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Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Offseason storylines: The wounded return

By Alex Scarborough

Editor's note: The season is over and the Alabama Crimson Tide are national champions yet again. But what happens next? TideNation examines the most pressing storylines of the offseason as the Tide gear up for another title defense.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Often the one thing standing between a team and a berth in the national championship is health. The quarterback or running back might fall and the season quickly circles the drain. There's nothing to be done about it. Sometimes the ball just bounces the wrong way.

Luckily for the University of Alabama, the ball careened a few times but never hit any irreplaceable parts. Several talented players who were injured and replaced can now enjoy a championship ring -- but their offseason now revolves around finding playing time on a roster that won a title without their help.

It's easy to forget the year's injuries because AJ McCarron never missed a game. Neither did Eddie Lacy or any of the starting offensive linemen. In fact, none of the defensive linemen were out for a significant stretch of time, a remarkable feat when you consider the league they played in.

But substitutes elsewhere made valuable contributions, because Alabama didn't make it through the season without the injury bug making the rounds. Several potential contributors were knocked out for the season before SEC play got underway. Reserve cornerback Jarrick Williams and backup receiver Chris Black were lost for the year in camp. Running backs Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart and starting receiver DeAndrew White suffered season-ending knee injuries before the bye week. To top it off, Kenny Bell, Alabama's best deep threat at receiver, broke his leg against Auburn.

All six players are expected to be back in time for spring camp. During postseason practices, the media got a glimpse of their progress. Black was a full-go and could have played if not for the staff's desire to redshirt him. Williams and Bell participated in drills, albeit in no-contact jerseys, while White, Hart and Fowler rehabbed in shorts during bowl prep.

In their absence, other players stepped up and contributed, begging the question: Where will they fit upon their return?

Did White lose his starting job when freshman Amari Cooper emerged as the go-to receiver? Can Hart compete in an already crowded backfield after two knee operations? Will Fowler remain at running back or is he best suited elsewhere? And what about Black and Bell at receiver? Can they break into a rotation with three experienced starters already in the fold?

Luckily for Hart, there isn't a running back with his particular skill set on the roster. The 190-pound redshirt freshman is a scat back with the potential to contribute on third down as a threat catching passes out of the backfield. Considering the loss of Lacy, he's also one of the most experienced tailbacks on the roster. His knowledge of protection schemes will give him a leg up on the competition.

Fowler could wind up playing H-back before it's all said and done. The 242-pound junior played the position some before he went down against Western Kentucky and has the skill set coach Nick Saban likes -- someone who reminds him of former LSU great Jacob Hester with a mixture of strength, speed and pass-catching ability who might supplement a lack of production at tight end.

Bell, Black and White face a conundrum at receiver many of the running backs can understand -- there are almost too many options. Cooper, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones solidified their starting jobs, and Marvin Shinn and Cyrus Jones both performed ably in the two-deep. White may not have a starting job to come back to in spring camp, and while Black was thought of as a guy who could play a significant role as a rookie before the season began, he'll have even more competition on his hands this go around.

Williams should find a home in the secondary if he can get back to 100 percent. Unlike running back or receiver, Alabama has a need for good cover guys in the secondary. With the loss of Dee Milliner and Robert Lester to the draft, the roster is thin at safety and cornerback, and the coaching staff will likely be looking for the right combination of players in nickel and dime situations for next season. Given the way coaches rotated Williams in at safety during bowl practice rather than holding him out for extra rehabilitation, it stands to reason he'll have a chance to compete for significant playing time.

But, as with all the aforementioned players, much of what happens in 2013 depends on their health. Hart has shown a propensity to get hurt, but for many others their injuries were the first of their careers. Staying injury-free is the first order of business, then comes the competition.