Alabama returns to the field on March 21, as the Crimson Tide open spring ball. For Nick Saban, this is Year No. 11 in Tuscaloosa, a reign that has featured a ridiculous four national titles.
Of course, the Tide came as close as humanly possible to winning their fifth title under Saban in January before falling in the final seconds, so you can bet this team will carry an edge with it throughout 2017.
What can we discover about Alabama this spring? Glad you asked.
5 Storylines to Watch During Alabama’s Spring Practice
1. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll
Alabama hired Daboll, former tight ends coach for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, as its offensive coordinator, marking the third different person to hold that post for the Tide in the year 2017. Seriously. Lane Kiffin, who was the Tide’s coordinator for 2014-16 and won the SEC with three different quarterbacks, was cast aside after the Peach Bowl when he took the head job at FAU. And the title-game replacement, Steve Sarkisian, left to run the offense of the NFL’s runner-up, the Atlanta Falcons. So in comes Daboll, who has quite the talent at his disposal in the backfield, as the Tide return starters Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough at running back, in addition to talents B.J. Emmons, Joshua Jacobs and five-star early enrollee Najee Harris. Oh, and Daboll has a returning starting quarterback to work with, too.
2. Jalen Hurts’ next step
Speaking of that returning QB... Hurts impressed throughout 2016, taking the reins as a freshman starter and never looking back. He nearly won the national title game for the Tide, putting the offense on his back and giving Bama the lead on his 30-yard touchdown scamper with a little more than two minutes remaining. He is the first returning starter under center for the Tide since AJ McCarron, who won national titles in 2011 and ‘12 and was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in ‘13. What can Hurts do in his second year? Tide fans have to be excited about the possibilities.
3. Which receivers step up?
Gone are ArDarius Stewart, Gehrig Dieter and O.J. Howard, who were three of Bama’s top pass catchers from a year ago. Calvin Ridley (73 catches, 769 yards, 7 TDs in 2016) is back, but after next on the list in terms of production — who is actually a receiver, that is — is Cam Sims, who caught 14 balls for 152 yards last season. Expect more from Trevon Diggs (11 catches, 88 yards, TD) in his sophomore year. Bama has shown it has no shortage of running backs capable of making big plays in the passing game, although it will be interesting to see how Daboll utilizes them. We just don’t know yet.
4. New staff members
Daboll isn’t the only new Alabama assistant after the offensive coordinator exodus of 2017. The aforementioned receivers will be coached by Mike Locksley after Billy Napier left to become Arizona State’s offensive coordinator, and Joe Pannunzio will coach the tight ends and coordinate special teams after tight ends/offensive tackles coach Mario Cristobal left to join Willie Taggart’s staff at Oregon. Locksley has been with the program before as an offensive analyst, while Pannunzio had been Saban’s director of operations from 2011-14 before holding a similar role with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Bama history for both new assistants is important, as the chemistry of a new staff can often be an unpredictable, overlooked storyline.
5. Who fills in at linebacker?
You may have noticed that none of the above storylines focus on the defense. We may have come to take the Tide’s annual dominance on that side of the ball for granted, but there is still turnover to be addressed and questions to be answered, especially at linebacker, where the Tide say goodbye to Ryan Anderson, Reuben Foster and Tim Williams. Two guys worth keeping an eye on: senior Rashaan Evans, who made his first start in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Washington, and five-star early enrollee Dylan Moses.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Alabama in the SEC
There’s a lot to like about Bama in 2017. A lot. Consider the sour taste this program likely has in its mouth from losing a national title game with one second to play. Then consider the fact it had a new offensive coordinator in that game, a freshman quarterback who was not fazed and a running back who, if healthy, will legitimately challenge for the Heisman Trophy in 2017.
Yeah, the Crimson Tide will be just fine. They have won the last three SEC titles, made the College Football Playoff in every year of its existence and have a potential long-term leader under center. The only thing slowing them down could be complacency, and luckily for them, they have a head coach whose M.O. is essentially to combat that. Doing so will be a little bit easier this time around, too, without a championship ring to show for the 2016 season.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.