Massive roster and staff turnover at Alabama? No problem for Nick Saban

MOBILE, Ala. — Believe it or not, Alabama coach Nick Saban didn’t grimace when he saw his most recent former offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, standing along the fence at the Senior Bowl on Wednesday afternoon. Although the two were together only one season before Daboll left for the same position with the Buffalo Bills, there appeared to be no animosity.

Saban spotted Daboll, and the two shook hands and chatted amicably for a few moments before practice at the NFL scouting event here in south Alabama.

“He’s obviously ended up a lot better off for having come to our place,” Saban said.

Daboll wasn’t the only thing Saban lost to the NFL after winning his fifth national championship at Alabama, though. Joining him on the field were a handful of his now former players showcasing their talents in front of pro scouts, general managers and coaches: center Bradley Bozeman, defensive end Da'Shawn Hand, cornerback Levi Wallace and punter JK Scott. Former linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton and cornerback Anthony Averett were there, as well, although they weren’t competing because of injuries.

And those were just the players at the Senior Bowl. That’s to say nothing of potential first-round picks defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne and wideout Calvin Ridley, who went out early for the draft. Longtime linebacker Rashaan Evans, running back Bo Scarbrough, and defensive backs Hootie Jones and Tony Brown have all moved on, as well.

You’d think that with so much roster upheaval, including 10 starters gone, and wholesale changes on the coaching staff, Saban might be concerned. But there wasn’t even a hint of that as he chided a reporter trying to get confirmation on some of the new assistant coaches.

Was it true that former receivers coach Mike Locksley had been promoted to offensive coordinator? What about defensive coordinator, where linebackers coach Tosh Lupoi feels like the heir apparent to Jeremy Pruitt, who left to become the head coach at Tennessee?

“I’ll elaborate on it when I’m ready to elaborate on it,” Saban said. “That’s called a release.”

Saban’s coyness aside, there’s still so much that’s unclear about a team likely to be at or near the top of everyone’s preseason rankings.

The number of new starters next season might even be 11 and not 10 if quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is able to unseat two-year starter Jalen Hurts. The true freshman from Hawaii came on in relief of Hurts in the national championship game and led the comeback against Georgia with three passing touchdowns. Hurts might have a 26-2 record as a starter, but good luck fending off Tagovailoa’s momentum. Saban, for his part, said the morning after the championship that it isn’t “imperative to make [a decision] right now.”

Hold on tight because that will be an interesting ride.

The one thing we know with certainty is that Alabama won’t be lacking talent at any position.

On Tuesday, Bozeman confidently predicted next season’s starters on the offensive line. Freshman Alex Leatherwood would start at left guard, he said, and Ross Pierschbacher would move to center.

Jonah [Williams] is a tackle,” Bozeman said. “He could easily play center, but he’s a tackle.”

Whether it’s Jedrick Wills Jr., Lester Cotton or the handful of four- and five-star prospects on the bench, Bozeman knew the line will be just fine without him.

At Alabama, it’s not so much rebuilding as it is reloading.

“The guys keep buying into the process,” Bozeman said. “Everyone, not just the starters. And those guys behind us, they pick up things from the older guys and keep developing their game throughout the season. Then, when it’s time for me to leave, it’s time for someone else to step up.”

Hand put it in more succinct terms: “At Alabama, when your number is called up, it’s never a case of you’re not ready to play.”

You needn’t go back far to see evidence of that. Just this past season, the defense was ravaged by injury when 10 players missed a total of 47 starts. Still, Alabama allowed the fewest points per game in the FBS (11.93).

Wallace had never seen anything quite like it. He still doesn’t know where his helmet is after throwing it off celebrating the national championship, and he still isn’t sure how they pulled it off with so many key players missing.

Now he can look at the injuries and see a silver lining: All of those young guys who were forced into action early have experience they otherwise wouldn’t. Alabama played a total of 17 true freshmen last season, which was fourth most in the FBS.

"For guys to have played so much this year -- even guys to play in the national championship -- they’ll definitely be ready for next year,” Wallace said.

Wallace said there was talk among the defensive backs all season about what might lie ahead with all four starters probably departing. Sophomore and junior reserves were leading the freshmen, he explained, telling one another, “We have to step up our act because these guys aren’t going to be here next year.”

Asked which players he’s excited to see in action next season, Wallace pointed to Deionte Thompson, Shyheim Carter, Xavier McKinney, Trevon Diggs and Kyriq McDonald.

“Definitely Jared Mayden is one to keep an eye on,” he said of the sophomore from Texas who played in seven games last season.

Hand, for his part, was unwilling to single out any one individual on the defensive line. With Payne gone, it could be Johnny Dwight or Raekwon Davis who steps up to anchor the defense at nose guard.

Davis emerged late last season, showing rare burst for someone who checks in at 6-7 and 315 pounds.

“He’s a big freak of nature,” Hand said.

Asked about his preference for who will take over at defensive coordinator, Hand deferred other than to say that Lupoi was a “high-energy guy.”

“Alabama is always going to be fine, no matter what,” he said. “I’m not worried at all.”

Hand might as well have been speaking for every preseason voter out there with Alabama ranked No. 1. As long as Saban is leading the charge, the Crimson Tide will get the benefit of the doubt, and with good reason.

Yes, both coordinators are gone, and double-digit starters are gone. But the dynasty will roll on past the draft as it always has.