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December 25, 2014

Tide opens practice, with plenty of questions to answer

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Posted: Thursday, July 31, 2014 7:02 pm | Updated: 7:07 pm, Thu Jul 31, 2014.

TUSCALOOSA — It’s August, which means college football is only a few short weeks away.

For Alabama, the time to prepare for the upcoming season begins now as preseason practice opens today at the Mal Moore Athletic Facility.

Alabama will have 25 practices between now and the week of the season opener Aug. 30 against West Virginia, including some two-a-days and scrimmages.

Today, Alabama’s first workout will feature most of the veteran players with the night session set aside for many of the newcomers.

Tide coach Nick Saban has long been a fan of the split practices to start camp to get the new players acclimated to their new regime.

Fan Day is scheduled for Sunday, while Alabama’s first scrimmage is set for Aug. 9, both at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

While the expectations are still extremely high, Saban summed up the team’s current situation at SEC Media Days.

“We’re a team that has a lot of question marks,” Saban said.

A look at five of them:

1. Who will start at quarterback?

It’s the one question everyone wants the answer to: Blake Sims or Jacob Coker?

Sims, a fifth-year senior, spent the past two seasons backing up three-year starter AJ McCarron. At 6-foot-0, 208 pounds, Sims is a dual-threat quarterback who does most of his best work outside of the pocket. He’s worked on becoming more of a traditional pocket passer, spending parts of his offseason with a private quarterback coach.

Coker, a redshirt junior, finished his degree requirement at Florida State and enrolled at Alabama back in May. At 6-5, 230 pounds, Coker fits the mold of a pocket passer, but has some wheels as well.

This one may drag into the season, similar to McCarron’s battle with Phillip Sims in 2011.

While many have penciled Coker in as the starter, don’t be shocked if Sims opens the season as the No. 1 guy.

2. Are the specialists ready to be special?

“We have two new specialists. We’re probably going to have a freshman punter (JK Scott). Adam Griffith is going to be a new field goal kicker.” That was Saban at SEC Media Days. Both Cade Foster and Cody Mandell have moved on, leaving Alabama to rely on unproven players at kicker and punter. Scott, who enrolled earlier this summer, was one of the nation’s top prospects at punter. He’ll have to fight off some hungry walk-ons to earn the job. Griffith, a redshirt sophomore, must put his A-Day performance and any other struggles behind him.

3. Does the offensive line have what it takes to dominate opponents?

While the quarterbacks will garner all the headlines, the offensive line may prove to be more important in the long-term. Coming off the performance of Alabama’s 2012 offensive line, the 2013 unit wasn’t able to live up to expectations left by one of the all-time great lines in college football history. Now, Alabama returns three starters — Ryan Kelly, Austin Shepherd and Arie Kouandjio — who must raise their level of play if the Tide hopes to be successful. Leon Brown projects to be the starter at right guard. Junior college transfer Dominick Jackson is expected to push for the right guard spot as well. Also, Alabama will likely start a true freshman at left tackle in Cam Robinson. Robinson, the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle prospect for the 2014 cycle, is arguably Alabama’s most important player next season and going forward. There will be some freshman lumps, but if he lives up to his five-star billing, it’ll go along way in helping return Alabama’s offensive line back to its dominant ways.

4. Will the veteran cornerbacks take the next step or will the highly touted freshman play early?

Juniors Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve both played before they were ready last season. Each started multiple games while showing some promise and also looking out of place at times. With sophomore Eddie Jackson suffering a knee injury during spring practice, Jones and Sylve both worked with the first team defense. If they’re able to improve, Alabama may not have to rely heavily on five-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey. Brown, who enrolled in January, benefited from the extra practice time due to Jackson’s injury. Both Brown and Humphrey have all the tools to be successful, but the Tide’s complex defensive scheme makes it tough for freshmen to shine early on. Dee Milliner (2010) was the last true freshman to start a game.

5. Will discipline be an issue?

At SEC Media Days, Saban announced running back Kenyan Drake and defensive lineman Jarran Reed were suspended from team activities, but not kicked off the team for their recent arrests. Saban hasn’t made any additional announcements, so it’s unclear is Drake, Reed or linebacker Dillon Lee (DUI in April) will play in the season opener against West Virginia. Saban typically doesn’t reveal a players status until game day.

While these may be isolated incidents, the team’s leader must step up and help their teammates avoid run ins with the law and other off field troubles.

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