For a moment Monday — perhaps for a fleeting second — things almost felt what we once knew as normal.
It was game week in Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban was about to step to his soda bottle podium with a car logo’d mic in front of an LED board flashing ads and we were going to talk football. And in a tradition like many others, the coveted first depth chart was distributed mere seconds before Saban took his spot.
Only this time it came by email, Saban spoke over Zoom and Labor Day was two weeks ago.
Our favorite conjunction moved the needle back to traditional times.
The first 2020 Alabama depth chart include the word “or” 27 times, the two-letter substitute for a slash and the indication further decisions were to come. The entire punting unit was separated by an or so it’s still a battle between freshman Sam Johnson, grad transfer Charlie Scott and returning part-time starter Ty Perine.
In a routine year, we’d parse over this now-digital document for every possible nugget or observation and we’re striving for routine, so let’s do this.
To begin, as expected by everyone online, Mac Jones was alone atop the quarterback listing. Bryce Young is a solid No. 2 and continues to get strong reviews from everyone inside.
“It comes naturally for him,” receiver DeVonta Smith said Monday. “He’s been doing great. Just a few things the offense has to get better at, and we’re working on that. But he’s learning very well.”
Jones just has the confidence, experience and intangibles to stand on top of the depth chart Week 1.
There are a few moving parts to the offensive line, also not a big surprise with how Saban was talking. Landon Dickerson and Chris Owens were co-first-teamers at center with Emil Ekiyor at starting right guard. There’s room for movement on the interior with Alex Leatherwood and Evan Neal solid at the two tackles.
And at receiver, John Metchie was the third starter along with Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith.
“John Metchie got to play some last year and I think as he continues to progress and, you know, some of the younger players are creating a lot of competition for that position,” Saban said Monday. “Those guys are going to be a bit of a work in progress as we go through the season in terms of their ability to improve, but we need them to be able to become what we would call consistent performers as starters, when we need them, because I think depth at that position is really something that we need to continue to work to develop.”
Those newcomers include Javon Baker and Traeshon Holden, co-second-teamers behind Smith and Thaiu Jones Bell, a backup with an or alongside Xavier Williams behind Metchie.
It gets more interesting on the defensive side of the ball.
That’s where the true freshmen made more of a dent on the top of the charts.
Will Anderson has received the most preseason buzz and was listed as the first-team Jack (outside) linebacker. All-American middle linebacker Dylan Moses is certainly impressed with Anderson.
“He actually reminds me of myself when he first came in just with being already physically ready to be on the college level,” Moses said Monday. “So I expect great things from him this year.”
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Malachi Moore and Brian Branch, also true freshmen, were co-starters at the fifth defensive back position known as the Star.
“They were able to learn and grow in the system very quickly,” Saban said. “And we needed some players to come through as young players in certain positions and these two guys certainly did that and did a very good job. So, I’m sure this first game is going to be a challenge in terms of their opportunity to go out there and stay focused on doing their job and we’re going to help them every way that we can so that they can play well.”
The Jack position is notable since Anderson’s backup is listed as Drew Sanders, also a true freshman.
Only two other newcomers made the two-deep including nose guard Tim Smith (co-backup with redshirt freshman Ishmael Sopsher) and Theodore grad Demouy Kennedy (backup middle linebacker along with Joshua McMillon and Ale Kaho).
Middle linebacker has depth after Moses and McMillon went down with 2019 knee injuries and were replaced by Christian Harris and Shane Lee. Well, Harris retained his starting job next to Moses while Lee is a co-backup along with Jaylen Moody at the other spot.
There’s more experience up front with LaBryan Ray back from injury, DJ Dale healthy at nose guard and a three-way tie at the other DE position including sophomore Justin Eboigbe, third-year sophomore Christian Barmore and fourth-year junior Phidarian Mathis.
Experience will not be a strength in the secondary though Branch and Moore would be the only first-year players in the mix. Daniel Wright is in his fourth season with the Tide, playing reserve roles before being named starter at safety. He made eight tackles in 13 games last year. Next to him at the other safety spot will be Jordan Battle, a sophomore who started four games last year.
These two will have to replace veterans Xavier McKinney and Jared Mayden who knew the defense on an instinctive level and could direct traffic in the secondary. Patrick Surtain is the only returning starter at cornerback with Josh Jobe taking over full time opposite him.
No real surprises in the special teams units. Will Reichard is again the starting kicker after hurting his hip as a true freshman while the punting race, as mentioned above remains unresolved.
Waddle is the punt returner along with DeVonta Smith while Brian Robinson and Hueytown freshman Roydell Williams also made the list.
If you’re counting, that’s 15 true freshmen who were listed on the depth chart. Two are penciled in as starters.
Beyond that, everything will only have shades of pre-2020 standards.
Depth is even more important this fall because you never know when a positive test can trigger a contact tracing domino effect. Players are cross-training multiple positions in case of emergency, so this first depth chart has the potential to change unlike any other.
These are strange times and normalcy is a spectrum.
There are only so many ways to write it, but at least you know the starting left guard on the Monday afternoon before kickoff. Almost feels like old times.