Nick Saban and Alabama opened spring practice Friday with an immediate goal. Along with winning another national championship, that is.
For now, they need to find replacements for three of college football’s top offensive weapons.
The good news for the Crimson Tide is that, as usual, there are prized recruits waiting in the wings to replace those seemingly irreplaceable stars.
The competition officially commenced with the search for the potential successors to Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith, quarterback Mac Jones and tailback Najee Harris. Jones and Harris also finished in the Top 5 in Heisman voting.
Receiver Jaylen Waddle also departed for the NFL draft, where he’s projected as a potential Top 10 pick along with Smith.
Bryce Young, who saw some action as a freshman, is the only quarterback with college experience. The former five-star recruit played in nine games but only attempted 22 passes, completing 13 for 156 yards and a touchdown.
Playing only Southeastern Conference games limited the chances for him to play extended mop-up duties.
“I thought, at times, he was feeling his way out there, not playing with the kind of confidence that we would like for him to play with, but it’s part of his development and he learned from it,” Saban said.
“He’s been much better in practice, like today. This was the first day we could actually throw, and I thought he did a good job of throwing,” the coach said.
Saban said Young looked more comfortable managing the offense and the fast pace than he had at times in the past. He also didn’t get a spring practice last year because of the pandemic.
Alabama has 15 early enrollees from the nation’s No. 1-rated recruiting class, including top offensive line signees JC Latham and Tommy Brockermeyer, highly touted receiver prospects Jacorey Brooks and Agiye Hall and top-rated cornerback Ga’Quincy McKinstry.
Alabama must replace projected first-round pick Patrick Surtain Jr. at cornerback, along with such defensive stalwarts as inside linebacker Dylan Moses
The running back competition heading into next season figures to include senior Brian Robinson Jr., second-year back Jase McClellan and former five-star recruit Trey Sanders. Sanders missed his freshman season with a foot injury and then was sidelined after a car accident last November.
“He’s not 100% but he’s getting there, and we’re very happy with the progress,” Saban said. “He’s had a tough road to hoe and he’s had a great attitude about it and he’s worked hard. We’re really pleased.”
McClellan averaged 10.7 yards on 23 carries over four late-season games as a freshman.
Saban said several players are recovering from injuries and expected to be limited in spring practice, including defensive back Malachi Moore, defensive lineman Phil Mathis, wide receiver John Metchie and offensive linemen Pierce Quick and Emil Ekiyor.
One potential contender for carries in the backfield, five-star recruit Camar Wheaton, won’t be on campus until this summer.
The freshmen were hardly the only new faces on the field Friday for the Tide, especially on the offensive side.
Former NFL head coaches Bill O’Brien (offensive coordinator) and Doug Marrone (offensive line) are among the new assistants. Steve Sarkisian presided over last season’s loaded offense before taking the head job at Texas.
“The new coaches are doing, I think, really well,” Saban said. “I think it’s been a transition a little bit, and we spent a lot of time working together on offense to implement some new ideas, as well as for the new coaches to learn the system that we had here before and try to improve on it.”
Alabama beat Ohio State 52-24 on Jan. 11 for its sixth national title in 12 years under Saban. The Crimson Tide holds its spring game on April 17 and opens the regular season against Miami on Sept. 4 in Atlanta.