MORGANTOWN — Alabama returns seven players who started at least 10 games last season and seven others who started at least five times, though one is a long snapper and one is a tight end who might be supplanted by a sophomore making a variety of preseason all-conference and even All-America teams.
The same team also lost eight players to May’s NFL Draft — or as many as West Virginia has had taken in its three seasons under coach Dana Holgorsen. The Crimson Tide have had 25 players picked in the same time, the highest number in college football, and nobody can match their 37 draft picks the past five years.
It’s nothing new to Alabama and how it deals with that success is as good a reason as any it’s ranked No. 2 for Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff game against WVU (3:30 p.m., ABC).
“They do a great job of recruiting top-notch talent — big, fast, strong guys that are always some of the better players in the country,” Holgorsen said. “Each and every year they lose guys to the NFL and every year they replace them with guys who have been in the program, and then those guys go to the NFL.
“They have a good nucleus of guys who have played a lot of ball for them. Looking back at the tape from last year, you see about 20-some (returning) guys playing those snaps last year. They lost some really good ones to the NFL, but they’ve got a lot of guys who are going to continue to get better and become the top-caliber players they’re used to.”
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ALABAMA HAS A DEPTH chart with 74 players on offense and defense. Thirty-nine are freshmen and sophomores. In a true two-deep, Alabama figures to have freshmen backing up at defensive end, cornerback, and left guard, plus a freshman — 6-foot-6, 320-pound Cam Robinson — starting at left tackle.
“I figured out he was the No. 1 player in the country and he was there all spring, so I don’t consider him a true freshman,” Holgorsen said.
According to Rivals.com rankings, the defensive end, Da’Shawn Hand, was No. 1 at his position. The cornerback, Tony Brown, was No. 4. The left guard, Ross Pierschbacher, was No. 8.
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THE LIST OF TRUE freshmen who have started openers for Holgorsen’s Mountaineers contains just two names: safety Karl Joseph and long snapper John DePalma, though inside receiver Jordan Thompson was considered a starter and the Mountaineers didn’t use him on the first snap against Marshall in 2012.
It appears free safety Dravon Henry will join the list. He was atop sophomore Jeremy Tyler on a depth release Monday and discussed Tuesday.
“You forget he is a freshman,” Holgorsen said.
That’s because of the way Henry plays the game and not because he’s been around a long time. What distinguishes Henry is that unlike Joseph and Thompson, he wasn’t with the team in the spring semester for spring football.
“He’s a good player,” Holgorsen said. “It’s not crazy just to start a true freshman. That happens at every program across the country. I think the overall health of the program is the indication of how many of them you have to use. I think you get to a point where recruiting continues to improve, and I think it has over the last couple of years, and you are going to get better bodies that are going to be able to go in there and compete at an early age. With that said, there is still a learning curve.”
With that in mind, Holgorsen wouldn’t cement Henry as the starter and referred to him as “a guy that has never taken a snap here.” Henry’s first impression could be a lasting one, for better or for worse.
“One of the things with a true freshman that you never put out there before is trying to find out what his demeanor is like and how he’s going to respond when there are 70,000 people in the stands and there’s a real opponent across the field,” Holgorsen said. “I think based on what he has done in practice that he can handle it just fine, but we are going to look and see. It’s not like he is Jeremy Tyler is a seasoned vet out there. He’s a true sophomore. We’re going to continue to monitor that this week.”
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THE TEAM IS SORTING out which coaches will be on the sidelines and which will be in the box high above the field this Saturday. Holgorsen said offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson will be in a coaching box above the field for the game with graduate assistant Chris Hannon, who works with the offensive line. Defensively, either Tom Bradley or Damon Cogdell, who are both defensive line coaches, will be above the field with cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell and graduate assistant Anthony Leonard, who works with linebackers.
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HOLGORSEN SAID JUNIOR COLLEGE transfer Jaylon Myers, who only arrived and enrolled at the start of classes last week, will travel with the team to the Georgia Dome and could see “a few” plays on special teams.
“You can see his athleticism, but to say he’s going to do anything other than that right now I think would be crazy,” Holgorsen said.
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THE MOUNTAINEERS’ FOURTH-YEAR head coach has avoided silliness in other areas. Holgorsen said Alabama’s “biggest question mark special teams-wise” is with the punting and kicking games because both will have players. With a possible weakness finally revealed, Holgorsen was asked if he’d practiced a field goal return so that the Mountaineers could capitalize on a miss like Auburn famously did in last year’s Iron Bowl.
“No,” he said behind a smirk. “That would just be ridiculous. Why would anyone want to do that?”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.