Editor's note: TideNation will use this week to look at the four major positions on the football field and how their outlook has changed post-spring practice. Today we examine the threats in the passing game:
AJ McCarron is a happy man these days, and not just because he gets to drive the pace car at Talladega. The senior quarterback is smiling, in part, because of the number of weapons he'll have to work with this coming season.
His favorite target, former fab freshman Amari Cooper, is back for another season, as his go-to guy in crunch time, Kevin Norwood. Cooper set all kinds of rookie records last season, surpassing Julio Jones' marks for receptions (59), yards (1,000) and touchdowns (11).
Should Christion Jones hold on to the slot position, it will mean that all three of McCarron's starters will remain unchanged from last season where he threw for 30 touchdowns and just shy of 3,000 yards.
The only place where things will be different for the Heisman hopeful is at tight end, where Brian Vogler takes over for Michael Williams. McCarron has plenty of familiarity with Vogler, though, as the 6-foot-7 junior started three games last season. He will start opposite Harrison Jones at H-back, though the two could flip positions much like what happened in the championship game against Notre Dame.
It wasn't that long ago that Chris Black was being promised as the breakout wide receiver of the 2012 class, ahead of the yet undiscovered Amari Cooper. The speedster from Jacksonville, Fla., had a solid spring and appeared ready to make an instant impact when a shoulder injury cost him the season. But that was then, and after a year of waiting Black is 100 percent. Now we'll get to see just what he can do with the ball in his hands. He may even be capable of challenging for a starting job.
Raheem Falkins is going to look back on his decision to enroll early and be thankful he made it. Had he enrolled during the summer, he would have faced a stacked depth chart and a likely redshirt season. Instead, he got to spring practice with an opportunity because of Cyrus Jones' and Christion Jones' experiments on defense, Marvin Shinn's impending transfer and DeAndrew White's continued use of a black no-contact jersey during practice. Falkins made the most of his chance, catching on quickly while showing the type of speed and quickness that belies his 6-foot-4 frame. With his unique size, he could have a niche in the offense right away.
It's been a long time coming, but Alabama finally has the playmaking tight end on campus it's been missing since Nick Saban arrived in 2007. O.J. Howard, the former No. 2 tight end prospect in the country, enrolled early in January and showed why he's being billed as a game-changer on offense. Big, tall and fast, Howard has all the athleticism to stretch a defense and the hands to make it all count. He'll likely start out at H-back, but look for offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to move him around a bit to play with the coverage.
Most likely to make an impact: He might not need to play, but if an injury arises the staff has to feel good about having the No. 2 wide receiver prospect in the country available off the bench. Robert Foster, a four-star product of Pennsylvania, will join the Tide this summer, when he'll have an uphill battle facing him in terms of seeking out playing time. But if there's a guy talented enough to do it, it's him.
Also arriving: ArDarius Stewart (No. 18 ATH)
It's important to remember what Alabama's offense looked like two years ago. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks were the veteran receivers and Brad Smelley was second on the team in receptions at tight end. Everything revolved around the running game and McCarron was fairly labeled a manager of the offense. The offense was effective, but it failed to inspire fear in opponents.
My oh my how things have changed. The offense grew leaps and bounds last year with the emergence of Cooper, and this season promises to be more of the same with new weapons such as Howard and depth at nearly every position. Jalston Fowler could be a threat at H-back, Malcolm Faciane could emerge at tight end and there are more playmakers at wide receiver than there are spots available. White, Kenny Bell and Black would be starters elsewhere. Instead they'll likely begin the season as backups on the depth chart.
McCarron and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have plenty of tools to attack the defense with. Now all they have to do is figure out how to use them all effectively.