Alabamapicking upthe pieces
By JOHN ZENOR
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | March 21,2014
Alabama quarterback Cooper Bateman practices during spring session last week in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It has become an annual rite of spring for coach Nick Saban and Alabama’s football team.
Backups are vying to replace not just starters but All-Americans and NFL-caliber talent who left enduring legacies and big voids. Same as last spring, and the one before that.
“It’s the ’Bama Way,” Tide center Ryan Kelly, who replaced 2011 Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones last season, said Wednesday night. “We always say it that way, get back to what we do. No matter who is getting that spot, there’s still a standard to uphold. It’s pressure-filled. You can call it what you want, but if you’re in there you know you’ve got to produce for the 10 guys around you, whoever that may be.”
It’s just a fact of life for a team with 11 first-round draft picks over the past three years and a high turnover rate since many of those have left after their junior seasons.
Now, the Tide is seeking replacements for the likes of Butkus Award-winning linebacker C.J. Mosley and quarterback AJ McCarron, the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Mosley, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio are all projected as potential first-rounders.
The battles to fill those spots, and replace other departed starters, have just begun in spring practice.
At quarterback, the competition almost certainly will extend into preseason camp since Florida State transfer Jake Coker won’t enter the competition until this summer.
Good thing Alabama has that string of No. 1 recruiting classes to draw from.
Talent notwithstanding, Saban said it makes a big difference when players readily adapt to and embrace their new roles.
“Some guys make a huge improvement when they feel like their role’s going to increase and they’re going to have a better opportunity to play,” Saban said. “They become more conscientious, pay attention to detail. Sometimes you’re a little amazed at when somebody does get an opportunity, they take advantage of it.
“We’ve been very fortunate here that we’ve always had guys step up and do that. I think we have some good young players who are going to have an opportunity to improve and grow and become very good players for us next year.”
It’s too early to identify leading contenders to replace Mosley & Co.
Alabama already has a rising star at safety in Landon Collins, who logged starts at both free and strong safety last season.
Geno Smith, Nick Perry and Jarrick Williams also have experience in the secondary.
Candidates to replace Mosley could include coveted 2013 recruit Reuben Foster or last year’s backup Reggie Ragland.
Senior Leon Brown was Kouandjio’s backup, but five-star tackle Cam Robinson has enrolled early and is going through spring practice.
Robinson came in with aspirations of contending for the starting job as a freshman but knowing he had a long way to go.
“I need to work on everything,” the national Top-5 recruit said on national signing day. “SEC, man, with these defensive linemen, it’s crazy. These guys are freak athletes. I’m working on everything I can to just get better overall.”
Presumably, the quarterback competition will at least be narrowed down from the five going through spring practice, including freshman David Cornwell.
“They all have their flashes of greatness so far,” tight end Brian Vogler said. “We’re working everybody and giving everybody an opportunity, which is awesome. I think it’s fair but everybody’s doing really well so far.”
It’s been a few years since Alabama has had a quarterback competition. McCarron and Phillip Sims alternated to start the 2010 season but Sims wound up transferring to Virginia.
The Tide hasn’t missed a beat in replacing players like 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram with Trent Richardson or finding a new defensive back to replace one of three drafted in the first round the past two seasons.
“I think that the dynamic on your team changes every year,” Saban said. “You probably lose about 25 percent of your team every year in college, and that’s always a challenge. New leaders emerge. Guys have new roles.
“Some people accept those roles a lot more readily than others and easily and adapt to them, and it makes a significant difference on the team.”