The celebration and good feelings from Alabama’s national championship victory against Clemson are over. Spring practice in Tuscaloosa is set to begin on March 11, and the Crimson Tide enters the season with a bullseye on their back. As usual, coach Nick Saban’s team is one of the early favorites to win the national title. The offense returns six starters, including rising star Calvin Ridley at receiver and standout left tackle Cam Robinson. Tight end OJ Howard – the star of the win over Clemson – also returns. The defense loses a few key pieces, but this unit won’t miss a beat. End Jonathan Allen is among the nation’s top returning players, and the secondary has made steady improvement over the last two years.
5 Storylines to Watch in Alabama’s Spring Practice
1. Quarterback Battle
For the third consecutive spring, there’s a quarterback battle set to unfold in Tuscaloosa. Jake Coker expired his eligibility after the national championship, leaving Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett, David Cornwell and Jalen Hurts to compete for the starting spot. Bateman has the edge in experience with one career start under his belt, while Hurts just arrived on campus in January. Barnett is the most talented quarterback inked by coach Nick Saban since he came to Tuscaloosa. Bateman’s experience certainly helps but keeping Barnett on the sidelines will be a challenge.
2. The Next Star at Running Back?
Derrick Henry was a huge part of Alabama’s national championship run last season and claimed the Heisman Trophy after rushing for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns. There’s no doubt Henry leaves big shoes to fill. But as usual at Alabama, the cupboard isn’t bare. Bo Scarbrough appears to be the next star running back for the Crimson Tide and showed promise in limited carries last year (104 yards and one touchdown). Scarbrough will have competition from sophomore Damien Harris, true freshman B.J. Emmons (arrives this summer), Xavian Marks and Ronnie Clark. Will Scarbrough stake his claim for the starting job or will this battle head into fall with a committee approach taking shape?
3. Filling the Voids on the Offensive Line
Alabama’s offensive line enters 2016 in relatively good shape. Left tackle Cam Robinson is one of the best in the nation, guard Ross Pierschbacher returns after starting all 15 games as a freshman last year, while Alphonse Taylor anchors the right guard position. While that trio is a solid start up front, the Crimson Tide lose standout center Ryan Kelly and Dominick Jackson at right tackle. J.C. Hassenauer is the frontrunner to replace Kelly at center, while right tackle could be junior college recruit Charles Baldwin’s job to lose. This unit allowed only 1.73 sacks a game last season, so the bar is set high for the new starters.
4. Who Steps up at Linebacker?
It’s no secret the importance of linebackers in a 3-4 scheme. Three seniors depart this unit for coach Nick Saban, including standout Reggie Ragland. Who steps up at this position in 2016? Count senior Reuben Foster as one of the answers. The Alabama native is known for his ability to deliver monster hits, but he’s also capable of being the leader and filling the void left behind by Ragland. Tim Williams was only a situational player last season but registered 10.5 sacks. He is a key cog in the pass rush once again for 2016. Rashaan Evans, Ryan Anderson and Christian Miller are other names to watch at this position, while incoming freshmen Ben Davis and Lyndell Wilson will push for snaps when they arrive this summer.
5. Restocking the Defensive Trenches
The Crimson Tide enters spring practice with some big shoes to fill in the trenches. Lineman A’Shawn Robinson left early for the NFL, while Jarran Reed, D.J. Pettway and Darren Lake expired their eligibility. The next wave of stars is ready to emerge for Saban this spring. End Da’Shawn Hand – a former five-star recruit – is poised for a breakout season, while Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Ron Payne are ready for an increased role. This unit also returns end Jonathan Allen – likely an All-American selection in 2016 – after he led the team with 12 sacks last season. There’s plenty of talent here. How quickly will Saban and the defensive staff fill out the two-deep and develop the rotation?
Pre-Spring Alabama Outlook in the SEC
Alabama is the team to beat in the SEC next season. Sure, there are personnel concerns and some uncertainty at quarterback. However, that theme has played out in Tuscaloosa before. With a strong offensive line, receiving corps and breakout candidates at quarterback, the new quarterback won’t have to shoulder the entire workload on offense. The defense will be among the nation’s best once again, but linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive end A’Shawn Robinson won’t be easy to replace. Expect the secondary to take a step forward under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The biggest obstacle to a repeat? The schedule. Alabama has road trips at Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arkansas and LSU. Even with that upcoming slate, it’s tough to pick against the Crimson Tide.