The defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide have started spring practice, and though the team is likely to enter 2018 ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation, there are plenty of questions on the roster. Speculation abounds at quarterback, where the Tide have a wealth of options. Either Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa could emerge as a Heisman Trophy candidate if given the chance to run the offense.
Running back Damien Harris, who made the surprising decision to return for his senior season and has the benefit of running behind one of the top offensive lines in the country, could make a push as well. Overall, head coach Nick Saban and his revamped coaching staff has some important personnel decisions to make, including on defense where Alabama returns just two full-time starters from last year’s championship squad.
5 Storylines to Watch During Alabama Spring Practice
1. Quarterback competition
The most obvious storyline entering spring practice is the competition at quarterback between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. Despite guiding the Crimson Tide to back-to-back national championship games in his first two seasons on campus, Hurts is widely considered the underdog to keep that job after he was benched at halftime against Georgia and Tagovailoa rallied Alabama to a stunning victory in overtime.
Hurts (who won SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors as a true freshman) has the edge in experience after making 27 starts and is a capable dual-threat signal-caller. He completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 2,081 yards and 17 touchdowns with just one interception last season and added 855 rushing yards and eight scores on the ground. Tagovailoa has the same dual-threat capabilities, plus a stronger arm, and has tantalizing upside. He completed 63.6 percent of his pass attempts for 636 yards and 11 TDs with two interceptions mostly in mop-up duty last year as a true freshman, and ran for 133 yards and two touchdowns. Importantly, Tagovailoa offered a spark when the Tide needed it most, and though he has yet to start a game, the Hawaii native is already a folk hero at Alabama.
This QB controversy has a couples of twists to it. First, the Tide reportedly pursued former East Carolina starter Gardner Minshew as a graduate transfer. Minshew, who was expected to enroll in May, would not have been in Tuscaloosa for spring practice, leaving Hurts and Tagovailoa to battle it out for the top spot on the depth chart. Also, since Minshew was expected to serve as a backup in 2018, if not the third-stringer, he was most likely an insurance policy in the event one of the other two quarterbacks opts to transfer, or if Hurts makes a position switch. Regardless, Minshew committed to Washington State and won't be coming to Alabama at all. Still, if Hurts was willing, and his upstanding reaction to that title game benching is an indication he would be, it’s easy to imagine him moving into a receiver role similar to the one Braxton Miller played in his final season at Ohio State.
The other development is that Tagovailoa injured his thumb in Tuesday's opening practice. The exact extent of the injury is unknown as he was sent to Birmingham for further evaluation. Saban didn't offer much information after practice other than to say the injury is "probably going to require some time for him [Tagovailoa] to get back," according to an ESPN.com article. In the meantime, the door is open for Hurts to state his case as to why he should remain the starter.
2. New-look secondary
It doesn’t get the headlines of a quarterback battle, but the task of replacing five starters in the secondary is possibly a bigger issue for Bama heading into the spring. Trevon Diggs, Jared Mayden, Shyheim Carter and newcomer Savion Smith (the former five-star LSU signee who played in junior college last year) are likely to compete for the starting spots at cornerback this spring, and incoming freshman Patrick Surtain Jr. is expected to join that mix this summer.
At safety, Deionte Thompson earned a larger role for the Tide late last season and enters the spring as the likely starter at strong safety. Thompson is an option to assume the diverse multi-positional responsibilities All-American Minkah Fitzpatrick held over the last three seasons, though Surtain also might be a good fit for such a role. Xavier McKinney and Daniel Wright should compete for playing time on the back end of the unit. Regardless of who wins what job, Alabama will have one of the most talented secondaries is the nation, though it will be important to watch how well the new lineup gels.
3. Rebuilding at receiver
Clavin Ridley was the go-to receiver for Alabama in each of his three seasons, leading the team in receptions every year. Last year, Ridley’s 63 catches were 46 more than the next closest teammate. Ridley left early for the NFL draft, and Cam Sims, Robert Foster and Bo Scarbrough (who ranked second with 17 receptions out of the backfield) also are gone, opening plenty of opportunities for playing time.
Similar to the secondary, despite the relative lack of experience at the position those that remain are highly talented, explosive playmakers. Jerry Jeudy has a skill set that mirrors Ridley’s, and he will likely be the team’s top target entering 2018. Henry Ruggs III led the team with six touchdown receptions a year ago, and DeVonta Smith was on the receiving end of Tagovailoa’s 41-yard, national title-winning bomb. The three averaged an exciting 18.9, 19.1 and 20.0 yards per reception last season, respectively, as true freshmen.
4. Linebacker health
There are questions at the other two levels of the defense as well, though the defensive line should transition nicely with returning starter Isaiah Buggs returning at end and Raekwon Davis, LaBryan Ray and Quinnen Williams ready for larger roles moving forward. The linebacking corps, which was hard hit by injury last season, could be even better.
Though the Crimson Tide must replace the departed Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans, five top-notch linebackers with playing experience return. Mack Wilson and Anfernee Jennings, each of whom was sidelined at times, are the best of the bunch. Jennings, who missed the title game, could be one of the best pass rushers in the SEC. Elsewhere, Christian Miller, Dylan Moses and Terrell Lewis all have a chance to claim a starting spot. The depth of last year’s unit was evident and the silver lining to the rash of injuries was the experience gained as a result.
5. Not-so center of attention
One of the most experienced units on the Alabama roster in 2018 is the offensive line, where four full-time starters return. The lone departure is All-American Bradley Bozeman, who started 31 games during his four years in Tuscaloosa. At center, Bozeman handled the often overlooked obligation of signaling the blocking assignments, which makes his loss even more important than it looks on paper. J.C. Hassenauer, who backed up at both center and guard, also is gone, leaving the Tide without much experience at the position. Ross Pierschbacher, who played center early in his career, appears to be the early favorite to replace Bozeman as he would move over from left guard. That would open a spot for sophomore Alex Leatherwood on the left side of the line.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.