The reigning national champion Alabama Crimson Tide will take the field for the annual A-Day spring football game April 21. Prior to the game, Alabama will hold 14 practice sessions as head coach Nick Saban and his reworked staff evaluates a roster that lost many talented players, including nine senior starters and five early NFL draft entrants.
The Crimson Tide must rebuild its starting receiving corps, its secondary, replace both its kicker and punter, and promote from within to replace multiple key contributors on the defensive line. But of course, the quarterback position will be of greatest interest. As we look ahead to A-Day, we take note of five players to watch for Alabama during spring practice in 2018.
Jalen Hurts, QB
It’s possible Hurts was the most underrated player in college football last season. Hurts obviously wasn’t perfect, and his struggles against Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship opened the door for backup Tua Tagovailoa to emerge as a hero, but he has led his team to two national title games in his first two seasons on campus. Hurts also did it with a well-rounded skill set as one of the best running quarterbacks in the country that also produced a 17:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio while completing better than 60 percent of his passes.
Hurts would be the unquestioned starter and a budding campus legend at nearly any other program in the country. In almost any other situation, the only concern would be his ability to develop chemistry with a new set of starting receivers. However, because he spent the second half of the title game watching from the sidelines, there are now serious questions as to whether or not he will start another game for the Tide. Will Hurts regain his spot atop the QB depth chart? Will he switch positions a la Braxton Miller? Or will he transfer? We should learn more as Saban and staff orchestrate spring practice.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB
We can’t watch Hurts without also watching his top competition in Tagovailoa (above, right), who performed admirably in relief against Georgia, and was impressive enough in practice and mop-up duty as a true freshman to force the issue following Hurts’ ineffective first half in Atlanta. A former five-star standout currently listed among the Heisman Trophy favorites by odds makers, Tagovailoa has huge talent as a passer and can also make plays with his feet. He would start at 99 percent of programs across the country, and he now appears to have the inside track to the starting job in Tuscaloosa. But it’s not a done deal just yet. Tagovailoa will have an opportunity to distance himself from Hurts this spring, but odds are Saban won’t name a starter until fall.
Shyheim Carter, DB
Other than the quarterback position, but for a much different reason, the biggest question mark on the Alabama roster is the secondary. Instead of welcoming back a proven starter as well as a title game hero, the Crimson Tide must replace all five starters in the defensive backfield after the departures of three seniors and two early NFL draft entrants. The depth chart is wide open, but we can expect Carter to find a role somewhere. Carter played in all 14 games last season, and was primarily Tony Brown’s backup at the star position. He recorded seven total tackles and one pass breakup, also backed up at cornerback, and is capable of competing for playing time at safety if need be.
Deionte Thompson, DB
The loss of Minkah Fitzpatrick to the NFL is arguably the biggest for Alabama heading into the 2018 season, not only because of Fitzpatrick’s elite talent and playmaking ability, but also because his versatility allowed him to play several different positions for the Crimson Tide. Thompson will likely have the first opportunity to fill Fitzpatrick’s shoes after recording 25 tackles, one tackle for a loss, an interception and a pass breakup in 14 games last season. Others expected to compete for starting jobs in the defensive backfield this spring include Trevon Diggs (a front-runner at corner), Xavier Thompson, Jared Mayden, and newcomer Saivion Smith.
Anfernee Jennings, LB
The Alabama linebacker corps was hit hard by injuries last season, but the talent and depth at the position helped the Crimson Tide stay alive in the championship hunt. Even with Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton out of eligibility, the unit is stacked and should be a strength in 2018. Jennings, Mack Wilson, Terrell Lewis, Jamey Mosley and Christian Miller have the potential to form one of the best groups ever to play for the Crimson Tide. Jennings, who missed the national championship game with a knee injury, is in line to be the leader of the unit in 2018. He tallied 41 total tackles, six tackles for a loss and one sack in 11 games as a sophomore, and also contributed two pass breakups and forced two fumbles. It will be interesting to watch as Jennings continues to recover from January surgery, if he’s able to practice, and if not, who steps up in his absence.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.