TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Happy first game week to all. It’s Monday of Week 1, and there was a belief that Alabama would release a depth chart ahead of Saturday’s game, but Nick Saban nixed that notion during his Monday presser.
“It creates a lot of distractions on our team with a lot of guys thinking, ‘Well, this guy won the job now, and I’m not going to play,’” Saban said. “And quite frankly we don’t need that. I want all of our players to continue to compete for playing time, and I don’t want anybody on our team to think that our backup player or whatever.”
Monday’s news conference did reveal one note about a position group’s possible lineup: junior safety DeVonta Smith, who began preseason camp with the first team, has been out for “a while” with a foot injury. Saban said if healthy, Smith would be in the mix, but the indication is that Caleb Downs and UAB transfer Jaylen Key will be the starting safeties against Middle Tennessee (6:30 pm CT on SEC Network).
As for the game itself, the Blue Raiders have a respectable program with two bowl wins the past two seasons, but they are not expected to challenge the Tide much. Then the attention turns to a mega-matchup with Texas in Week 2, arguably the most anticipated nonconference game of the season.
Monday’s lack of a depth chart won’t stop the conversations about each position group and what can be expected throughout the season. So I’ve created oddly specific predictions about each one ahead of the first game. Let’s dive into them:
The biggest depth chart question entering this week was who would be named starting quarterback or if that position would receive an “OR” designation. When asked if he expects to play multiple quarterbacks, Saban stated that he had no expectations for that scenario and that the competition will continue past the first game.
I do believe Jalen Milroe will be the first quarterback on the field Saturday, but I also agree with Saban’s sentiment that the competition doesn’t end with Week 1. My prediction for this group is that the starter will be solidified after the first month of the season, and barring injury, he will keep the job through 2023, and that will be Milroe. The first four games buy some time for this prediction and offer several possibilities: like Milroe seizing the job Week 1, multiple quarterbacks will play for the first two weeks or for a third, tune-up game at South Florida then the first SEC game against Ole Miss or some other variation. But I see a month of potential QB shuffling, then an offense finding and solidifying its identity heading into Week 5.
Saban was asked specifically about Milroe’s development from last year to now and said, “I think Jalen has made a significant amount of improvement. I think he’s more comfortable in the pocket. I think that he has more confidence in the way he executes and the way he plays. He’s been more consistent in the way he’s played. I think that’s going to be the key to the drill for him is to be able to maintain that consistency in every practice so that he is developing the kind of habits that are going to carry over in the game and help him be successful.”
It’s no secret that the strength of the offense at running back. It might not have the star power of the past, but there’s more than enough depth to pace the offense with a strong running game. Because of that, look for the top four running backs (Jase McClellan, Roydell Williams, Jamarion Miller and Justice Haynes) each will have at least 55 carries. That might seem like a low bar, but four running backs crossing that threshold has happened only once in the past 10 seasons — in 2018 with Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs, Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr.
This prediction hinges on a few things, like the potential of Milroe starting and taking a large number of carries, the offensive line’s play and the early health status of Haynes (and his possible ascension). But an overall commitment to the run should push this prediction through. The omission of Richard Young leads to another semi-prediction: He’ll play in four games and use his redshirt, barring an injury to the top four.
Ja’Corey Brooks likes what he sees from Alabama’s receivers
Alabama didn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver last season for the first time since 2017. One of the big questions entering this season is who will emerge as the bona fide top option. Whether one emerges, Alabama won’t have a 1,000-yard receiver in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2016-17 … but that might not necessarily be a bad thing.
The questions at quarterback and the concerted effort to the run contribute to this prediction, as well as the possible emergence of the tight ends, whose production could eat into the receivers’ yardage. There are plenty of options at receiver but not a dominant force, at least right now. The committee approach early on also plays into this prediction. And it’s worth noting that in 2016 and 2017, Alabama played for or won the national championship.
What Alabama’s roster should look like to open the 2023 season
Tight end is a potential breakout position given the arrival of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and his history with the position and the depth that has developed throughout camp. Alabama legitimately has four playable tight ends (CJ Dippre, Robbie Ouzts, Amari Niblack and Danny Lewis Jr.), and all four will earn at least one start this season. The positional versatility of the group (like Niblack being able to split out to receiver) and my belief that Rees will implement more two-tight-end sets than previous coordinators, provide a runway for this prediction. Remember, all that needs to happen is each to be on the field for the first play, which is more game plan- and package-driven. I see a few games when Alabama starts with multiple tight ends on the field. But no matter who is starting, the tight ends should be fun to watch.
What does Tommy Rees bring to Alabama’s offense?
No group is more consequential to the offense’s success this season. The players on the offensive line have spoken about returning to “the standard” since spring practice, and with uncertainty at quarterback and receiver, it’s imperative for that group to establish physicality. I’m bullish on this group overall, which is why four offensive linemen will receive some postseason awards. One is obvious, and that’s right tackle JC Latham, who could rack up All-SEC, All-America and additional hardware with the season he’s projected to have. At left tackle, there will be growing pains for either true freshman Kadyn Proctor or redshirt freshman Elijah Pritchett early. Proctor looks like he could pull away with it, but whoever earns the most playing time there will earn Freshman All-America honors. Guard Tyler Booker will find his way onto an All-SEC team. So, who is the fourth? Center Seth McLaughlin, who by all indications had a strong preseason camp.
Alabama football searching for consistency as it builds up offensive, defensive lines
The defensive line will be crucial to its unit’s success. The storyline around this group during camp is finding depth, and at least two players who’ve separated themselves and will contribute heavily this season are Tim Keenan and Jah-Marien Latham. The rest will reveal themselves once Saturday kicks off.
One of the potential good stories brewing within the defensive front is Justin Eboigbe, a consistent contributor but never a starter who missed the bulk of last season to injury. By all accounts, he has had a strong camp, and his return is one of the most underrated developments of this year’s defense. Part 1 of the defensive line predictions: Eboigbe posts career highs in every category in his final season. Part 2: Jaheim Oatis earns All-SEC distinction for the second consecutive season.
Alabama veterans break down the team’s freshmen to watch
Beginning inside, where there’s likely a consistent three-man rotation of Deontae Lawson, Jihaad Campbell and Trezmen Marshall, Lawson will lead the team in tackles and receive an All-SEC distinction of some type. Alabama usually has a household name at inside linebacker, but Lawson’s entering 2023 a bit under the radar after coming on strong late last season but missing spring practice due to injury. He had a healthy camp and is one of the biggest individual breakout players on the team.
Outside linebacker might be the most talented position on the team from a recruiting star ranking standpoint. This year’s group is led by a pair of veterans in Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell, who will each record at least 10 tackles for loss and eight sacks. I expect Turner to return to his 2021 form, exceed that point, and challenge for SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Lofty expectations for this group as a whole, but it’s a group that could be regarded as the best linebacker unit in the SEC by the end of the season.
Alabama’s secondary is one of the most intriguing position groups. It has been fierce throughout in search of the best starting five, and there’s a looming challenge to eliminate communication errors that were costly last season. I like the depth of this year’s group, particularly at cornerback. Terrion Arnold should be improved in his second year at cornerback, and Trey Amos will be a factor, leading to Arnold lining up at different positions. Due to the improved play at cornerback and presumably in the entire secondary, it’s going to be tougher for teams to avoid Kool-Aid McKinstry, which is why I’m predicting that McKinstry will have his first-ever multi-interception season. And because he’s dynamic with the ball in his hands, he will have at least one pick-six.
Kicker Will Reichard and punter James Burnip received praise throughout camp. I foresee special teams taking a step forward in 2023 behind these two players, which is why Reichard will convert on at least 87 percent of his field goals, which will move him into the top five all-time in SEC history in field goal percentage. And Burnip will rank in the top five in the SEC in punt average (he was seventh last season at 42.3).
(Top photo of Deontae Lawson: Justin Ford / Getty Images)