That front seven of the Tide should be the nation's best, and the defense as a whole could be elite. Who should Badgers fans know about, and what type of skill sets do the key players on that D provide?The Wisconsin Badgers and Alabama Crimson Tide are only TWO days from squaring off at AT&T Stadium on Saturday evening.
During the spring, we spoke with Roll 'Bama Roll's Erik Evans about what was seen during the spring sessions and how the Tide would replace the likes of Blake Sims and Amari Cooper. He graciously spoke with B5Q again regarding how Alabama shapes up heading into Dallas.
We last spoke in the spring concerning Alabama's spring "A-Day." Have there been any big updates since then?
EE: The biggest updates we have out of camp are two-fold (aside from quarterbacks, which I will touch on below.)
First, aside from some nicks and scrapes and stress-related injuries, everyone seems to have emerged from Saban's notoriously physical fall camp intact. This is a big deal for a team that cannot have injuries at key positions where youth and depth are a concern (cornerback, running back come to mind.)
The second major update concerns the contributions of freshmen in every phase of the game. Saban has never shied away from playing young guys early, and this season a ton of kids will see immediate playing time. The following is by no means inclusive, it is merely illustrative: Wide receivers Daylon Charlot and Calvin Ridley have made the rotation in some fashion, Freshman safety Ronnie Harrison has cracked the two-deep, Freshman DB Minkah Fitzpatrick not only made the two-deep but will be the starting Money CB (dime corner,) as well as play some backup FS. The nation's No. 1 RB in 2015, Damien Harris, is listed as third on the depth chart, but given the many roles that Kenyan Drake will fill, he is all-but assured heavy reps a la Trent Richardson in 2009. Then there's freshman safety Shawn Burgess-Becker, who by all accounts is a special teams terror.
Rumors of Alabama's imminent demise were a little premature, methinks.
The quarterback situation is quite interesting for Alabama now, especially with a slew of contenders in the mix. Who do you think Wisconsin will see come Saturday?
EE: It was sort of a joke when Saban trotted out a depth chart with Morris/Coker/Bateman as the three Co-No. 1 starters. If you pressed me, I say that all three actually see some action. Coker and Morris have the biggest arms on the team, with Morris having a bit more command of the offense and inspiring a bit more confidence. However, all news from camp is that Bateman is a little more accurate, knows the offense better than anyone, and, in the right situation, could have a great season. I suspect Coker gets the first drive, then Morris, then Bateman. Thereafter is anyone's guess. Even as recently as last season's Iron Bowl, Saban was willing to pull Sims for Coker. With such a razor-thin margin between the three, one series' difference could literally mean a season on the bench.
Regarding the skill positions who do you see giving Wisconsin problems from both running back and wide receiver?
EE: Owing to injuries and ineligibility, Alabama does not have the depth that it ordinarily does in the backfield. If there is any one thing that could give the Badgers fits, it's the vastly different styles of the three players that will see the field and how offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin schemes to get his mismatches. Derrick Henry is a monster, nearly impossible to tackle in the open field, surprisingly good breakaway speed, and soft hands. I don't want to say "protypical Wisconsin back" but that is a compliment here and is an apt one. Kenyan Drake is the Tide's home run threat. Every time he gets a touch, he can go the distance and in fact also plays slot WR for this reason. His hands, speed and ability to put opponents in mismatches makes those packages a tough out. True freshman Damien Harris is a true bowling ball in the mold of Mark Ingram: hits the hole violently, changes directions easily, and is built like a tank -- he's just a bruiser.
The wide receiving corps represent a challenge mainly in the fact that they are a tall group, by and large, and incredibly deep. Alabama goes 1-11 at wide out, and few teams have recruited as well, and that's across a wide variety of positions too: slot, flanker, wide out, situational receivers, etc. Specifically, ArDarius Stewart's ability to find an open spot and come back to the ball, as well as Robert Foster's and Chris Black's imposing physicality at the LOS and speed should be of particular concern. That said, too much focus on the outside, and Oregon State transfer Richard Mullaney may prove to be the most lethal weapon the Badgers face.
How has Alabama's offensive line shaped up during fall camp?
EE: The offensive line has actually not changed very much from spring. Protecting Alabama's five quarterbacks on the blindside will be Freshman All-American Cam Robinson -- an absolute rock. He missed three passing assignments total as a true freshman last season. Center will be manned by preseason All-SEC and third-year starter Ryan Kelly. The right tackle slot will see Dominick Jackson step into fill Austin Shepherd's vacated role. Of many quiet successes for Alabama, plug-and-play dominant right tackle has been a revelation under Saban. Jackson is good one. Left guard is held down by top Iowa recruit Ross Pierschbacher, though not as long as outgoing Arie Kouandjio, is far more imposing at the point of attack. The only real battle was (as it's been since 2013) at right guard, where the oft-penalized manbeast Leon Brown seems to have taken control of the position over a more versatile Bradley Bozeman. Expect to see both play this season, however.
That front seven of the Tide should be the nation's best, and the defense as a whole could be elite. Who should Badgers fans know about, and what type of skill sets do the key players on that D provide?
EE: Alabama fans have been fairly sanguine this offseason, but this could be a special year. The Tide go legitimately nine-deep on the defensive line with blue-chippers, and feature a nice mix of young huge gap-fillers (Daron Payne,) two-gap guys with the flexibility to move inside-out (All-American A'Shawn Robinson, for instance,) edge-rush guys (Dalvin Tomlinson, Jonathan Allen,) run-pass option stoppers and backfield terrors (Jarran Reed, DJ Pettway.) If by chance the Badgers somehow make hay against those guys, the line backing corps is led by All-American Reggie Ragland, nasty hitters like Shawn Dion Hamilton and Reuben Foster, and edge rushers such as Rashaan Evans. This will be the best defense in the nation if the corners hold up.
Final score -- what goes down in "Big D?"
EE: Given Wisconsin's rebuild on the offensive line, the loss of a special guy like Melvin Gordon, the partisan Alabama crowd, the mismatch in physicality on both sides of the ball, and an unsteady Stave who took an unnecessary step back last season, I just don't see a very competitive final score. Admittedly, this score will not be reflective of how hard the first quarter or so is up front, but Alabama is just too deep, too talented, too experienced and will grind down the Badgers after settling in -- no matter who plays quarterback. 38-6.
On a personal note, we at RBR have been talking with you Badger fans and mods for nigh on six months now. There is universal agreement: It is impossible to hate a team with an identity you respect so much and with such knowledgeable and polite fans. We thank you for the interactions, and you're more than welcome to come over to our place to have a virtual drink and talk football anytime (unlike some of your conference brethren.)