SEC MEDIA DAYS 2017: Youth may be a challenge for Crimson Tide
By Tim Gayle
HOOVER – There are more questions than answers with this edition of the Alabama Crimson Tide, but that’s not expected to keep the media at SEC Media from voting the Tide as the overwhelming choice to win the conference title in 2017.
Nick Saban, making his 11th appearance as the Tide’s head coach, called this one of the youngest squads he’s ever assembled, which often reflects a sign of rebuilding.
“I think this is going to be one of the youngest teams that we’ve had probably since maybe 2012, especially on defense, where we lost a ton of really, really good players,” Saban said. “So it’s going to be a challenge to replace those guys.”
A challenge maybe, but most people expect Saban to reach into his bag of five-star blue chippers and field another championship caliber squad. This team, however, has several crucial questions that need answering and Saban was in no mood to provide the answers on Wednesday when he took the podium in front of the media.
But his noncommittal delivery didn’t stop the questions, starting with his team’s mindset following the loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game last January in Tampa.
“The mindset is much more I’m willing to change, I want to learn, I don’t want to waste a failure, what could we have done better?” Saban said. “Because everybody’s hurt by the fact that they lost, especially the way we lost that particular game on the last play of the game, but it wasn’t the last play. It’s what led up to the last play. And I think our players realize that.
Not to dwell too much on the past, but it was obviously a motivation for the players during the offseason.
“I just think it gives it a little more fuel because he’s never lost a national championship (game),” Crimson Tide defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “He told us what he thought we could do differently. I think he’s over it, he’s just learning from it.”
When presented with Saban’s choice of words and whether he thought “failure” was too strong a word, Fitzpatrick put the Tide’s status in perspective.
“The loss in the national championship game made it a failure,” he said. “If you go 14-0 and then lose the last game, it makes it seem like you did it all for nothing. We just have to learn from it, that’s the most important thing.”
Receiver Calvin Ridley apparently has been paying too much attention to people who have written off Alabama after losing in the national championship game.
“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder,” Ridley said. “A lot of people still don’t respect us. We’ve got to work extra hard because they’re not afraid of us so we’ve got to go out and practice and get better because every game is going to be hard for us.
“We hear things like ‘Alabama is not Alabama any more, they lost to Clemson.’ We just have to suck that up and focus, get our leadership going on our team and play as one.”
Alabama will return Jalen Hurts on offense, along with Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Josh Jacobs at running back, Ridley and Robert Foster at receiver, Hale Hentges and Miller Forrestall at tight end, Bradley Bozeman at center, Ross Pierschbacher at guard and Jonah Williams at tackle.
If Williams moves to left tackle, as expected, the question revolves around right guard and right tackle. Saban said he has four starters for the five positions, but there is some debate about the fourth player as well as the position.
Junior college transfer Elliot Baker and mid-year enrollee Alex Leatherwood are two potential candidates at tackle, but Saban is looking for the best fit and that could include Scott Lashley, Lester Cotton, Dallas Warmack and even incoming freshmen Hunter Brannon, Kendall Randolph and Jedrick Wills.
“I think all those players have competed very well this summer,” Saban said, “and it will be interesting to see how they mature in fall camp. And I don’t think that decision is going to get made until sometime in fall camp.”
Defensively, Hootie Jones should start at safety along with Fitzpatrick, but that’s only if Tony Brown and Anthony Averett nail down the corner positions. If Brown plays nickel, as he did in the spring, then Alabama needs another corner because Trevon Diggs struggled at that position in the spring.
The inside linebacker position is deep with Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans – an outside linebacker who moved inside with a late-season injury to Hamilton – and top backup Mack Wilson.
The defensive line has some questions – with Quinnen Williams and Raekwon Davis looking impressive in the spring – as the Tide searches for depth and impact to join DaShawn Hand and DaRon Payne.
And the search for a placekicker may continue well into the season as no replacement for Adam Griffith has solidified the role.