Another year, another preseason top-five ranking for the Alabama Crimson Tide. As Nick Saban embarks on his ninth year in Tuscaloosa, he will look to further cement his legacy a year after going 12-2 and winning yet another SEC title.
Fall camp started on Thursday for 'Bama, ahead of Sunday’s Fan Day and open practice for the football-deprived faithful who have waited seven excruciating months to see this year’s version of the Crimson Tide.
Alabama's Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Will the Real Alabama Quarterback Stand Up?
Perhaps the only other competition to hold a constituency's attention span as captive as the one at Alabama for quarterback is the race for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. The current incumbent by seniority, redshirt senior and Florida State transfer Jake Coker, appears to have a loose grip on the full-time job, but redshirt freshman David Cornwell is climbing in the polls. Fans looking for an expeditious decision by Saban on a starter might want to taper expectations — Blake Sims, last season’s revelation under center, wasn't confidently entrenched in the starting job until week 4 against Florida.
2. Strong Enough Corner and Safety Valves?
Alabama football under Saban has been synonymous with stifling defensive play. And while that still holds true for the team's defensive front seven, the secondary as of late has slightly faltered. Over the last three games of 2014 the Crimson Tide allowed 456, 272 and 256 yards passing against Auburn, Missouri and Ohio State, respectively. The talent is there with cornerback Cyrus Jones and converted safety Geno Smith, both seniors, and new secondary coach Mel Tucker is no stranger to Saban's philosophies, having previously worked with him at Michigan State and LSU. Tucker will work with additional ‘Bama defensive backs sophomore Tony Brown and redshirt freshman Marlon Humphrey to shore up the embattled unit.
3. X, Y or Z Receiver?
Wide receiver Amari Cooper pulled in 124 passes for 1,727 yards and 16 scores for the Tide in 2014. But he’s now catching passes for the Oakland Raiders, so it’s up to fellow wideouts Chris Black, Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart to try and replicate that production. Foster and Stewart, both redshirt sophomores, did their best Cooper-Julio Jones impersonations in the team’s spring game, combining for 243 yards on 14 catches. Foster, for good measure, also added two receiving touchdowns. Black, a redshirt junior and the most battle-tested of the bunch, lacks the size of Foster and Stewart, but he's a dynamic playmaker who will see a measurable increase in targets.
4. Enough Depth at Running Back?
Lead the team in rushing with 990 yards, average 5.8 yards per carry and score 11 touchdowns — that’s what ‘Bama junior Derrick Henry accomplished as a backup last season. No one doubts his potential. Alabama’s running back situation after Henry and senior Kenyan Drake, however, becomes murky. Drake’s 2014 season was cut short after suffering a broken leg at Ole Miss. He appears, by all accounts, to be fully healed. But if he struggles to regain the pre-injury athleticism that made him so dangerous in his first three years, the position group that has defined Saban’s offense since his arrival in T-Town might hit a few road blocks. This group was dealt a blow when five-star recruit Bo Scarbrough suffered an ACL tear in the spring, and when incoming freshman DeSherrius Flowers was ruled ineligible for the 2015 season. So depth could become an issue should Henry or Drake get hurt.
5. Will O.J. Howard Finally Emerge as a Threat?
Under Armour All-American Game alum O.J. Howard arrived in Tuscaloosa with much fanfare in 2013. Saban will now count on his large (6-6, 248) tight end to shoulder a good amount of the offensive load as he eases in whichever quarterback ultimately wins the starting job. Howard started three games last season and caught 17 passes for 260 yards. Alabama’s passing game has always relied on solid production from the tight end position, and Howard’s role in its success this season will be instrumental. Strong contributions from him will go a long way to keeping Alabama in the conference and national title hunt.
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A Washington, D.C.-based sports writer, Hayes is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and he also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.