Alabama Crimson Tide football 2017 season preview, breakout stars, players to watch

By The Sports Xchange   |   Aug. 15, 2017 at 7:51 PM
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Alabama has the consensus No. 1 team in the nation, and the best part of the best team is its backfield.

The Tide has stars all over the field -- including defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, who headlines 10 Alabama players ranked among the preseason national top 100 by NFLDraftScout.com -- but it's the backfield depth that is particularly stunning.

Running Back U. -- stretching in the Nick Saban era from Glen Coffee to Mark Ingram Jr. to Trent Richardson to Eddie Lacy to T.J. Yeldon to Derrick Henry -- will be in full effect when Alabama plays Florida State in an epic college football season-opener on Sept. 2 in Atlanta.

Pick a headliner: Is it powerful Bo Scarbrough, healthy again after suffering a broken leg in the national title game? Is it Damien Harris, who rushed for 1,037 yards on 146 carries last season? Is it five-star freshman Najee Harris?

Don't forget that Josh Jacobs ran for 567 yards as a true freshman last season. And true freshman Brian Robinson Jr., a top 100 recruit, might yet find a way to factor into the mix as a versatile, big back.

Coach Nick Saban says Harris can be a "dominant player," but it was the oft-injured Scarbrough who stole the spotlight late last season in a brief window of full health. He rushed 63 times for 454 yards and six touchdowns in the final four games against the stout defenses of Auburn, Florida, Washington and Clemson.

Good news for the Tide is the burly Scarbrough (6-foot-2 and 235 pounds) has been fine in camp, recovering from his injury against Clemson.

"I'm feeling pretty good. My legs feel good," he said after the first week of camp. "I'm feeling pretty great right now."

He's ready to turn the page from the loss in the national title game.

"That's something that I can't go back and speak on," he said. "That book is closed. So, I'm only focused on what's going on now and not the past."

How the coaching staff will juggle all these running backs is something of a mystery as first-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll puts a new spin on the offense while Alabama moves on from the play-calling of Lane Kiffin. In Daboll's preseason media availability, he talked about installing a variety of new plays.

Maybe that means more downfield passing with improving quarterback Jalen Hurts and star wide receiver Calvin Ridley. Perhaps it means a stop-me-if-you-can ground game. The Tide can't go wrong leaning on its running backs and a talented offensive line, led by center Bradley Bozeman, guard Ross Pierschbacher and sophomore Jonah Williams, emerging as the Tide's next great left tackle.

"I don't call it competition. I call it creation," Scarbrough said of the running back depth chart. "We're all on the same team and trying to help each other out."

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Jalen Hurts -- He took Alabama to the national title game as a true freshman, winning SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors, which are huge accomplishments. But his room to grow was evident at the end of the season, when he completed only 31 of 65 passes for 326 yards in the final three games. "The goal was stated many times before that we wanted to improve his ability to be more efficient, effective, confident passer," coach Nick Saban said at the start of fall camp. Hurts has been in control in camp, showing better leadership and confidence as a passer as he works on his mid-range accuracy and deep throws. Not only will that improvement help unlock the full potential of the Tide's offense, but Hurts' value is further seen when noting that Alabama has two true freshmen behind him on the depth chart.

BREAKOUT STAR: LB Rashaan Evans -- The senior didn't make his first career start until last season's College Football Playoff, subbing in nicely for the injured Shaun Dion Hamilton. Evans made seven tackles against Washington and 11 stops vs. Clemson, giving him enough confidence that in February he tweeted, "I'll win the Butkus Award." Becoming the nation's best linebacker is a big goal, but he does appear poised for a huge season lining up next to Hamilton at inside linebacker. Alabama's first scrimmage was closed to the media, but reports were that Evans was dominant.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: WR Jerry Jeudy -- So much to choose from, as Alabama had the nation's top-ranked class, but the 'Bama buzz started particularly early with Jeudy, who was MVP of the A-Day spring game, when he caught five passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. The five-star recruit already reminds many of teammate Calvin Ridley. Jeudy (6-1, 187) might not be in the starting lineup -- look for Ridley, Robert Foster and Cam Sims -- but he'll be a big-play option in Alabama's attack.

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DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, a returning consensus All-American, has practiced at every spot in the Alabama secondary during camp. He has lined up at corner, safety, star (nickel back) and money (a sixth defensive back who replaces the middle linebacker in some formations). Where he ends up in the starting lineup likely depends on where he is needed most after the coaches see how other defensive backs are stepping up at their respective positions.

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OL Alex Leatherwood, a five-star true freshman, has been working as a backup at right and left tackle in camp. Another true freshman tackle, Jedrick Wills, has been getting reps as a backup right tackle, with coach Nick Saban saying, "We think both of those guys have potential to help us."

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RB B.J. Emmons left a crowded backfield and transferred to Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College in the summer.

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RB Josh Jacobs was dealing with a hamstring injury midway through camp that kept him out of the first scrimmage.

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