Alabama not sweating massive talent exodus on defense
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — A trophy shelf’s worth of hardware accompanied several of Alabama’s biggest defensive stars to the NFL, but linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton and the Crimson Tide don’t seem too concerned.
“We’re Bama,” Hamilton said. “We just reload. Everybody is going to embrace the challenge.”
Still, it’s no small task to replace national defensive player of the year Jonathan Allen, Butkus Award winner Reuben Foster or their fellow first-round NFL draft pick Marlon Humphrey. Not to mention the four other defenders who joined them in the draft.
Nobody’s predicting a major drop-off from a group that led the nation in rushing and scoring defense, but there are questions to be answered. The offense appears fully loaded with playmakers even after losing tight end O.J. Howard and wide receiver ArDarius Stewart.
With quarterback Jalen Hurts and a backfield overflowing with runners, the Tide remains among the favorites to win a fifth national title of Nick Saban’s decade-plus reign. Alabama has won three straight Southeastern Conference titles and 17 consecutive league games.
The offseason has been haunted by a 35-31 loss to Clemson on a last-second touchdown in the championship game.
Hurts said that’s all in the rear view mirror but also notes that means they can still see it. Translation: It’s gone but not forgotten.
Saban doesn’t want his team to “waste a failure” and not find a way to grow from that game. The chance for this team to prove itself comes immediately with an opener against Florida State, another potential national title contender.
The defensive talent is hardly depleted despite losing players responsible for 36.5 sacks, more than every other SEC team but Texas A&M had in 2016. Defensive backs Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison join tackle Da’Ron Payne and Hamilton to headline the returning starters. Hamilton is returning from a torn ACL sustained in the SEC championship game. Fitzpatrick moved to safety last season but has also worked at cornerback, giving coaches flexibility if sophomore Trevon Diggs or someone else doesn’t step up to fill Humphrey’s spot.
Seniors Rashaan Evans and Da’Shawn Hand are once-prized recruits who appear poised to finally get their chances to play marquee roles. Hand was arrested five days before fall camp on a driving under the influence charge, though Saban has said he won’t be suspended because he wasn’t actually driving the vehicle.
The offense must also replace Outland Trophy-winning left tackle Cam Robinson, but has standout right tackle Jonah Williams to take his place.
KEY GAMES: Florida State, Sep. 2, in Atlanta; LSU, Nov. 4; at Auburn, Nov. 25.
SEASON OPENER: Alabama continues its recent tradition of opening with big neutral-site games, winning in such matchups the last five years by an average of 25 points. The Seminoles could be the strongest first-game opponent during that stretch. The game is set for the newly completed Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
THE OC: New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll replaces Steve Sarkisian, or Lane Kiffin, depending on how you look at it. He spent the past 17 seasons as an NFL assistant with stints running the offenses in Miami and Cleveland. Don’t look for wholesale changes in Alabama’s offense but Saban has praised Daboll for his work with Hurts’ passing among other things.
RUN DABOLL? It became a popular mantra on social media playing on the new OC’s name for Tide fans who want to see more running from talented backs like Damien Harris (1,037 yards) and Bo Scarbrough (812 yards, 11 touchdowns). They’re joined by Josh Jacobs (567 yards) and freshman Najee Harris, one of the most heralded recruits of the Saban era and a January enrollee.
PREDICTION: Alabama figures to contend for a fourth straight playoff berth whatever happens in the Florida State game. After that, the Tide is likely to be heavily favored over the next four games. Road trips to SEC West foes Texas A&M and Auburn await later in the season while Tennessee and LSU visit Tuscaloosa.
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25