TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s the eve of the University of Alabama football team reporting for fall camp and the reigning champs are widely being hailed as the team to beat in college football — again.
That’s nothing new for the Crimson Tide, which is used to such projections and praise, but what Nick Saban also calls “rat poison.”
Alabama’s success under the coach has been so impressive, and so consistent, it’s gotten to the point that major obstacles can be largely overlooked by fans and experts because they know if any coach and program can overcome them its Saban and the Crimson Tide.
Consequently, here are Alabama’s 10 biggest concerns heading into fall camp:
1] The secondary
There’s no returning starters and no seniors in the group. Alabama’s going to need some freshmen to help out immediately and it may not be long before some are challenging for a starting job.
The depth chart could be very different by midseason.
“I think it’s going to be critical for us on defense to have some young players over the entire defense, but most certainly in the secondary, who are going to have to develop and mature into players who can winning football at those positions for us,” Saban said.
2] Depth at interior linebacker
Alabama doesn’t have any concerns about the talent level of Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses, who both have made two career starts. Both sustained foot fractures late last season and the Crimson Tide can’t afford those kinds of setbacks this season.
In part due to the lack of experience behind him, Wilson may be Alabama’s most important player this season.
3] New coordinators across the board
Replacing a coordinator isn’t unusual for Saban. For example, quarterback Jalen Hurts is going into his third season with the Crimson Tide and is already working with his fourth offensive coordinator.
“Michael Locksley has a wealth of experience,”Saban said about his new offensive coordinator. “He's been a coordinator for a long time. He's been in our system. He's made great contribution in our program recruiting as well as how he impacts players, and he has experience being a head coach and a coordinator at other places where he's had a tremendous amount of success.
“So, we're very, very confident that he will do a great job, and the players have responded extremely well to Mike. And I have a lot of confidence in Mike.”
On the defensive side, Tosh Lupoi was promoted even though he’s never called plays before.
“We have tried to be very helpful to him in his development as a play-caller, but we do have Pete Golding who has been a coordinator and called defenses as a co-coordinator,” Saban said. “The two of them working together I feel, as well as me looking over their shoulder, might be something that we can grow and develop into something that's not going to affect our chances to be successful on that side of the ball.”
Former Texas A&M assistant Jeff Banks is the new special-teams coach. Only once before at Alabama has Saban had to replace all three coordinators during an offseason, 2008. Of course, that team turned out to be pretty good, reaching the SEC Championship Game.
4] Coaching continuity
Overall, Alabama has six new coaches, and one never knows about the chemistry of a coaching staff until everyone goes through a couple of games together. At least in recruiting they appear to be off to a great start.
“They’re all high-energy coaches,” senior linebacker Anfernee Jennings said. “They’re young and they come with an edge.”
5] The quarterbacks
The competition between Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa will finally get under way after the latter suffered a hand fracture during the first spring practice.
It definitely falls into the category of good problems to have. Don’t look for Saban to name a starter before the season opener against Louisville in Orlando on Sept. 1.
6] Defensive line depth
Raekwon Davis received a lot of preseason attention by being named to some watch lists for national awards, but Isaiah Buggs had a very good first season as a junior-college transfer in 2017.
“Very good player up-front,” Saban said. “Can rush. Can hold the point. Is physical, but very athletic. He and Raekwon Davis are really going to be keys for us upfront. We’re going to have to grow some depth around those guys in terms of how successful how defensive line will be this coming year.”
Two players to keep an eye on are Phidarian Mathis and LaBryan Ray, who should both be part of the regular rotation.
7] Special teams
New kicker(s). New punter. New holder. New coordinator.
At least the long-snappers are back, and it looks like Trevon Diggs will be the first option as a return specialist.
8] Lack of experience at wide receiver
The freshmen trio of Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III turned heads last year, but they’re already expected to carry the receiving corps as sophomores. There’s little doubt that they can do it, they just haven’t really done it before.
“Henry Ruggs had a fantastic year,” Saban said. “We thought he was the most dynamic player in Alabama the year we recruited him. He certainly didn’t disappoint in a lot of the big plays that he made. We’re hopeful that he’ll continue to develop and be even more productive in the future.”
Derek Kief is the veteran of the group, while Xavian Marks and Chadarius Townsend hope to be threats in the slot. Yet the players to watch are Tyrell Shavers, who didn’t play last season, and incoming freshman Jaylen Waddle.
9] The pass rush
Alabama essentially had to manufacture it on the fly last year after the linebacker corps was decimated by injuries. Four players who hope to be turned loose are Christopher Allen, incoming freshman Eyabi Anoma, Moses and Christian Miller.
“Christian has been a good player for us and even though he’s very diverse in what he does for us, he’s a very good pass rusher,” Saban said. “We actually trained him to play inside linebacker as well as outside linebacker because of our depth situation. Now he’ll be a starter at outside linebacker so that plan may go array.”
10] Offensive line
With four returning starters it was a little surprising to see the offensive line not play better on A-Day, but right tackle Matt Womack was out with an injury and everyone minus left tackle Jonah Williams lined up at a new spot. The cohesion should improve during camp.
“A lot of people don’t have the patience for it, but that’s a long, drawn-out journey,” said senior Ross Pierschbacher, who went from left guard to center. “I don’t think there’s even a timetable for it, it depends on the experience on the offensive line, things like that. Going into fall camp we’ll be looking to gel more. It should be exciting. We have the talent and the experience there. “