TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—Chris Black isn’t afraid to state the obvious. The Alabama redshirt junior knows what his fellow wide receivers think during position meetings in the school’s Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility. He knows because he has been asking himself the same question since the end of last season.
Can I be the next Amari Cooper?
“I’m sure each and every guy in the back of his head wants to be that guy,” Black says. “I know I do.”
Black makes this admission with a shrug while sitting in an office chair in the Crimson Tide’s football office. It’s no secret that each of the program’s receivers hopes to become the next big thing, whether they say so or not. That’s good, as Black and company should have plenty of chances to prove themselves this fall.
Cooper is one of three departing starters from the Tide’s 2014 receiving corps. The Heisman Trophy finalist formed a formidable trio last year with DeAndrew White and Christion Jones, hauling in a combined 183 catches for 2,495 yards. This spring the receivers have been a microcosm of the offense, a group in need of new playmakers. This fall might bring one of Bama's biggest rebuilding jobs under Nick Saban, and the SEC West is nipping at its heels.
Last month the Crimson Tide kicked off spring practice with only two returning offensive starters: linemen Ryan Kelly and Cam Robinson. The bulk of last season’s attack, which finished second in the SEC in scoring offense (36.9 points per game), was gone. That group, led by first-year coordinator Lane Kiffin, helped Bama win the SEC and reach the first College Football Playoff. It also signaled a philosophical shift. Kiffin ushered in an up-tempo approach and a passing game tailor-made for quarterback Blake Sims and Cooper. That constituted a deviation from the ground-and-pound style that defined past Tide contenders.
The change worked. Bama rolled Missouri 42-13 for the SEC title last December before losing to eventual national champion Ohio State 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl. After the Tide won the SEC, Saban credited the offensive transformation. “If we didn't do it, I don't think we'd be here where we are right now,” he said.
Maintaining the momentum won’t be easy. Along with losing its top three receivers, Alabama is without Sims and starting tailback T.J. Yeldon. Three senior offensive line starters are gone, too: Austin Shepherd, Arie Kouandjio and Leon Brown.
The mass exodus was no surprise to the Crimson Tide. But the offense still struggled to jell in the early part of spring practice.
“We overcame some adversity at first,” junior tight end O.J. Howard says. “We played kind of slow. I felt like some guys just tried to fill out their role and figure out where they’re playing in this offense. But we don’t want that on our team. We want guys to go play our best no matter what their role is.”
That uncertainty on offense has forced returning veterans to take on leadership roles. Running back Derrick Henry was more vocal this spring following a stellar sophomore season backing up Yeldon. The 6’3”, 245-pound Henry led the Tide in rushing in 2014 (990 yards) and has 26 career games under his belt. As far as teammates are concerned, the stocky back is a returning starter. “He’s paid his dues around here and earned respect,” Black says, “so we all listen to him.”
Kelly also took charge on the offensive line. As spring practice began, the redshirt senior reminded others that last year’s offense wasn’t perfect. Alabama looked sluggish in early wins over West Virginia (33-23 on Aug. 30) and Florida (42-21 on Sept. 20). It also lost at Ole Miss on Oct. 4 due, in large part, to turnovers. The Tide didn’t start firing on all cylinders until midway through the season. That’s why Kelly and his teammates have vowed to focus on consistency this time around.
“Last year we didn’t start playing 11-as-one until probably after Arkansas [on Oct. 11],” Kelly says. “We realized that as a team, and it’s one of the things we went over after the season. We have to start coming together earlier. That was one of the emphases this spring, coming together as one.”
Alabama closed spring practice with its A-Day scrimmage on April 18, but its offense enters the summer facing questions. Saban didn’t name Sims’s successor under center despite a five-man race starting to unfold. Jake Coker and David Cornwell earned control of the first- and second-team offenses on A-Day, and many expected Coker—who backed up Sims last fall—to finally deliver on his hype and grab the starting job this spring. But after A-Day Saban said the race will continue into the fall, noting that Coker did a “good job” with the first team.
Alabama’s receivers could make the quarterback’s job easier if a clear No. 1 option emerges. Kiffin has a history of favoring his top target, a trend that made stars out of USC’s Marqise Lee in 2012 and Cooper last season. Cooper set a school and SEC single-season record with 124 catches en route to the Biletnikoff Award in ’14.
But Alabama may lack a Cooper-like threat on its roster. “Those guys are one in a—I don’t know how many,” Kelly says of Cooper. A more evenly distributed attack could better suit Black, Robert Foster and ArDarius Stewart, the team’s primary options at wideout. Foster and Stewart shared A-Day MVP honors after combining to make 14 catches for 143 yards with two scores. Meanwhile, five-star recruit Calvin Ridley could add an extra dimension upon his arrival on campus.
“It probably won’t happen to one guy,” Howard says. “It might happen to three guys that can be as good. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens. I’d rather have a group. A group would be unstoppable.”
This summer Henry, Kelly and the rest of the offensive leaders plan to organize player-run workouts. They’ll include team runs and weightlifting, as well as 7-on-7 exercises. Coaches won’t be around to supervise, but that’s the point, Kelly says: True leaders are established in the months when the roster is responsible for itself. That’s how the Tide hope to avoid a drop-off on offense. It’s also how Kelly plans to carry over the instructions Alabama’s coaches delivered after A-Day.
“The message in the locker room was that we’ve done a lot of great things up to this point,” Kelly says. “We’ve made a lot of progress in the three or four weeks we’ve been out here. So, let’s just keep building on that.”
Wisconsin (in Arlington, Texas)
at Texas A&M
at Mississippi State