Less than a week until their opener against Southern California on Saturday, Alabama players are anxiously awaiting the chance to go up against someone other than themselves.
However, while the Crimson Tide knows who it will play Saturday, the team hasn’t quite pinned down which players will be playing. Players began game planning for USC on Friday, with scout-team donning numbers of Trojans players in preparation. During his news conference Thursday, Alabama head coach Nick Saban referred to the day as “judgment day.” The Tide must now decide which players get the necessary first-team reps before the game.
“We’re going to have to pick the guys we’re going to have to get ready to play the game and how we rep them and how we get guys to have roles, whether it’s on special teams, offense or defense,” Saban said.
Alabama’s depth chart is typically revealed to reporters the Monday before the game. Here’s a look at some of the positions in question as the Tide makes its final decisions:
Contenders: Cooper Bateman, redshirt junior; Blake Barnett, redshirt freshman; Jalen Hurts, freshman.
Outlook: This has been Alabama’s most tight-lipped position battle, and it is very likely a starter won’t be determined until closer to the game. All three contenders have had their up-and-down moments in camp, with Saban stating no one has yet to “take the bull by the horns.” Bateman is the only member of the bunch to take a college snap. However, his Week 3 start against Ole Miss last season left many unconvinced of his ability to lead the offense. Barnett, a former five-star recruit, appears to have all the tools to be a successful option, but has continued to struggle with turnovers since joining the Tide. Hurts has had perhaps the best offseason and might have the most potential of the group, but the true freshman is still a work in progress. Despite Saban stating a willingness to start a freshman at quarterback, the head coach has yet to do so during his time at Alabama.
Prediction: Expect Alabama to go with multiple quarterbacks in its first few games. Bateman is a good bet to get the first snap against the Trojans given his experience, but as the game goes on Alabama could throw in another quarterback as it has done in recent years. Based on his performance this spring, Hurts looks to be that player for the opener.
Competitors: Alphonse Taylor, redshirt senior; Bradley Bozeman, redshirt junior.
Outlook: Taylor was the starter at the position for all 15 games last season. However, weight issues in the spring followed by a DUI arrest in July have seen the senior slip in the Tide’s depth chart. Taylor was suspended indefinitely after his arrest, but figures to be available for the Tide’s opener. Bozeman, a versatile lineman who can play every position on the line, has seen time in camp as Taylor’s replacement. Alabama’s most common first unit this camp has seen the Tide line up with Cam Robinson, Lester Cotton, Ross Pierschbacher, Bozeman and Jonah Williams from left to right.
Prediction: Bozeman looks the most likely to start against USC. Due to his versatility, the Tide has a lot of options, and it wouldn’t be unexpected to see the team experiment a little bit in order to nail down its best starting unit. During practice on Friday, Bozeman was moved to center with Pierschbacher shifting over to right guard. Assuming Taylor has his weight and disciplinary issues under control, he appears too much of a talent to keep off the field for long.
Competitors: Shaun Dion Hamilton, junior; Rashaan Evans, junior
Outlook: This might be more of a situational discussion than a position battle. With Rueben Foster locking down the Tide’s MIKE linebacker role, Hamilton and Evans are Alabama’s best options at inside linebacker. During camp, Hamilton appears to be the second inside linebacker when the Tide uses four linebackers. However, in recent practices Evans has been used alongside Foster in Alabama’s nickel package.
Prediction: Right now, it appears the two will continue to split time depending on which package Alabama runs. However, if one of the two excels early on in the season, it could turn more into a one-person job. No matter what happens, this is a perfect example of the depth Alabama has on defense.
Third wide receiver
Competitors: Gehrig Dieter, senior; Robert Foster, redshirt junior; Cam Sims, junior
Outlook: Sophomore Calvin Ridley and redshirt junior ArDarius Stewart were the Tide’s top two receiving options last season and appear to occupy those roles again this year. That leaves a hot competition for Alabama’s No. 3 receiver. Foster would have been the Tide’s No. 1 option last season if he didn’t suffer a season-ending shoulder injury against Ole Miss. Dieter joins the team as a graduate transfer from Bowling Green where he caught 94 passes for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. He enters the season with Ridley on the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award. Sims is the outsider but offers the best size of the bunch, coming in at 6-foot-5, 203 pounds. Sims has been wearing a sleeve over his left knee in practice and looks like a long shot for the competition for now, but he could be a dark horse as the season progresses.
Prediction: It’s hard to imagine Foster not being the guy. Earlier this month, the junior said he is back to 100 percent after his injury. If that’s the case, he could be a candidate for the Tide’s breakout player of the season. Alabama is loaded at wide receiver, and it would be safe to expect plenty of players serving key roles this season.