TUSCALOOSA – Every time Alabama has won a national title, it’s been because a select handful of players step up and meet or exceed the elite standard of excellence established by their head coach, Nick Saban.
And whenever the Crimson Tide falls short, like last year, some of the issues can be traced to a handful of players failing to meet that standard at the most critical moments.
With the bitter memory of last season’s title game collapse against Clemson still fresh in their minds, Alabama’s latest crop of four- and five-star talent – including several returning stars like quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and safety Xavier McKinney, who flashed as first-time starters a year ago – will once again be striving for the only thing that really matters in T-town: another national title.
“I think there's going to be a lot of good teams (in the SEC), there's a lot of good talent, (so) that's going to be very challenging and always difficult to play on the road in this league,” Saban said at SEC Media Days. “So it's going to be important that our players do their very best to get where we need to be to reach our full potential as a team and do it on a consistent basis throughout the entire season.”
Here’s a look at which of those players rank as the most important to the Crimson Tide being able to have the sort of success it has grown accustomed to, and who else might join them on that list:
10. Ks Joseph Bulovas or Will Reichard
Since it remains to be seen which of Alabama’s two place kicker candidates will ultimately handle field goal and extra point duties – or if it changes at some point – this season, whoever is in that spot will need to produce and be effective for the Tide to truly be its most efficient. Place kicking has been a question mark in Tuscaloosa for much of the last four or five seasons, which is why Alabama’s ability to establish a reliable kicking game will be important to it becoming a complete and dominant team this year. Coming out of spring, it appeared the freshman Reichard was leading at the position, but don’t discount Bulovas’ experience if he can show he’s got his head on straight.
9. DE Raekwon Davis
As the only returning starter along Alabama’s defensive line, the 6-foot-7 Davis must prove he can be more than a physically-gifted run stuffer and provide a consistent and reliable pass rush this season. Davis will also be counted on to become more of a leader up front, especially with the Tide likely to start a true freshman at nose guard in DJ Dale. Regardless of who starts or plays beside him, Davis will shoulder a significant burden among the defensive linemen and will need to rise to the challenge if Alabama’s defense is going to maintain its expected standard of excellence this season.
8. WR Henry Ruggs III
While not the flashiest of Alabama’s loaded receiver corps, Ruggs’ penchant for simply making plays all over the field is what helped him finish second on the team last season with 11 receiving touchdowns. Most years, that would probably lead the Tide, but of course, he had some serious competition within his own position room from fellow junior Jerry Jeudy (more on him later). While not the biggest of the bunch, Ruggs’ natural speed and footwork make him an ideal slot receiver and his quarterback will undoubtedly be looking his way quite often this season, especially within the West Coast-rooted offense of new coordinator Steve Sarkisian.
7. OTs Alex Leatherwood & Jedrick Wills Jr.
As the two anchors of Alabama’s offensive line, Leatherwood and Wills have vital roles this season, both in keeping the Crimson Tide’s Heisman-favorite quarterback (more on him later) healthy and upright as well as setting the tone for a potentially explosive run game. Leatherwood is making the move from right guard to his more natural spot at left tackle while Wills will once again be the left-handed Tua Tagovailoa’s blind side blocker at right tackle. Both will be needed to play effectively and stay healthy in their own right with some questions about Alabama’s offensive line depth entering the season.
6. OLB Terrell Lewis
While fellow senior outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings has far more experience than his counterpart, it’s Lewis’ freakish pass rush ability that could make his return from his ACL injury the biggest difference from a year ago. While redshirting all last season, Lewis agonized as he watched his teammates struggle at times to affect the opposing quarterback, especially in the biggest games (Alabama didn’t have a single sack in the national title game against Clemson). If Lewis can provide even a modicum of his pass rush potential and become the terror off the edge he’s capable of becoming, it could open up opportunities for teammates to make plays and do wonders for the Tide’s overall defense this season.
5. WR Jerry Jeudy
The defending Biletnikoff Award winner will once again be depended on as Alabama’s big-play threat and No. 1 receiving option within a position of strength, with three fellow receivers – Ruggs, DeVonta Smith, and dynamic sophomore Jaylen Waddle – each capable of making highlight reel plays in the passing game. It’s because of those other options that Jeudy isn’t ranked higher on this list, but his ability to produce whenever his name is called will keep him in his quarterback’s good graces, which means he’ll have plenty of opportunities to improve on last year’s sensational numbers.
4. SS Xavier McKinney
As the unquestioned captain of Alabama’s secondary, McKinney is vitally important to the entire unit’s progress this season as the backend of the defense tries to go from weakness to potential strength in 2019. Reliable as both a tackler and in coverage, McKinney means as much to this year’s defense as Minkah Fitzpatrick did just a couple of seasons ago. That being said, he’ll need to elevate his game to an even greater level of consistency if the Crimson Tide secondary is going to make amends for last seasons lapses and get back to the national championship-caliber execution it’s been known for in the past.
3. RB Najee Harris
While not Alabama’s leading rusher either of his first two years in Tuscaloosa, Harris has already established himself as one of the most explosive and dynamic tailbacks to play at Alabama in recent years, and that’s saying something. His 6.69 yards per carry average last season easily led the team and ranked second across the entire SEC despite just tallying 117 carries. But with an elevated role this season, and no real handicap ahead of him on the depth chart, Harris is a prime breakout candidate and will be counted on to help shoulder Alabama’s run production along with fellow junior Brian Robinson Jr. and five-star freshman Trey Sanders.
2. LB Dylan Moses
The defensive field general and play caller this season, Moses takes over arguably the most important non-quarterback position on the field for Alabama. And he’s readily accepted that responsibility, telling reporters at SEC Media Days that the team’s defensive success will ultimately be decided by how well he does his job. With a supreme understanding of his role and the Tide defensive scheme, Moses will need to carry a heavy burden, especially as Tide coaches work through who will be handling the Will linebacker job beside him. In the meantime, Moses is embracing his new leadership responsibilities and making sure he is holding everyone else accountable to the same standard that he holds himself to.
1. QB Tua Tagovailoa
This was the biggest no-brainer on the list. Alabama will live and die by what its star quarterback does this season. There is no more important figure within the entire Crimson Tide not named Nick Saban than Tagovailoa. If he can repeat or even exceed last year’s record-shattering performance, Alabama will breeze through its regular season and once again be a frontrunner to win it all. Of course, as we saw at the end of last season, if Tagovailoa stumbles even slightly, especially if an unforeseen injury knocks him out for any significant length of time, the Tide will certainly suffer the ramifications without a quality or experienced backup behind him on the roster.
Alex Byington is the Alabama beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser.