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Friday, January 18, 2013
Offseason storylines: Position battles

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. -- Spring practice is roughly two months away. The start of another Alabama title defense is right around the corner.

Nine early enrollees are already on campus. The offseason conditioning program is in full swing. Rest assured Scott Cochran, the Crimson Tide's raucous strength and conditioning coach, has put the 2012-13 championship to bed. Inside the football offices, the page has been turned. The time for competition is now.

With that in mind, let's break down the four most intriguing position battles set to unfold over the coming months.

Derrick Henry
Derrick Henry should be a factor for getting carries behind T.J. Yeldon.
Finding a No. 2 at quarterback, tailback: There will be plenty of attention paid to the backups this preseason. While quarterback AJ McCarron's job isn't in doubt and running back T.J. Yeldon is the unquestioned lead running back, one has to wonder who rises up behind them on the depth chart. Blake Sims served as McCarron's primary backup this past season, but he was never quite the clear-cut No. 2. He was a specialty tool for offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, a change of pace running the read option. Phillip Ely, the more traditional pocket passer, couldn't win the job and if the redshirt freshman wants it in 2013, he'll have plenty of competition on his hands. Rookie Alec Morris will have the redshirt off his back and a trio of incoming freshmen (Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod, Luke Del Rio) don't figure to resign themselves to the bottom of the depth chart.

Who they hand the ball off to is up in the air. While there are plenty of options to back up Yeldon, there isn't a leader in the clubhouse. Freshman Kenyan Drake showed plenty of potential last season and could do even better with a year under his belt. The return of Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart from knee injuries muddles the picture, however. Fowler could be a factor at H-back and Hart, who is coming off his second major knee surgery in as many years, is a big question mark. Throw in the supremely talented incoming freshman Derrick Henry into the equation and anything is possible.

Setting the wide receiver rotation: Mike Groh might want to remind himself you can't have too much of a good thing. But pardon the wide receivers coach if he doesn't look carefree. He'll be tasked with corralling a talented cast of wideouts. Studying the depth chart, it looks like only Amari Cooper's starting job is guaranteed. Kevin Norwood is likely to remain a starter, but will Christion Jones? Former starter DeAndrew White will look to take back his job after rehabbing an injured knee that cost him most of last season.

The speedy Kenny Bell will return, too, as will talented freshman Chris Black, whom Saban said would have contributed last season had it not been for a shoulder injury he sustained during fall camp. Overall, there are eight legitimate receiving threats when you count in backups Marvin Shinn and Cyrus Jones. Both freshmen stand to improve with another year of experience under their belt. Class of 2013 commitments Robert Foster, the No. 1 wideout in the ESPN 150, and Raheem Falkins, a lanky four-star prospect from Louisiana, won't be on campus for spring camp but will have a chance to show their stuff when fall practice begins.

The man in the middle: By the numbers, you wouldn't say that replacing Jesse Williams at nose guard is the most pivotal position battle of the offseason. But when you study Saban's 3-4 defense, you might come to a different conclusion. The nose guard, the man in the middle of the defensive line, is the lynchpin to Alabama's success, eating blocks to free up the rest of the defense to make plays. Williams worked the position to near perfection, helping the Crimson Tide to the number one scoring defense for the second season in a row. With the hulking Aussie off to the NFL, Saban must find a new cornerstone for his defense. Brandon Ivory was the No. 2 nose guard for most of the season and could be considered the front-runner entering spring camp. But talented freshman Darren Lake, who comes in at 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds, will have his say. He earned some early playing time last season and will benefit from another offseason in Cochran's weight room. Keep an eye on William Ming and Dakota Ball. With no incumbent starter, the job could be taken by anyone.

Keeping McCarron upright: The first position battle on this list will mean a lot more if Alabama can't figure out who will replace D.J. Fluker at right tackle. Luckily for offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, he'll have a few options to choose from. Sophomore Austin Shepherd and junior Kellen Williams were the second-string right and left tackles, respectively. Shepherd played well in relief and has the frame (6-foot-5, 312 pounds) to hold up against SEC defenses. But the wildcards are rookies Leon Brown and Brandon Hill, who both enrolled this month. Brown was the second-highest ranked junior college lineman according to ESPN. Whenever Alabama signs a juco prospect, expect him to play. With only two years to contribute, wasting a scholarship isn't an option. Hill, who had to go the prep school route to get to Tuscaloosa, has a high upside. He's raw and needs some fine-tuning, especially in the weight room. The 6-foot-6 prospect is listed at 350 pounds but has been rumored to reach as high as 390 pounds at times. He'll likely benefit from a more structured environment at Alabama, a la Terrence Cody and Andre Smith, who both have battled their weight. Should five-star recruit Laremy Tunsil sign with Alabama, the possibility of three rookies competing for the job at right tackle might very well come to fruition.