Welcome to another Alabama football mailbag. My last one was roughly three months ago, my first official story as the new Tide beat writer for The Athletic. Now, we’re about a week away from the first game of the season. I’m excited for this upcoming year and the content that’s on the way. As for Alabama, this week was dedicated to prepping for future opponents, with the focus shifting to Middle Tennessee State on Friday afternoon.
Let’s get into the looming topics that remain ahead of the season.
(Note: Submitted questions have been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
The focus is on Bama having to choose between three quarterbacks. Make the case that whoever is the starter will be able to operate Tommy Rees’ offense. — Andrew P.
It wouldn’t feel right if we didn’t start with a quarterback question. On Wednesday, Nick Saban said the competition is “taking shape to some degree,” which signifies to me that someone’s created some separation or that Alabama has a plan for snap distribution in the first game. For the question at hand, Rees will build an offense that aims to get ahead of the chains on early downs by running the ball and not putting too much on the quarterbacks, at least early.
Talking with people closest to Rees, including former Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book, Rees is known for building game plans around personnel. Last season with the Irish, he changed from prioritizing outside weapons like Chase Claypool to a tight end-centric offense while juggling different quarterback playing styles. What does that mean for Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson or Tyler Buchner? I see a situation where Rees has had several months to construct a plan that will utilize their strengths, a different scenario than last season when Milroe was thrust into a starting role midseason. I think Milroe gets the first crack at it next Saturday, and it’s a fair assumption that his passing has improved to some degree. I see a mix of designed quarterback runs, zone reads, run-pass options and using the play-action off of that to create chances downfield. Milroe is the most dynamic, but all three have the ability to make plays with their legs and could run a variation of that scheme.
It will come down to decision-making, Alabama will field one of the most talented teams in the country but nothing neutralizes the talent gap more than turnovers.
College Football Coaching Tiers: Where 116 coaches stand entering 2023
Running back by committee is most likely, but will Jase McClellan get the lion’s share of those carries? Any idea how many per game? — Brett L.
I do believe that McClellan will get the bulk of the carries early, but I see this position evolving perhaps more than any other on the team. I expect the coaching staff to ride the hot hand, which could be any of the top four backs depending on the game. Assuming Milroe is the starter at QB, the potential rushing attack reminds me of the 2016-17 teams with Jalen Hurts and a stable of running backs including Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, Josh Jacobs and Najee Harris. Taking into account that the aforementioned names went on to become NFL Draft picks, I see the similarities of a dynamic dual-threat quarterback and a collection of capable running backs. If Milroe is a big part of the offense, about 13-15 touches per game for the top running back seems likely. If another QB takes over, I see more carries for the running backs. Overall, the carries will get spread out well among the backs.
What position group has to play above its ability for the team to reach its ultimate goal, and why? — Derek M.
A great question with several viable options. I think of the offensive line, which will be essential to establishing physicality and the run game. Then there’s the defensive line, which will set the tone for the defense and needs more depth. If you’re of the opinion that elite QB play is a prerequisite for a national championship, that’s an option. But the wide receivers have to take a step forward for Alabama to reach its full potential.
Even with a dominant run game, teams will eventually load the box and force the passing game to make them pay. Saban has emphasized that the offense around the quarterback needs to play well, and the offense can’t afford a wide receiving corps without reliable playmakers. History has shown that one dominant option can lead to success (Amari Cooper in 2014 and Calvin Ridley in 2017 come to mind). As of now, amid the options of Ja’Corey Brooks, Jermaine Burton, Isaiah Bond, Malik Benson and more, a true No. 1 hasn’t emerged. But that doesn’t mean one can’t during the season. I see that group experimenting with lineups in the early weeks in search of a consistent rotation. The ability or inability of that group to make strides throughout the season will be a key development in the team’s story.
What is the biggest issue with the wide receivers? There seems to be a lot of negativity surrounding that position. — Tripp P.
Drops have been a central theme through preseason camp. All of the receivers who met with the media talked about the extra work they’re putting in before and after practice, yet the issue hasn’t fully been eradicated. A natural next question is what is or isn’t being taught by the coaching staff, but drops are a matter the players have to own. At a certain point, it’s up to these highly touted prospects to execute.
But the position’s recruiting and retention is worth mentioning. Looking at the 2020-2022 recruiting cycles, seven of the 13 signees are no longer with the team, including Thaiu Jones-Bell, who is taking a medical year. Of those remaining, all but Brooks were a part of the 2022 class, and their development is still underway. Saban addressed the topic of receiver transfers Wednesday.
“I’m not mentioning any names, but there’s only like one player that I was really disappointed that the guy didn’t stay here, and I couldn’t understand why he was leaving,” Saban said. “And all the rest of them, they would have contributed if they stayed and had the right attitude, but it’s their choice. And what we have an opportunity to do when guys leave is we have an opportunity to replace them, too.”
And that is true, but recruiting receivers out of the portal has been a mixed bag. Jameson Williams was a giant success but Tyler Harrell didn’t work out and the jury is still out on Burton.
This is a big year for position coach Holmon Wiggins. The fifth-year coach has done a good job of recruiting future talent, particularly in the 2025 class, and what happens on the field this fall will be even more important.
Do you believe Texas A&M, Texas, Tennessee and LSU will be losses? Even worse than a total apocalypse, will Auburn win the Iron Bowl? – Ed M.
The short answer is no. I chose the over on 10 wins, but the absolute floor is 10-2. But these are the most probable losses on the schedule, so I’ll rank them in order of which are the most probable:
1. Texas A&M: Maybe a surprising choice, but the Aggies have played Alabama as close as any team over the past two seasons, with each of those meetings ending on the final play of the game. I’m buying that Texas A&M will be improved this season with quarterback Conner Weigman (presumably) under the direction of new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino, and it’s overall roster talent is hard to ignore. And of the other opponents mentioned, it’s the only game on the road.
2. Texas: The difference between Texas and LSU in the No. 2 spot is that Texas falls in Week 2, when early season questions might still linger. It’ll be a particularly good test for Alabama’s defense and if the miscommunication errors from last season are behind it.
3. LSU: The Tigers have star power and enter 2023 with high expectations. I expect another close contest, but Alabama will have a solidified identity by the time these teams meet. Home-field advantage also puts this game lower on the list after last season’s overtime loss in Baton Rouge.
4. Tennessee : Quarterback Joe Milton should fuel an explosive offense, but there are question marks along the offensive line and on defense. This feels like a quintessential revenge game. And I expect defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to have a better game plan for the defensive backs.
As far as Auburn, The Iron Bowl is unpredictable, but I don’t see Alabama losing that game. There are varying levels of what Auburn could be in year one of Hugh Freeze, but even in a successful season, I would pick Alabama.
What should we expect from Chris Braswell in a full-time opportunity? — Drew H.
I can see a scenario where the senior linebacker is in double figures in sacks this season after posting 2.5 in 2022. Braswell generated buzz this camp, both within the program and nationally for his athleticism and ability to get to the quarterback. I expect Steele to drop the outside linebackers in coverage less this season, as Trezmen Marshall’s arrival should fill that void, which frees Steele up to turn Braswell loose. Dallas Turner playing on the other side should create favorable matchups. Braswell also noted earlier in camp that he’s working on becoming stronger against the run and setting the edge. He’s been a productive rotational player, and his confidence is growing. He appears ready for a breakout season.
(Photo of Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)