May 27, 2009

Capstone awaits signees

Most of the nation's No.1-ranked signing class will arrive in Tuscaloosa this weekend as UA football coach Nick Saban's next round of talent enrolls for the university's first summer school session. Saban encourages recruits to enroll in the first summer school session in hopes of easing their transition to the collegiate experience before fall classes begin, and like last year's class, all but a few will get roughly two months on campus before fall camp opens.

The number of signees enrolling for the first summer session will likely be in the 20-22 range. Players that enroll for summer school, however, do not necessarily have to be part of the incoming class that will enter school on scholarship this fall.

Only a few academic questions remain. Olive Branch, Miss., safety Rod Woodson recently got some good news on the academic front and is expected to be among those enrolling early. Defensive lineman Quinton Dial already has signed with East Mississippi Community College, a two-year detour before his Alabama career can begin. Rossville, Ga., wide receiver Michael Bowman remains unqualified, but continues to work toward his eligibility in hopes of enrolling next week along with the bulk of the signing class.

Geismar, La., running back Eddie Lacy has said he must take a summer-school course in order to become eligible, which will delay his enrollment to UA's second summer session at best. That session begins in July. Destrehan, La., signee Darrington Sentimore, apparently, also will not be enrolled by next week. A source close to Sentimore's situation told BOL that the 6-2, 280-pound defensive lineman is expected to continue to work toward his eligibility in summer school, and is still within reach of qualifying.

While a few of the Crimson Tide's signees work toward academic eligibility, several others have been rehabilitating physically.

Among them, offensive lineman Kellen Williams' availability would appear to be in the most jeopardy. Williams injured his knee during the spring, requiring surgery, and is not expected to be cleared for contact in fall camp. That could result in a medical redshirt for Williams, a three-star prospect from Snellville, Ga., who has said he still intends to enroll for classes this fall rather than deferring enrollment to January with a grayshirt.

Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (shoulder), offensive lineman D.J. Fluker (shoulder), defensive lineman Chris Bonds (knee) and wide receiver Kendall Kelly (hip) are among those who have undergone surgeries, and all are at various stages of recovery. Fluker had an arthroscopic procedure done on April 16, but is expected to be fully ready to compete. Kelly, by contrast, told BOL earlier this month that he may not be cleared to begin a running program until mid-June, which would delay his participation in summer workouts.

So which recruits stand the best chance to see the field in 2009? Last summer, BOL counted down its top 10 impact incoming freshmen in a July series of stories, and plans to do so again this summer. For now, however, a quick look at a few of the more obvious candidates who are expected on campus next week:

*** Fluker (6-foot-7, 350 pounds) will have every chance to compete for early playing time on an offensive line that returns only two starters from last season. Working for him are an incredible frame and Alabama's obvious needs up front, which include not only a new starter at left tackle - where Fluker's long-term future is expected to be - but also a new right guard. Named one of six top impact freshmen in the entire nation by Athlon Sports, which essentially labeled him the next Andre Smith, there are few if any doubters when it comes to his physical tools. Working against him: A lack of prep experience on the offensive side of the ball (one season), and the long odds against any offensive lineman contributing heavily as a true freshman in the Southeastern Conference. It doesn't happen often - and even some of the best need a season to adjust.

*** Nico Johnson, the five-star linebacker from Andalusia, will join a talented unit in which every starter returns for the Crimson Tide. Where might he fit in? He told BOL in a Q&A earlier this spring that he will compete at the weakside position. Standout weaksider Don'ta Hightower could be Alabama's answer to the pass rushing question if he is moved outside to the 'Jack' position, where he saw some action both in the Sugar Bowl and during spring drills. But it would take a strong move by one of the weakside candidates - freshman or otherwise - to force the move. UA has managed to get a major contribution from a true freshman inside linebacker for two consecutive years (Rolando McClain, then Hightower). Johnson will look to make it three in a row, but he won't be the only freshman looking to do the same.

*** Five-star running back Trent Richardson will bring a downhill running style to Alabama that ideally suits the offensive identity UA forged last year with a ground-first attack that stayed between the tackles. His high school highlight film makes it clear enough what the hype is all about - rated him the nation's No.2 running back. Even if a healthy Roy Upchurch emerges in fall camp after spending the spring withheld from contact, it's hard to imagine Richardson not pressing for a role of some kind. Last season showed there is room for three backs in the playing rotation, and only two of them return for 2009.

*** Kirkpatrick was rated the nation's No.1 cornerback by, and joins a relatively thin unit. While both starters return for the Crimson Tide, only three corners on the roster have significant experience. His size (6-2) is unique for the position, and a valuable asset as opposing offenses have begun to favor bigger wide receivers. If he performs well in fall camp, it won't be difficult to catch the eye of head coach Nick Saban, who spends extensive practice time working with the defensive backs. Kirkpatrick told BOL he expects to be 100 percent recovered from shoulder surgery by the time fall camp opens in a little more than two months.

*** At least three wide receivers, and possibly four, are expected to enroll for the first summer term. And as much as any position on the field, the competition at that spot should be a wide-open one for incoming freshmen this fall. UA needs a complement to Julio Jones to emerge as quickly as possible, and Marquis Maze showed on A-Day that he may be ready to step into a larger role. A consistent threat opposite Jones would help ease the transition of a new starting quarterback, and a number of freshmen will try to push Maze and other veterans. Tough to handicap one over another, but the newcomers include Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood, Kendall Kelly, and if he qualifies academically, Michael Bowman.

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