Just last month, the Alabama Crimson Tide put the finishing touches on another national championship. Then, few short weeks ago, like clockwork, head coach Nick Saban and his coaching staff built one of the highest-rated recruiting classes in history. With more than a dozen players from last year's undefeated championship squad leaving Tuscaloosa for the NFL, there should be opportunities for several newcomers to step into important roles.
Some of the reinforcements were part of last year's championship squad. For example, former five-star quarterback Bryce Young appeared in nine games in relief of Mac Jones. The list of running backs jockeying to replace Najee Harris' production is long: Jase McClellan, Trey Sanders, and Roydell Williams were all top-100 recruits capable of competing with super senior Brian Robinson Jr. for carries. At receiver, John Metchie III is the heir apparent to DeVonta Smith, at least in terms of his role as the team's leading receiver in each of the last two seasons. However, the rest of the receiving corps is wide open for new faces to contribute immediately. There are also two starting spots open on the offensive line, and Alabama must replace potential first-round picks at all three levels of its defense.
Which first-year players will be at the forefront of the Crimson Tide's next title defense? We take a closer look at five newcomers to watch in 2021.
Jacorey Brooks, WR
Reinforcements are on the way to replace the Heisman-winning Smith and dynamic playmaker Jaylen Waddle, who some pro talent evaluators expect to be the first Alabama wideout drafted in April. Returning players Javon Baker, Slade Bolden, Xavier Williams, and others may have a head start, but the Crimson Tide signed a trio of Florida receivers and a speedster from Texas, all of whom ranked among the top 10 at their position and among the top 75 prospects overall in the 247Sports Composite. Brooks is the highest-rated of the bunch at No. 2 and No. 26, respectively, edging out Agiye Hall (No. 5, No. 44), JoJo Earle (No. 46, No. 6), and Christian Leary (No. 10, No. 74). Listed at 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, Brooks has good size and the ability to fill out more in college. He's not a burner but is an advanced route-runner with good hands and leaping ability, and he should see the field often in 2021.
JC Latham, OL
The Crimson Tide has a history of starting true freshmen on the offensive line, and Latham was the highest-rated player in the Alabama recruiting class at No. 2 overall. Latham started two years at left tackle for powerhouse IMG Academy, and Alabama left tackle Alex Leatherwood is set to start his pro career after making 41 starts for the Tide. Evan Neal is a stud and will likely shift to the left after starting 25 games at right tackle, and though Kendall Randolph played more than 300 snaps last year as a tight end/extra lineman, right tackle is an open competition. Tommy Brockermeyer (No. 5 nationally and second among offensive tackles) also will make a push to start immediately, but Latham seems like the best bet to win the job.
Ga'Quincy McKinstry, CB
Patrick Surtain II is likely to be the first cornerback drafted, and he will almost certainly be a first-round pick. The former five-star with the NFL pedigree was also a three-year starter. Believe it or not, incoming true freshman McKinstry actually graded out higher than Surtain as a high school prospect, posting a 0.9979 rating in the 247Sports Composite (compared to 0.9973 for Surtain) as the No. 1 corner, No. 17 overall player, and top recruit from the state of Alabama. An all-around athlete who contributed on offense and special teams, as well as a top-notch basketball player, McKinstry is one of the most athletic all-around players in the country. He also has elite ball skills for his position.
Damon Payne, DL
Similar to Quinnen Williams before him, Christian Barmore didn't contribute as a true freshman but showed promise as a redshirt freshman and exploded into a potential first-rounder as a third-year sophomore. Given that history, it might be unwise to expect a new defensive lineman signee to play a big role for the Crimson Tide in 2021. Nevertheless, Michigan native Damon Payne has a chance. Payne is an athletic 297 pounds (and growing), capable of disrupting at the line of scrimmage with a combination of strength and quickness. Plus, with Barmore off to the pros and LaBryan Ray limited by injury in 2020, there could be early snaps available at defensive end. Although with DJ Dale struggling at times and Stephon Wynn playing only just 18 snaps last season, reps at nose guard are also possible.
Dallas Turner, EDGE
Our list is organized alphabetically, though as luck would have it, determining which player would receive the fifth spot came down to Dallas Turner and a few of his new teammates. Camar Wheaton has excellent speed and may be too good to keep on the sideline despite a well-stocked running back room. Athlete Kadarius Callaway could play several positions, and Alabama has had freshman starters at linebacker and safety in recent years, meaning Kendrick Blackshire, Terrion Arnold, and Kaine Williams could all get an early look. Khyree Jackson, a 6-foot-3 corner from East Mississippi Community College, also has an early path to playing time. It's even possible unsigned five-star defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau signs with the Tide.
But edge rusher Turner, a top-10 player nationally, earned the nod. With Will Anderson's incredible true freshman season still fresh in the minds of Alabama fans, it's hard to ignore Turner's potential — especially considering he learned from Pro Football Hall of Famer and current high school coach Jason Taylor (who knows a thing or two after 139.5 career sacks) at St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale.