OK, the 2016 season is over, if just barely. But what about Alabama in 2017?
Here’s a quick look at what could be in store for the Tide in 2017.
1. The defense
The buzz: The biggest issue for Alabama will be replacing the defensive talent lost to the NFL. A worst-case scenario could see up to 10 current Tide defenders playing Sunday football next fall.
Five seniors started for the Tide on Monday night: linemen Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson and linebackers Ryan Anderson, Reuben Foster and Tim Williams. Safety Eddie Jackson, who missed the final half of the season with a broken leg, is another senior. Three underclass defensive backs have decisions to make: Anthony Averett, Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey.
All three could come back and improve their draft status. Humphrey, though, has a chance to go in the first round, and Averett and Brown could be off the board by the end of the third round in the 2017 draft. Averett’s stock may never be higher and Brown staying could be a risk because at this point, he may only have one strike left before Saban pulls the plug. While inconsistent at times in 2016, Humphrey has all the tools.
Another linebacker who may decide to begin his pro career is junior Rashaan Evans. What seems likely is that the Tide defense will need to replace only six players in 2017, but that’s also six starters.
2. QB Jalen Hurts
The skinny: He passed for 2,780 yards and rushed for 954 more. He completed almost 65 percent of his passes and accounted for 36 total touchdowns, doing it all with more poise than any Alabama quarterback in recent memory. That said, he has a lot to improve on going into 2017.
The most important: How much can Hurts improve his downfield accuracy? Many chunk-yardage opportunities were squandered by late or inaccurate throws this season. Even slight improvement in this area will pay huge dividends, and normal progression – from freshman to sophomore – should lead to at least slight improvement.
There’s also another quarterback question: Who’s the backup? The top three backups going into this season all will have left via transfer: Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell. Incoming freshman Tua Tagovailoa would seem to be the best bet to be the No. 2 guy; he already has enrolled and will go through spring practice.
3. Steve Sarkisian
The skinny: While Hurts’ improvement will draw much of the attention, there also will continue to be a lot of focus on new offensive coordinator Sarkisian, who had an uneven debut as the Tide’s play-caller Monday night.
He will have a lot to work with as he begins his first full season with the Tide: Hurts is back, the top three running backs return, at least three-fifths of the starting line should be back and it’s possible that four of the top five wide receivers return.
Running back bears watching; in addition to the return of Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Josh Jacobs, Alabama is adding Najee Harris at the position. Harris is the nation’s top prospect in the 2017 recruiting cycle and he already is on campus.
Left tackle Cam Robinson seems certain to go pro and guard Korren Kirven is a senior. But there is ample talent on hand along the line, and the Tide seem set to sign the nation’s top o-line class, as well.
Wide receiver ArDarius Stewart could decide to turn pro; he was No. 2 on the Tide in receptions but led the team in receiving yards and TD catches. Tight end O.J. Howard is a senior, so if the Tide loses Stewart, that means three of the top four receivers (Gehrig Dieter, a senior, is the fourth-leading receiver) are gone.
Calvin Ridley will return, but a Stewart departure would mean the receiving corps needs a big makeover. Ridley needs a bounceback season; he wasn’t nearly as explosive as he was in 2015 as a true freshman. He had 10 games this season with fewer than 60 receiving yards, and Hurts’ offseason development will be important for Ridley.
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