published Friday, March 14th, 2014

Alabama football: Five questions for spring practice

Alabama running back Derrick Henry celebrates his touchdown during the second half of the NCAA college football Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma in New Orleans, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014.
Alabama running back Derrick Henry celebrates his touchdown during the second half of the NCAA college football Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma in New Orleans, Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Alabama linebacker Trey DePriest (33) takes a break during pre-game warmups prior to the start an NCAA college football game against Mississippi State, Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, in Starkville, Miss. Alabama won 20-7.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Alabama entered spring football practice last year having won two consecutive national championships and with established quarterback AJ McCarron providing plenty of hope for a third straight crown.

The Crimson Tide will start spring drills Saturday with a different perspective.

Two surprising losses -- to Auburn in the most memorable Iron Bowl ever and to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl -- derailed Alabama's run at history, and that was followed by a program-record five underclassmen leaving early for the NFL. Gone also is McCarron, a three-year starter who compiled a staggering 36-2 mark before the setbacks to the Tigers and the Sooners.

McCarron followed John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy in a run that has added up to nearly a decade of stability at that position in Tuscaloosa, but it should be a wide-open race between now and the 2014 season opener against West Virginia in Atlanta. Offensive line, linebacker and the kicking game also need addressing in impending weeks, but eighth-year coach Nick Saban doesn't land No. 1 recruiting classes each winter for nothing.

Alabama will have its A-Day game on April 19 televised by ESPNU, and here are five areas to follow in the meantime.

1. Will any quarterback pecking order form?

Alabama's quarterback competition this spring will involve fifth-year senior Blake Sims, redshirt sophomore Alec Morris, redshirt freshmen Cooper Bateman and Parker McLeod and early enrollee David Cornwell. Sims has the advantage in experience, having thrown for 244 yards and two touchdowns in 23 career appearances, but he seems somewhat of a long shot as the lone dual-threat performer of the bunch.

Saban has yet to play a true freshman at the position, which might hinder Cornwell's chances, but Cornwell and Bateman expect to be serious challengers. The race will have a new look this summer, when presumed favorite Jake Coker is scheduled to arrive after graduating and transferring from Florida State.

Don't count on Saban to reveal a slew of information this spring.

"We are not going to be in any hurry to decide who the quarterback is," Saban told reporters recently. "We are going to give everybody a lot of opportunity to compete. You guys are going to ask me at least a thousand times between now and the first game about who the first-team quarterback is, and I'm telling you right now you're probably going to get a thousand 'We're going to wait and see' answers."

A subplot to Alabama's quarterback derby is how Saban meshes with new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

2. Could Henry surpass Yeldon?

T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake comprised Alabama's 1-2 tailback punch last season, but that was before Derrick Henry erupted for 100 yards on eight carries and a 61-yard scoring reception at the Sugar Bowl. Henry's contribution to the Crimson Tide in their loss at Auburn was one special-teams tackle, so the progress he made during bowl workouts was evident to everyone.

What if Henry makes even more sizable strides this spring?

3. Can Robinson make a move up front?

Alabama's stellar 2012 offensive line of Cyrus Kouandjio, Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones, Anthony Steen and D.J. Fluker was down to Kouandjio and Steen last season, and now those two are gone as well.

Left guard Arie Kouandjio, center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Austin Shepherd give the Crimson Tide three returning starters, while Chad Lindsay, Leon Brown and Grant Hill are back after logging some significant time as well.

Alabama had eight early enrollees earlier this year, and none of them -- Cornwell included -- is expected to be more closely monitored than Cameron Robinson. The nation's top tackle prospect out of Louisiana has an opportunity this spring to challenge for one of the tackle spots.

4. Can DePriest assume leadership role?

Although McCarron had his share of legacy stories written about him late last season, Saban was willing to contribute to any piece about departing senior linebacker C.J. Mosley as well.

"C.J. has played fantastic football every game, and I can't recall that he's ever had a bad game," Saban said during bowl workouts. "His leadership and his ability to affect the other players -- getting us lined up right and making the right adjustments -- has been just as critical as his phenomenal play."

Mosley was the unquestioned leader of last season's defense, and that duty this year has been acquired by senior Trey DePriest. The two-year starter finished third on the team last season with 65 tackles and had 7.5 tackles for loss.

Alabama is having to replace Mosley, short-yardage standout Tana Patrick and Adrian Hubbard, one of the five who left early, in its linebacker corps but has Reuben Foster waiting in the wings. Ranked by some recruiting services as the top linebacker nationally in the 2013 signing class, Foster got in nine games last season and had 12 tackles.

5. Will there be a kicking-game downturn?

Christion Jones, who averaged 28.7 yards on kickoff returns and 14.0 yards on punt returns and scored three special-teams touchdowns last season, is back for his senior year.

Kicker Cade Foster and punter Cody Mandell have moved on.

Foster long will be remembered for his three missed field-goal attempts at Auburn last November, but he entered that game having made 11-of-12 on the season. Adam Griffith came up short on the Tide's final attempt in the Iron Bowl, which was returned by Chris Davis for the deciding score, but he is back for his redshirt sophomore year after making one of three tries a season ago.

Cody Mandell handled all 39 of Alabama's punts last season, and the leading candidate to replace him is signee JK Scott, who will not arrive until the summer.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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