Alabama football started preseason practices this week for the 2022 season, but 2021 sure has been discussed a lot the past few days.
Coach Nick Saban, whether he meant to or not, sent college football discourse into a spiral when he joined WJOX radio Wednesday and said that Alabama had “kind of a rebuilding year” in 2021.
Some found that outrageous. After all, Alabama reached the College Football Playoff championship. Meanwhile, others understood the coaching challenge Saban had in 2021. Georgia coach Kirby Smart knew. He told Saban as much after the national championship.
Call 2021 a rebuild if you want. Or don’t. Frankly, it doesn’t matter much.
Either label won’t change the outcome of last season. Alabama did not win a national championship, and that’s the high standard used in this dynasty no matter who’s on the roster.
So, it’s on to 2022.
“We’ve got a lot of things to work on,” senior linebacker Henry To’oTo’o said Friday. “But we’re super excited about the players we have, the opportunities that we have to live the Alabama standard and create the identities we want.”
The Crimson Tide’s five-star cupboard certainly is far less bare than most teams. Alabama has arguably the best player in the country on each side of the ball back in quarterback Bryce Young and linebacker Will Anderson Jr. plus plenty of other talented pieces.
But there are also areas of the roster that could become problematic if not properly addressed.
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“Bryce Young is a great player, a great leader, a great quarterback,” Saban said at SEC Media Days. “But quarterback is also a position that may be one of the most difficult positions in all of sports to play if you’re not surrounded by good people. So the challenge for us is to make sure we do an outstanding job of developing the players around him so that we can continue to be a very productive offensive team.”
That starts with the offensive line.
Gone is the best player from an offensive line that was an overall weak spot in 2021. Evan Neal’s departure to the NFL leaves a colossal opening at left tackle. Plus, Alabama needs to shore up other spots on the offensive line. Saban said he wants a different mentality from the group in toughness and effort.
“Coach has challenged myself and a couple of older guys in the room so we have leadership on the offensive line,” guard Emil Ekiyor Jr. said. “He felt like last year, leadership might not have been where it was supposed to be, so I took that challenge upon myself to just push everybody to be their best and just set the example.”
Tight end is another area of potential concern. It already wasn’t expected to be a position of strength heading into the season, and now Cameron Latu is going to miss some time with an undisclosed injury.
Also, there’s the receiver group. It re-tooled with new talent, but it still has a lot to prove. There’s no guarantee it picks up right where Jameson Williams and John Metchie III left off.
On the defensive line, someone will need to step up as a pass rusher with Phidarian Mathis off to the NFL. There will be a new linebacker next to To’oTo’o, and the cornerbacks need to develop. Saban said the corners’ growth will be critical to Alabama’s success.
Maybe 2021 was a rebuild. Maybe it wasn’t. Either way, the Crimson Tide still has plenty to build this season if it wants to win a national championship.