Who's Gonn'a Fill Their Shoes?
With spring training winding up for most college football teams, the players will be elated, the coaches will be either happy or deeply concerned and the fans will be delirious after watching the spring games. That event usually indicates that the grueling spring football is over. It is never over for the coaches. They must spend the next week grading the spring game and the entire spring practices. They want to come out of spring with a good idea of who the number ones are, but just as important is who the number two's are. If they don't have a handle on this they feel that much of spring was not a successful process.
Every year seniors graduate. Most fans are in a dither as to how will they possibly find a replacement for those stars that are irreplaceable. We go through this every year just as sure as spring will come and the earth turns green again. There is always someone who has been waiting in the wings to take the mantle left by a superstar. That's what recruiting is for. Nevertheless the worrisome cry of the fans of springs is...
..."WHO'S GONN'A FILL THEIR SHOES"
Statistics mean little! Generally they are the prize of losers. Statistics don't win ball games. Players and coaches do. Alabama and Auburn had no significant statistics to brag about yet Auburn came within seconds of winning the national championship and Alabama came within one second of going to their third straight championship game. There are schools all over the country that are setting records galore but at the end of the day they wind up with a 5-6 record. Troy for instance had a quarterback named Corey Robinson who set every passing record at Troy, even breaking most of the records set by my friend Sim Byrd, who's team won the NAIA National Championship in 1966. What has Troy's record been in the last few years? 5-6, 4-7, 5-6.
So looking at the dearly departed seniors, we will not be very concerned with the records they had.
Alabama has the biggest challenge in that they must replace three year starter A. J. McCarron at quarterback. Well, who's gonn'a fill his shoes. The answer is nobody. There is a platoon of quarterbacks working diligently to become a starter at Alabama, led by McCarron's back-up for the last two years, senior Blake Sims. Sims has the ability to be a starter at most schools, but Coach Nick Saban is not looking for mobility. He is looking for a quarterback that can adequately throw the football, read defenses perfectly, have the leadership qualities to engineer the train flawlessly and keep from losing the game, so that the defense can win it. Does this sound familiar? He also will require of this quarterback one of the most difficult assignments, check off to the right play every time. Now, this is a hard row to hoe for any quarterback. No college or pro quarterback has ever achieved these assignments perfectly. But, as one of the greatest coaches of all time Vince Lombardi said to his players in one of his first meetings with a losing team in Green Bay, "We will strive for perfection and in doing so we shall reach excellence". that they did with a McCarron-like quarterback from Alabama, Montgomery, and Lanier H. S., Bart Starr.
In this writers opinion, Alabama's only serious problem is replacing A. J. McCarron's brain. He was an average passer (check his NFL rating...he will probably go in the third or fourth round and be a career back-up...that's not my opinion...that's what the pro's think...I think that if he gets with the right coach as Bart Starr did, he will be a starter). So, replacing his talent will not be difficult. The platoon of QB's mentioned above all have their strengths and their weakness. It is my opinion that Blake Sims can not do the things Coach Saban wants him to do. So, scratch Sims as the starter. However in this writers opinion, Saban would lose the team if he did not make Blake Sims a big part of the offense. He can install an offensive package that takes advantage of Sim's strengths. And, by doing so, Sims can be designated as a part-time starter. He can play five minutes or he can play twenty minutes, but he must play. Waiting eagerly are sophomores Alex Morris, Parker McLeod, Cooper Bateman and freshman David Cornwell. Promising QB Luke Del Rio transferred to Oregon State the day Coach Lane Kiffin was hired. Scratch all of the above. Alabama's starting quarterback will be a gift from the national championship team. Jacob Coker, the back up quarterback to freshman Jameis Winston (Heisman Trophy winner) at Florida State has seen the handwriting on the wall. He will never play for the Seminoles. His graduation early from Florida State allows him to transfer to any NCAA Division I school and be immediately eligible. Guess who he chose? Nick Saban. Saban is like an ant eater. He is constantly scouring around with his nose to the ground scooping up talent anywhere his nose takes him. This is maybe his best "ant". Jacob Coker will have two years of eligibility. He is probably a better quarterback for Alabama than Winston would have been. He matches almost all the qualities listed above for a Saban quarterback. Good show Nick Saban!
As far as the losses in the offensive and defensive lines, there are equal to better players moving into position. As far as the secondary, which was sub-par last year, will be better because Alabama has better talent to coach. The loss of linebacker C. J. Mosley will be felt in the early games, but Alabama has as much talent at linebacker as its ever had. So, look for the same type team in 2014, with a few wrinkles thrown in by Lane Kiffin.
The Auburn Tigers shocked the football world last year in Gus Malzahn's first year at the helm. Going from 3-9 in 2012 to 10-2 in 2014, and playing for the national championship. This has never been done in the history of NCAA football. Repeating this feat will be difficult for Auburn, not because the Tigers won't be as good as last year. It will be because of a beefed up schedule with most of the "tuffies" on the road. Auburn will actually be a better football team in 2014. Why? Because they have more good players than last year. Coach Gus Malzhan will for the first time in his nine year college coaching career have a returning starting quarterback. This is an amazing fact because at every stop he produced an outstanding quarterback with no starting experience. That's why I call him "Malzhan the Magician". If he doesn't produce with a returning starter, I may have to reexamine my opinion. However, "Mr. Reliable", Nick Marshall will have a year in the Malzhan system and things have never looked brighter on the Plains. There are two departing seniors that will be hard to replace. That's running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson. Robinson will go early in the first round. Defensive end Dee Ford will go late in the first round. Ford will be missed, but Auburn has a lot of good defensive ends to rotate in and out. They don't have a lot of good left tackles to rotate. Robinson meant more to the Auburn offense that we realized. He may be the first offensive tackle taken in the NFL draft on May 8th. Patrick Miller who started at right tackle last year is the most likely heir to the important left tackle spot. The 6-7, 285 lb. junior will have to do a yeomans job. There is no one else that fits.
Tre Mason is the other guy that Auburn will miss. However, their are two running backs with more speed that have had a lot of experience in the Tiger backfield. They are senior Corey Grant, a 5-11, 205 lb. speedster that transferred to Auburn from Alabama three years ago. Then there is senior Cameron Artis-Payne, a 5-11, 215 lb. power back with speed. One of these two will replace Tre Mason. There are a group of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen that may move into one of the backfield positions. Auburn will miss Jay Prosch at fullback, but in Malzhan's system that position can be adequately played by a tight end. Auburn has enough tight ends to choose from. The secondary was terrible last year as well as the linebacking corps, so whoever earns these spots will be an improvement. Auburn will be better. Will their record be better? That's one thing we will just have to see play out as the season goes along.
Earlier in this column statistics were discussed. Troy had a quarterback for four years who put up ridiculous numbers as a passer. Corey Robinson set records that may never be broken at Troy. However, Coach Larry Blakeney is tired of records. He is looking for wins after three sub-par seasons. Brandon Silvers or junior college transfer Dontreal Pruitt will probably guide the Trojans this year, but running back Brandon Burks will probably carry a lot of the load. Coach Blakeney says that he will not abandon the passing offense that he has been running. My guess is that he is drawing up running plays to integrate into the attack while you are reading this column. It is my belief that Troy will play better defense this year and keep the ball on the ground more. That's the kind of football Blakeney cut his teeth on. Go Trojans!
Who's gonn'a fill their shoes? That is what is so great about college football. We really don't know. Be patient. You will know soon enough. August is not far away!