Today we kick off our weeklong series examining how each team in the SEC performed on national signing day. Up first: the defending conference and national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
Biggest need heading into signing day: Yeah, they were given a trophy saying they were the best offensive line in college football last season, but awards are imperfect. Alabama’s O-line, in fact, wasn’t its usual self in 2015, allowing nine more sacks than in 2014 and the most sacks since 2010. What’s more, the Crimson Tide ranked a mediocre 33rd nationally in the rate of rushes that went for zero or negative yards. With center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Dominick Jackson gone, and understanding that you can never have enough quality linemen in the SEC, getting more talent in the trenches on offense was important for coach Nick Saban and his staff.
How it was addressed: It’s not often you get to recruit your offensive tackle of the future and your offensive tackle for the here and now in the same class. But that’s exactly what Alabama did, starting with Charles Baldwin, the No. 1-ranked junior college player in the country, whom coaches expect to contribute right away, sliding into the spot vacated by Jackson. Jonah Williams may take a little longer to adjust to the college game coming from high school, but the No. 3-rated offensive tackle in the 2016 class has huge upside, prompting Saban to call him “one of the most athletic guys we saw out their in recruiting.” To even things out and address the interior of the line, Alabama also signed top-10-rated guards Chris Owens and Deonte Brown.
Position of strength: Though the O-line is where Alabama did its best, for the sake of addressing the rest of the class let’s talk about the linebacker group here. After all, it’s hard to not be impressed with the work the coaching staff did, getting undecided No. 1-rated inside linebacker Ben Davis and No. 5-rated outside linebacker Mack Wilson to commit on signing day. And with starters Dillon Lee and Reggie Ragland headed to the NFL, they could be called on to contribute early. Sure, that’s a lot to ask to of true freshmen, but don’t rule anything out. When asked about Davis and Wilson, Saban said the goal was to “teach those guys as much as we can as soon as we can because this is a position where we’ve had lots of guys in the past contribute as freshmen,” citing Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson.
Biggest remaining question mark: Of the four stud running backs Alabama signed in 2013, only Derrick Henry stuck around through 2015. Now that he’s off to the NFL, along with 2012 signee Kenyan Drake, what’s left is a backfield that is thin and inexperienced. Saban tried to address it in this year’s class with No. 1-rated B.J. Emmons and late-bloomer Joshua Jacobs, a three-star recruit, but even that may not be enough. And Saban knows it, telling reporters on Wednesday that they’ll be on the “lookout” for another back, whether that’s a late signee or a graduate transfer.