This is one of those weeks where, if things go to plan for Alabama football, you might get an extended look at some players who haven’t had many opportunities this season. The starters have a big hand in that, assuming they dispatch of Austin Peay in a timely manner. But this season has been full of surprises for the No. 8 Crimson Tide (8-2, 5-2 SEC), so let’s not take anything for granted.
Still, in that spirit, it’s a good time to look at some young players who’ve contributed this season and players who’ve put themselves in good positions going forward to play key roles in the future of the program. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list or one that will include every young player who could rise up.
• It would be difficult to do this without starting with the freshman wide receivers. Despite the inconsistencies of the receiving corps, the freshmen are widely considered to be a group to be optimistic about. The three who have stood out the most are Kobe Prentice, Isaiah Bond and Kendrick Law. The 5-foot-11 Law was particularly noticeable in the Ole Miss game, recording three of his five receptions thus far. His progress was slowed this year due to an injury, but he’s clearly talented.
“Kendrick Law has really come along,” Nick Saban said in the postgame news conference following the Ole Miss game. “He’s a guy we were hopeful would be a contributor. He pulled his hamstring several weeks ago, was out for a couple weeks, now he’s back to full strength. … He’s a guy we’ve been trying to get in the lineup for some time.”
Prentice has been the most productive of the freshmen, with 30 catches for 290 yards. He’s played in all 10 games and made three starts. His 30 receptions rank second among wide receivers and third on the team, and he’s been targeted 39 times — 29 of which have come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, per TruMedia. Bond has an explosiveness to his game we especially saw against Arkansas, when he had a 53-yard catch. He’s been targeted 18 times and caught nine passes for 159 yards.
Saban highlighted the young receivers this week.
“Some of the younger receivers on our team have made a lot of progress but haven’t had quite as much opportunity,” Saban said. “Some of them are playing on special teams. Kendrick Law is gonna be a really good player, No. 19. He’s been a good player on special teams. I’d like to get him more opportunities. Isaiah Bond has done really well as a freshman.
“I think the freshman receivers are a very talented group, and I think there have been times when each one of them have made really, really good plays. I think the biggest thing is, with young players, is that consistency in performance. They’re not used to the grind of this kind of competition over this long a period of time and that comes with experience, it comes with maturity. But I’m very encouraged by that entire class.”
• Another player who hasn’t had an opportunity yet as a wide receiver but has made plays on special teams is former top-50 overall running back recruit Emmanuel Henderson Jr. I’m hearing he’s making excellent progress and could carve out a role for himself at the position in the future. Saban also specifically mentioned him.
“Emmanuel Henderson has done really, really well, too,” Saban said. “He’s starting to really blossom on special teams. He knows what he’s doing at receiver now. He’s very explosive.
• Amari Niblack is the future at tight end. He has a skill set comparable to other tight ends we’ve seen with the Crimson Tide, most notably Jahleel Billingsley. Both are 6-foot-4 and in the 220- to 225-pound range. His one catch this year went for a 15-yard touchdown against ULM.
• Speaking of the future, quarterback is a position to really study going forward. Bryce Young is likely to go pro after the season, and Alabama has only two other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster at the moment (with top-100 recruits Eli Holstein and Dylan Lonergan committed in the 2023 recruiting class). We’ve seen redshirt freshman Jalen Milroe when Young had the shoulder injury. Overall, he’s completed 29-of-48 passes for 274 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions and rushed 29 times for 246 yards and a touchdown. We haven’t seen much of true freshman Ty Simpson, a five-star recruit ranked No. 3 among 2022 quarterbacks in the 247Sports Composite. There will be some anxious to see if he gets much playing time this week to try to gauge his development in his first season. He’s played in only three games, so he can play in one more game and keep his redshirt. He’s 2-of-3 for 15 yards on the season.
• Jamarion Miller has appeared in 10 games but hasn’t logged a carry since the fourth game of the season. On his 20 rushes, he’s averaging 7.3 yards per carry, with two touchdowns (including a 40-yarder) in the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt. He’s an exciting running back to track in the future.
• There are a few young offensive linemen who are exciting, including one starter and another who might as well be a starter. JC Latham, a sophomore, has had an excellent season at right tackle. The No. 3 overall recruit in the 2022 class has played 653 snaps, the most on the offense, per TruMedia. In 393 pass blocking opportunities, he hasn’t allowed a sack. That’s the second-most pass-blocking snaps among any SEC player who hasn’t allowed a sack. Given how well he has played, it’s natural to assume he could move to left tackle next season.
If you watched closely during the Ole Miss game, freshman Tyler Booker opened a few holes. He’s a powerful guard who’s played both left and right guard coming off the bench. He’s allowed three pressures and no sacks in 152 pass-block snaps. He’s played 265 total snaps.
Another young offensive lineman to keep your eye is 6-foot-6, 300-pound freshman Elijah Pritchett. He hasn’t played this season, but I’ve heard excellent things about his development behind the scenes.
• On defense, Jaheim Oatis has been arguably the most important young player. The 6-foot-5, 348-pound nose guard has played in nine of 10 games, making seven starts, with the only game he missed coming when he was banged up for the Mississippi State contest. He’s played 216 snaps, fourth most among Alabama defensive linemen, and has made 21 tackles. He’s the future on the defensive line.
Another defensive lineman who has had a good first season as far as his development is Isaiah Hastings (6-4, 290). He’s played in one game (ULM), so he could technically play the rest of the season and keep his redshirt.
• Linebacker Deontae Lawson has played in eight of 10 games, including two starts. The redshirt freshman has 35 tackles and three pass breakups. His 286 snaps are 12th-most on the defense. A couple of other linebackers who have promise are true freshman Jihaad Campbell and redshirt freshman Keanu Koht. Campbell has played in six games, mainly in a special teams role, and Koht has played in four.
• The secondary is filled with the promise of youth. Sophomore Kool-Aid McKinstry has been targeted 60 times but has allowed a 46.7 percent completion rate — 28 catches for 273 yards and one TD, per Pro Football Focus. He’s the most-targeted cornerback in the SEC but allows only 9.8 yards per reception, which ranks fifth in the conference.
Redshirt freshman Terrion Arnold has played a lot this season, with six starts and nine games played. He has given up 24 catches on 45 targets for 351 yards and two touchdowns.
One defensive back to watch for next season is freshman Earl Little II. He’s played in only one game this season, but I’ve heard good reports on his development. He could play in the rest of the team’s games this season (including the bowl) and still keep his redshirt.
(Top photo of Kendrick Law: Petre Thomas / USA Today)
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