Tide will manage in 2013 despite loss of talent

With the early departures of running back Eddie Lacy, corner back Dee Milliner and right tackle D.J. Fluker to the NFL Draft, the Alabama Crimson Tide is now tasked with the unenviable business of finding their replacements.

These players represent more than just talent; they represent an incredible amount of experience as well. Still, Alabama head coach Nick Saban said he supported all three players’ decisions to take their talents to the next level.

“I support what these young men are doing in terms of what their future is, what their future will be,” Saban said. “I appreciate what they’ve done for The University of Alabama, but we also acknowledge the fact that from a business standpoint, these guys are making good decisions about their future and what they can do.”

Lacy was a part of a two-headed monster, along with freshman T.J. Yeldon at running back. While Yeldon and numerous other backs have the talent to take up the slack, Lacy was still one of the more versatile backs on the team. Also look for incoming freshman Derrick Henry, who holds the high school record for most yards rushed in a career, to make an immediate impact. Alabama will not want for talent at this position next year.

Milliner will be harder to replace. Milliner’s importance to the team can’t be measured in mere stats. He was rarely beaten in coverage, always found himself in a position to defend a pass and lead the team with 20 pass breakups and 22 total plays defended.

Along with the departure of senior safety Robert Lester, Alabama will find itself a bit short-handed in the defensive secondary, which was already considered one of the Tide’s weaker positions. Still, lack of talent won’t be a problem when replacing these two. And for once, neither will experience.

Safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri will see a lot more playing time in Lester’s absence. Freshman safety Landon Collins, who has already made a name for himself in special teams play, will also earn significant playing time. At the corner position, Deion Belue and Geno Smith will also be expected to make more of a contribution.

Of all the aforementioned positions on the team, none will be hit nearly as hard as the offensive line. Along with Fluker, Alabama loses its two best linemen in seniors Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack. None of these players should be on the board past the second round and will easily be the hardest group of players to replace for the coaching staff.

Ryan Kelly seems the heir-apparent to Jones at the center position. Jones has said Kelly has more natural talent than himself but will need to grow more into his position – he is only listed at 288 pounds on the roster. Sophomore Arie Kouandjio will likely replace Fluker at the right tackle position if he can stay healthy, bookending the line with his brother, Cyrus. Warmack will be the hardest to replace on the line, however. Caleb Gulledge and Alphonse Taylor may be the top two competitors for the gigantic hole left by Warmack.

But even with the exodus of talent, Alabama is returning with enough talent in key positions to still be one of the teams to beat in 2013. AJ McCarron should be one of the more elite players at quarterback and will have incredible talent to throw to, including Amari Cooper, Chris Black, Kevin Norwood and incoming talents Robert Foster and O.J. Howard.

The return of C.J. Mosley to the linebacker corps is huge for the defense as well. He’ll be headlining a talented group of linebackers come this fall. The defensive line will take a hit, but the Tide has a bevy of young talent in Jeoffrey Pagan, Brandon Ivory and LaMichael Fanning to replace the veteran defensive linemen.

Still, the deadline for underclassmen to submit their names to the draft is Tuesday, so there may yet be a few more names the Tide will have to replace.

“I’m hopeful that we’re pretty much finished with this,” Saban said, “but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that every now and then you get surprised by someone.”