How Nick Saban is handling Alabama roster challenges even without NFL opt-outs

NEW ORLEANS — Much attention has been given to Alabama having no NFL Draft opt-outs for Saturday’s Sugar Bowl date with Big 12 champion Kansas State, but it did not bring a full roster to the Big Easy.

Such is the state of college football, as roster management is as difficult as it’s ever been with the transfer portal giving players unparalleled freedom of movement. That’s a good thing overall, but it creates a tricky circumstance that college coaches are trying to navigate.

Eleven Alabama players exited the program after the regular season — in addition to the two who left the program during the season. Those players were welcome to play in the Sugar Bowl, Nick Saban said Friday, but none chose to exercise that option. That’s different than the approach South Carolina coach Shane Beamer employed with Gamecocks players who hit the portal in advance of the Gator Bowl.

Asked by a couple of players if they could play in the bowl game, Beamer said thanks but no thanks.

“I don’t let them (play),” Beamer said this week. “Whether that’s right, wrong or indifferent, that’s just kind of how I feel. To me, I don’t want someone who’s one foot in and one foot out. …I told them no, that you’re either with us or you’re not. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I wish everyone well. But I don’t want somebody down here that’s already spending half their time thinking about where their next stop is and things like that.”

It’s an individual preference, and there’s no right or wrong answer, but Saban noticeably mentioned how much he’s enjoying bowl preparation without the players who are no longer there. He didn’t name any names, but it was clear what he was referencing. Speaking on his radio show Thursday evening from the team hotel in New Orleans, Saban dropped some not-so-subtle remarks.

“This has been the most enjoyable (non-Playoff) bowl practice experience we’ve ever had — I’ve ever had,” Saban said. “But one of the things is — all the blinking lights are gone. You know what I mean by blinking lights? When you look at a Christmas tree and one light is blinking, and that’s all you look at, is the blinking light? You don’t see the beauty of all the rest of it?

“Well, when you have guys on your team sometimes that — I call them energy vampires. You use all your energy on these guys, trying to get them to do what they’re supposed to do. Those are the kind of guys that don’t end up playing in bowl games, and don’t end up doing the best things and making the best choices and decisions for the team and all that, because they’ve got other motivations, which I’m not being critical of.”

Fans are left to guess for themselves who exactly the blinking lights are, and there are some guesses that are better than others. Here’s a list of the players who entered the portal after the regular-season finale win over Auburn who are not with the team for this bowl trip (listed in alphabetical order):

  • Aaron Anderson, WR
  • Tanner Bowles, OL
  • Tommy Brockermeyer, OL
  • Javion Cohen, OL
  • JoJo Earle, WR
  • Damion George, OL
  • Traeshon Holden, WR
  • Khyree Jackson, DB
  • Amari Kight, OL
  • Christian Leary, WR
  • Trey Sanders, RB

What is revealed from that list is that offensive line and wide receiver depth took a massive hit. There’s only one offensive line starter on that list in Cohen, but that is mitigated by the fact that Tyler Booker played so much this season. You can get into the semantics of what a starter is, but Booker played the minutes of a starter even if he didn’t start the game on the field.

But you can clearly see how roster management gets tricky this time of year, and there’s really no answer for it. Alabama is not allowed to replace those 11 bodies for Saturday’s game, although incoming freshmen from the 2023 Alabama recruiting class who are already on campus have been allowed to practice and have traveled with the team. They’re just not allowed to play.

A relatively new recruiting calendar in which the majority of players sign in December rather than February has added more difficulty to roster management. Coaches recruit based on need, and in a lot of cases, because of the transfer portal, those needs can change after the last regular-season game at the end of November, just before the early signing period. It’s entirely possible Saban and staff knew some attrition was coming to the offensive line and at wide receiver, but to lose nine players at those positions had to be a jolt to the system and the depth chart at those positions.

As it currently stands for Saturday’s game, Alabama has 11 scholarship offensive linemen. After departures and new additions for spring practice, that number goes to 12. Most college programs like to have at least 15-16 offensive linemen. That’s an issue.

“Well, I think roster management is difficult year-round, because what’s going to happen after this game? What’s going to happen at the end of April? The players can basically change any of these windows,” Saban said. “How many do you know are going to do it or you think might do it? And how do you replace them? It’s difficult year-round, not just now.”

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Certainly Alabama will have to entertain the transfer portal for offensive line depth because at this stage of the game, there might not be a lineman the caliber Alabama usually recruits remaining for February. Saban did reveal Alabama has another high school player it is recruiting who could visit. NCAA rules do not permit him to say a name, but there’s a better than good chance that player could be five-star defensive back Cormani McClain, who committed to Miami over Alabama but has yet to sign his national letter of intent.

“We may have one player that’s going to visit in January as of right now,” Saban said. “I’m talking about high school players. So it is what it is. You have to be able to adapt to all these things if you’re going to continue to be successful. And that’s what we’ve tried to do.”

You can read between the lines in those comments to figure out that the Crimson Tide will be hosting potential transfer players too. They have to. Roster management demands it.

go-deeper

(Photo of Nick Saban: Stephen Lew / USA Today)

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