Tide learn new roles, discover playmakers

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- When the University of Alabama began spring practice in early March, coach Nick Saban was on the lookout for the next Trent Richardson, the new Marquis Maze, the 2012 version of Dre Kirkpatrick.

With so much talent off to careers in the NFL, the Crimson Tide were left with holes at seven of the eight so-called “skill positions.” The playmakers of the past few years were gone and the coaching staff was left to ponder who would step into those roles.

“The whole object of spring practice is to improve your team and to see your team improve and develop,” Saban said on Tuesday during the first stop of the Crimson Caravan in Huntsville. “The whole role of everybody on the team every spring changes. When you lose 23, 24, 25 guys that are seniors, that’s 25 percent of the team that’s turning over or more. A lot of young players are going to get a lot of opportunities. A lot of older players’ role changes. How everybody adjust and adapts to that role and matures in those roles really has a lot to do with defining team chemistry which is really important to being successful.”

On defense, three of four defensive backs needed to be replaced, in addition to the loss of two potential first-round picks at linebacker.

On offense and special teams, the situation was made easier to swallow with quarterback AJ McCarron returning for his junior year under center. Still, the loss of a Heisman Trophy finalist casts a long shadow.

During Saturday’s A-Day scrimmage, Saban caught a glimpse of who might become the next group of playmakers to wear crimson and white, and who could ease the transition at running back. T.J. Yeldon made a splash with the second-team offense running the ball and catching passes out of the backfield, Vinnie Sunseri made a number of big plays at safety and Chris Black and Amari Cooper continued to stand out at receiver.

“Really, the playmakers kind of happen in the spring game,” Saban said. “But I think some of our receivers showed playmaking ability this year, this spring. So did some of our runners. I was pleased with the way that part of our team developed.”

On defense, Saban praised a pair of defensive backs in Sunseri and junior college transfer Deion Belue.

“He had a good spring,” Saban said of Belue. “He’s a good cover guy. We thought he was the best corner in the state when he was a senior in high school and ended up not qualifying. It was our plan to take him out of junior college all along. He did a nice job of developing. He got a little bigger, a little stronger. He had a really good spring for us. He’s going to challenge for a starting position.”

While first-year players like Belue and Cooper tend to grab the headlines because of their novelty, Saban said he usually notices the biggest improvement in players during their sophomore year.

“We had a lot of players get a lot of repetitions and I think they improved a lot,” Saban said. “I think a lot of the freshmen make the biggest jump in improvement from the freshmen year to the second year. I think a lot of guys did that as well which is going to provide a lot of depth on our team and in some cases guys are going to get a lot of opportunity.”

One such second-year player was Brent Calloway. The redshirt freshman has gone from running back to linebacker to H-back in two seasons with the Tide. On Saturday, the former four-star prospect settled into his new role on offense with a couple of catches.

On Tuesday, Saban praised Calloway’s skill set, noting that he has “good hands, good ball skills” and can “run the ball after he catches it.” With Eddie Lacy, Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart and Yeldon firmly entrenched at running back, Saban said he thinks he’s found a good spot to use Calloway.

“We probably have probably some guys that are a little bit more talented as running backs but with his size and his skill set -- with him being an H-back type guy may be a really good fit for him,” Saban said.