Recruiting 2011: Upcoming class will be critical for maintaining Tideís roll
By Jess Nicholas
May 29, 2011
Unlike some recent years under Nick Saban, in which the Tide only lost a handful of key contributors, once the 2011 season is over, the 2011-2012 recruiting class will be a critical venture for Tide coaches.
Alabama loses 18 seniors from its two-deep alone, including all three projected starters at wide receiver. Alabama could also lose as many as five juniors to the NFL, and theoretically even a sophomore, OT D.J. Fluker. There will be several glaring holes to fill and a couple of positions needing an upgrade. Hereís an early look at Alabamaís top five positions of need.
1. Offensive tackle
Sadly, the reason this position becomes such an area of need has to do not with performance, but with the death of Aaron Douglas. Alabamaís remaining tackles are Barrett Jones (who almost surely wonít move to guard now), D.J. Fluker, Tyler Love and Austin Shepherd. Two other players, Alfred McCullough and Arie Kouandjio, play both tackle and guard. Alabama is also expecting Cyrus Kouandjio to arrive for fall camp.
Jones is a prime candidate to skip his senior season if he has a solid 2011 campaign. He looked good at A-Day in his first game action at left tackle since arriving in Tuscaloosa. Fluker continues to improve exponentially, and even if he doesnít leave after the 2011 season, itís hard to imagine him being in Tuscaloosa beyond 2012. McCullough is a senior.
That would leave Alabama with the Kouandjio brothers, Love (who may end up at center shortly) and Shepherd battling for the starting jobs in 2012. Shepherd did a decent job in the spring, but Love has yet to live up to expectations in three-and-a-half seasons. Arie Kouandjio has talent but hasnít developed as quickly as many thought he would, and while Cyrus Kouandjio is more of a pure tackle, he is also raw.
Alabama has already secured a commitment from Brandon Greene, and should sign at least one other.
2. Defensive tackle
Itís no surprise that the trench positions make up Alabamaís greatest need and recruiting focus. Itís the hallmark of championship programs.
The 2011 season will mark the senior years for both Josh Chapman and Nick Gentry, two-thirds of Alabamaís nose tackle rotation. Three other players are juniors, Quentin Dial, Jesse Williams and Damion Square. While itís unlikely any of the three juniors rise to the level of NFL prospect this season, itís a possibility for Square, who is entering his second year as a starter and who has already suffered (and recovered from) a major knee injury while at Alabama.
Alabamaís recruiting philosophy seems to have shifted from recruiting for a pure 3-4 look to recruiting certain players to play in a 3-down attack and others to play in a 4-down attack when Alabama goes to its nickel package Ė which, given the rise of spread offenses, is just as prevalent as the teamís base alignment. Players who fit into the latter strategy Ė i.e., tackles in a 4-3 Ė include Gentry, Square and Undra Billingsley.
Heading into 2012, the presumptive starters would appear to be Williams, Dial and Square, with Billingsley, Darrington Sentimore and Brandon Ivory the first players off the bench. Only Ivory would be an underclassman. Also, Billingsley and Sentimore have had uneven seasons thus far, while Ivory has yet to be tested in a college game.
Alabama currently holds commitments from Dakota Ball and Caleb Gulledge, both of whom appear to be more suited for a 4-man front. Alabama is pursuing at least two true nosetackles and several other players who can flex between the two positions.
The dust still hasnít settled on the Philip Sims-A.J. McCarron duel, and Alabama is already looking to the future. That future could include Gunner Kiel, Jameis Winston or both.
But mostly, people are holding their breath for 2011 and beyond, specifically that the loser of the Sims-McCarron battle doesnít leave Tuscaloosa. Fortunately for Alabama, Blake Sims stepped up late in the spring and looked more capable under center than expected. On the flip side, early entrant Philip Ely looked small and ineffective at A-Day, although practice observers say they had been pleasantly surprised by his play in practices leading up to that point.
Ultimately, Blake Sims seems destined for running back or another position. Ely is a long-term project, and Alabama didnít sign a frontline quarterback in the 2011 class. Winstonís future could be in baseball, while Notre Dame will be a big factor in Kielís decision.
4. Wide receiver
The signing of Duron Carter notwithstanding, Alabama has work to do here. To begin with, Marquis Maze, Brandon Gibson and Darius Hanks all graduate. Beyond that, Alabama has a lot of players with talented high school resumes but no substantive results in college.
There has been a change in coaching, as Mike Groh replaces Curt Cignetti. Cignetti didnít always get the highest marks from some fans, mostly a function of Alabamaís passing offense being heavily weighted toward Julio Jones, with not much else around him. Maze and Hanks certainly improved in 2009 and 2010, but the lack of development of the players further down the bench has been curious.
Heading into 2012, assuming Carter is the real deal, heíll be starting along with probably DeíAndrew White and Kenny Bell. Kevin Norwood has shown flashes, and Keiwone Malone had a good spring. Michael Bowman, however, continues to be a non-factor, meaning that Alabama will need to get at least one tall, physical receiver to go along with Carter. Justin Thomas is already committed to Alabama, but Thomas is small and projects as a slot receiver.
Of the incoming freshmen, Marvin Shinn and Danny Woodson Jr. both have the physical skills to make an impact, while Bradley Sylve and 2011 grayshirt Ronald Carswell could work as slot receivers or on go routes, depending on their speed. But all four players are unknowns at this point on the college level.
With Mark Barron leaving and junior Robert Lester already pegged as a first- or second-round draft pick, Alabama will need to bolster its safety group substantially after the 2011 season.
HaíSean Clinton-Dix should make the transition go more smoothly, as he is due in camp in August. Jarrick Williams had a strong spring and figures to be the early favorite to start next to him. Nick Perry has shown flashes of ability as well.
Vinnie Sunseri played at safety in the spring, but figures to outgrow it at some point and transition to outside linebacker, which would put him on exactly the same career track as former Alabama star Cory Reamer. Unless Wesley Neighbors comes back from injury, he wonít be a part of the picture, either.
Alabama has already taken a commitment from Eddie Williams, and donít expect Tide coaches to stop there.
The rest of the team
Alabama will need a new center for 2012. Kellen Williams and Chad Lindsey played there this spring, and Tyler Love is a possibility. Incoming freshman Ryan Kelly might also be in the mix. But Alabama has signed no true center since getting Vlachos.
While tight end Michael Williams has another year of eligibility beyond 2011, the Tide will lose all three H-backs from the 2011 spring roster. Brad Smelley and Chris Underwood will both leave, as will walk-on John Baites, who played in one game in 2010 and appeared serviceable in spring work. Incoming freshman Malcolm Faciane is considered more of a pure tight end. Harrison Jones could be the answer unless Alabama grabs an H-back in this class.
While Alabama doesnít have a numbers need at running back, it does need a big back. Trent Richardson will almost certainly leave for the NFL, leaving Eddie Lacy the starter in 2012. Jalston Fowler is the Tideís only other big back, and he could end up at H-back instead. Dee Hart and Corey Grant are both scatbacks. The Tide has commitments from Justin Taylor and Kenyan Drake, although many expect Drake to eventually land at receiver.
Alabama appears to be filling its needs at linebacker already. Dont'a Hightower has a fifth year of eligibility beyond 2011, but few expect him to exercise it. Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris graduate, along with top sub Chris Jordan. That leaves Alabama with a 2012 linebacker depth chart of C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson, Trey DePriest and Petey Smith inside, with Jonathan Atchison, Tana Patrick and Adrian Hubbard outside. Upshawís backup Alex Watkins is also a senior. But Alabama has already taken commitments from Reggie Ragland, Ryan Anderson and Dillon Lee, and several more linebackers are expected to commit.
Anderson is also in the mix at defensive end, where (depending on the alignment) Alabama will have Ed Stinson, Brandon Lewis, Quinton Dial and Anthony Orr in the mix beyond 2011. Adrian Hubbard also figures in the mix when he's not playing Jack linebacker. Look for at least one pure pass rusher in this class.