaky play in the last game of the regular season. I'd expect a much shorter leash for either of these guys.
2. Any concern at running back with T.J. Yeldon gone? Derrick Henry's always passed the eyeball test but never been able to take the job, and Kenyan Drake's coming off of that horrific injury last season.
Frankly, I've little concern regarding the loss of Yeldon, outside of depth early in the season. Kenyan Drake is nearly healthy, and has even been practicing with the receiving corps at times. Incoming freshman Damien Harris is the real deal. He's a bowling ball built like Ingram but runs as angrily as Trent Richardson. He will see the field this season without question. Bo Scarbrough, who had passed Tyren Jones as the third back to many, will be slower in his development, owing to an MCL tear in the spring game. He is built like a thinner Derrick Henry, but possesses Yeldon's hands - one area where TJ will be missed (see 2012 LSU-Alabama.) As for the feature back, Derrick Henry's progression, per Nick Saban, has been revelatory. Something clicked in the offseason, and his footwork is better, he's both bigger, stronger and still a step quicker. He's waited his turn, learning the blocking schemes and working on his hands. He will be an 1,100-1,200 yard guy. Like Eddie Lacy before him, he had a steep learning curve, but there's no reason to think he won't be a terror this season.
3. It would be foolish to suggest that anybody can "replace" Amari Cooper, but is there somebody ready to be a go-to guy of sorts for whoever is running the offense?
This is an excellent question, and honestly, I'm not sure there is a No. 1 guy on outside just yet. The WR corps is actually better as a unit than it was last season. You have to think Chris Black, who could compare favorably to Cooper, at least in measurables, is your number one. Robert Foster, though less experienced is going to shine; I would not be surprised to see him be the go-to guy as the season progresses. Raheem Falkins is a speedy, soft-handed guy that can both work the sidelines and nestle down in zone on quick hitters. Then, there is ArDarius Stewart. Through September last season, it appeared all-but certain that he had played his way on the outside opposite Cooper. As the season progressed, he was used less frequently even when he wasn't nicked up, which is a shame. He is not only fleet, but has excellent hands and is fearless. For now, I'd call him a poor man's Kevin Norwood. Gun to my head, the season starts with Black as the No. 1, before Robert Foster eventually supplants him as the featured receiver. This will be a balanced unit though. There are only so many balls to go around, and WR depth in Tuscaloosa is ridiculous. These four should rack up 25-plus TDs among them and 20-plus receptions a piece no matter who becomes the go-to guy.
4. On defense, the front seven returns a lot of talent, but any answers to the questions in the secondary this spring?
The conventional wisdom is that Alabama has questions marks in the secondary, and the Tide do, but they are nowhere nearly as glaring as in 2013 or 2014, nor are they the ones most expected. The obvious question people ask is about the safeties, since Alabama returns no every-game starter. However, Geno Smith has started a number of games and has seen playing time every game as a dime and nickel safety, as well as playing dime corner. He will be joined by Eddie Jackson, the converted corner who is just a step too slow after a severe injury leading into the 2014 season. Also returning are Jabriel Washington, who was a nickel-dime safety the past two seasons, as well as Ronnie Harris. But, the names to look out for are Laurence "Hootie" Jones and true freshman Ronnie Harrison. Harrison is simply too talented to keep off the field, and may supplant Jackson by season's end....that assumes that Hootie doesn't beat him first (and he will, BTW.) While starting experience isn't great, Washington, Jones and Jackson have a combined 54 games and 25 starts among them. Your starters here will be Hootie and Geno in all probability.
The starting corners will be much improved this season as well. The gifted Tony Brown will almost certainly be opposite All-SEC Cyrus Jones, who is as close to lockdown as it gets in modern pass-frenzy offenses, but whose size leaves something to be desired. Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson will likely be in the rotation opposite Jones, as well as serve as the go-to nickel and dime DBs. The issue here, however, is that there is a tremendous drop-off from the first few guys. Any sort of injuries could lead to a repeat of last year's sometimes unsteady performance.
5. With so much to replace, and the returning question marks on defense, what are reasonable expectations for Alabama this fall?
Alabama has an exceptionally unkind schedule. Starting with the first "half" of the season, Alabama faces eight consecutive bowl teams and in that span: play Wisconsin to open the season, host Ole Miss in Week Three, travel to Aggieland and Georgia, host the suddenly surging Vols and SEC West Darkhorse, Arkansas. Following the bye, Alabama immediately jumps into the LSU hatefest, travels to Starkville and finishes the season at Jordan-Hare, where the improbable occurs with such routine regularity that the odds of a loss are 50-50 before the opening kick. Honestly, my concerns with this team aren't on the defense (outside of injuries,) which will be as improved and nasty a bunch as we've seen since 2011. Rather, my concerns focus on the schedule and the QB spot - namely whether Coker can not only make a few plays to win some ballgames, but also avoid crippling turnovers to cost Alabama a few. I do not believe, at this stage, that he can. A 9-3 season is more than possible, but this team will be hell to try and score on. So, 10-2, tied for the SEC-West crown seems about right.