Alabama football: Projecting the Crimson Tide's 5 biggest playmakers in 2023
Two of the greatest playmakers in Alabama football history have left Tuscaloosa, surely bound for more glory in the NFL.
The irreplaceable Bryce Young.
The unstoppable Will Anderson Jr.
Two Crimson Tide all-time legends, for sure. But even more than that, 2 legends who did nothing but make unforgettable plays during their time at Alabama.
They were a double-feature highlight reel that seemingly never stopped, until the music did eventually — and inevitably — stop.
The Young and Anderson Show wasn’t going to last forever. And it was never going to last until 2023, not with millions of dollars waiting this spring at the NFL Draft.
Nick Saban, the program, the fan base, college football, everyone will miss them dearly. But they aren’t the only playmakers who’ll be missed as the Tide hope to transition from a 2-loss season back into a College Football Playoff team.
It won’t be easy, even with Alabama’s annual insane influx of talent combined with the usual wealth of talent returning.
Besides Young and Anderson, gone is electrifying running back Jahmyr Gibbs. And steady tight end Cameron Latu. And a slew of talented wide receivers who bolted to the transfer portal.
And that’s just on offense.
Standout defensive lineman Byron Young declared for the draft, too, rather than return for a 5th season. The tackle machine of a linebacker that was Henry To’oTo’o will have to be replaced, too. And then there’s the secondary, which lost stalwarts Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams and Brian Branch.
That’s a ton of surreal plays from a lot of superb playmakers to see go during 1 offseason. But it’s Alabama, and nobody is going to feel sorry for the rinse-and-reload Crimson Tide.
Right now, in late January, the 2 giant questions towering over the Tide program are who will be running the offense and defense this fall, with Bill O’Brien returning to the New England Patriots and Pete Golding bolting to SEC West rival Ole Miss. Once Saban gets through with the chaotic convergence of having to fill both of his coordinator jobs at virtually the same time, then spring football will be all about those 2 new hires forming a bond with the newest elite playmakers on both sides of the ball.
So which players will take over that mantle as Bama’s top playmakers in 2023? At talent-rich Alabama, every single season, you could always make up a pretty lengthy list, despite all of the aforementioned departures this offseason. But we’ve narrowed it down to the 5 players who look like the best, at least as it stands right now in the dead of winter and before those all-important coordinator hires are made.
1. Kool-Aid McKinstry, cornerback/punt returner
We put Kool-Aid at No. 1 on this list because he’s a true dual-threat playmaker without even being a quarterback. Assuming McKinstry is still used as the Crimson Tide’s primary punt returner in 2023, and after being named a 2nd-team All-American by the Football Writers Association of America not as a cornerback but as a punt returner, really, why wouldn’t he be right back in the same spot, waiting to field punts and strike fear in punt return coverage teams? Kool-Aid led the SEC and was 2nd in the nation in punt return yards with 317 in 2022, and his 15.8 yards per punt return was also tops in the conference and 2nd in Division I.
McKinstry was a luxury, a security blanket and a fierce weapon all at the same time for the Tide on special teams, and you would think he’ll continue to be just that this fall with probably another layer or 2 of dynamic ability based on experience alone. He will continue to be someone who can instantly change field position, can “flip the field” from poor field position to good or great field position, and that will matter a whole lot with (we’ll say it again) a new starting quarterback and a new offensive coordinator. So not only might McKinstry be the Tide’s top overall playmaker in 2023, he just might be their most important one, considering the challenges Bama will be dealing with combined with Kool-Aid’s ability to be most everywhere on the field.
And that “everywhere” will, of course, include the secondary, where McKinstry will be counted on to be a playmaker as well as a leader with the Tide losing so much talent in their defensive backs’ room in 1 offseason. The junior-to-be from Birmingham will be a godsend for whoever replaces Golding as defensive coordinator, because Anderson and To’oTo’o will no longer be a 2-headed luxury in the layer of defense in front of the secondary like they have been the past few seasons. McKinstry led Bama in pass breakups during the regular season with 12 and finished the season with 35 tackles, 29 of them solo. He added 1 sack and 1 interception. He was already a chief playmaker in 2022 in a secondary full of them, and in 2023 that role will increase tenfold. McKinstry should be ready for it.
2. Ja’Corey Brooks, wide receiver
This 1 easily could’ve been Jermaine Burton, the Georgia transfer who was a disappointment for most of 2022 but who showed flashes of what he could become in 2023. The problem with Alabama last season was that it didn’t feature a true No. 1 wide receiver who said, “Get out of the way, I’m taking over this game, and you can’t cover me.” It showed in the final stats, too, as Brooks finished with 39 catches for 674 yards and 8 touchdowns while Burton was seemingly a statistical carbon copy with 40 catches for 677 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Brooks and Burton’s stat lines were both OK but nothing extravagant. They both wreaked of what you’d expect from a No. 2 receiver, not a No. 1, which spoke to the perpetual disconnect in the passing offense in 2022 and was 1 of many reasons why O’Brien was ripped to shreds by the Bama Football Universe before bolting for New England. So which out of Burton or Brooks can be expected to turn into a certified WR1 for whatever quarterback replaces Young this fall? You could make a case for either, but we’ll lean toward Brooks, the junior-to-be from Miami who had his moments as a freshman in 2021 (remember the touchdown catch against Auburn?) and built on that foundation as a sophomore in 2022.
Of course, there are 2 huge wild cards, or obstacles, that Brooks, Burton and the entire wide receivers’ room will have to deal with next season. Two things that will be all new. One is a new offensive coordinator with a brand-new system, and the other is a new quarterback who will be talented but won’t be Bryce Young. Say what you will about O’Brien, but there is something vital to be said about familiarity. Burton will be dealing with his 3rd offensive coordinator in 3 seasons (with 2 different programs), while Brooks will have a new system to learn after only knowing O’Brien’s during his first 2 seasons in Tuscaloosa. The challenge to become a true No. 1 target will be immense for Brooks in 2023, but if he’s truly the 5-star talent that Bama recruited a few years ago, then we think he’ll be up to the task.
3. Dallas Turner, linebacker
We all saw it on the big showdown stage in Knoxville, didn’t we? When Turner, only the “sophomore kid” playing among a legendary linebacker corps with Anderson and To’oTo’o, picked up that fumble and rumbled into the end zone from 11 yards out to give the Tide a 49-42 lead midway through the 4th quarter. It was an all-time kind of play that by day’s end got lost among the sea of orange-clad fans who stormed the Neyland Stadium field after Tennessee overcame that late deficit and outlasted Alabama. But if the Tide had hung on that day in what was probably the Game of the Year in college football, then Turner’s scoop and score would’ve taken its rightful place in Alabama football lore.
The play might’ve been swept under the Neyland turf that day, but Turner’s clutch, big-play tendencies weren’t forgotten here. And now, with Anderson and To’oTo’o gone, Turner is absolutely the Alpha Dog now of the Tide’s linebackers’ room, and he just might be the leader of the entire defense when we see it all play out next fall. Turner’s stat lines during his 1st 2 seasons were extremely impressive, especially considering the star power he was surrounded by. As a freshman in 2021, he had 30 tackles and an eye-popping 8.5 sacks. And last season, he bumped it up to 37 tackles and added 4 sacks, plus that fumble return for a touchdown when the college football world was watching.
Whoever the new defensive coordinator is will be thanking his lucky stars that Turner wasn’t eligible yet to bolt early to the NFL and didn’t head to the transfer portal after a disappointing season (for the program, at least) with no SEC West title, no SEC title and no Playoff spot, never mind a shot at another national title like he had as a freshman. Instead, the junior-to-be from Fort Lauderdale is sticking it out. He’s in it for the long haul, or at least coming back for what promises to be a monster 3rd season in T-Town. Yes, there will be an adjustment period this offseason, with a new coordinator bringing in a new system and with his “big brothers” Anderson and To’oTo’o no longer playing beside him. But Turner was a 5-star gem and 1 of the best players to come out of the state of Florida in the 2021 cycle for a reason. We’ve already seen why. We’ll continue to see a lot more this fall.
4. Jase McClellan, running back
It looks like it’s going to finally be McClellan’s time in 2023. Not to be the young phenom. And not to be the sidekick, like he was this past season because Gibbs zoomed in from Georgia Tech and took over the lead in the Bama backfield. This time, this fall, 1 would expect the senior-to-be from the Lone Star State to be all alone atop the Tide’s talented running backs’ room. If that does indeed become the case, nobody in Alabama Land will be storming social media to complain about it.
Because McClellan will have earned the role as lead running back. He has been through a lot during his 1st 3 seasons in Tuscaloosa and has lived to tell about it. He dipped his toes in the water as a freshman during the Tide’s 2020 national championship run, gaining 245 yards on the ground while averaging a whopping 10.7 yards per carry to serve notice that bigger things were on the way. But then disaster struck in 2021 when McClellan injured his knee in the 5th game of the season and was sidelined for the year after running for 191 yards and catching 3 touchdowns out of the backfield.
He rehabbed. He recovered. He returned for the 2022 season in time for the opener. But Gibbs had arrived through the portal, and he ran for 926 yards and caught 44 passes for 444 yards in a monster 1-and-done season. Yeah, McClellan got his in 2022, running for 655 yards and 7 touchdowns, including an 81-yard TD gallop in the win at Texas. But he still wasn’t The Guy, though that prestigious label should finally be his in the fall, with all due respect to returnees Roydell Williams and Jamarion Miller as well as freshman phenoms Justice Haynes and Richard Young. And for a change, McClellan’s timing might just be impeccable, since Bama will likely be leaning a lot more on its running game with a new starting QB and offensive coordinator.
5. Jalen Milroe, quarterback/???
We saved the most intriguing top playmaker for last. And, of course, we put those 3 question marks after “quarterback” because should Milroe not win the starting quarterback job — a distinct possibility — then you would think that Saban and the new offensive coordinator would find ways to integrate the explosive Milroe into the offensive attack. The 6-foot-2, 212-pound bull of a football player from Katy, Texas, would obviously love to pick up where he left off in 2022, when he filled in admirably if far from perfectly for Young after Young sprained his throwing shoulder in Week 5. With the legendary Young gone to the NFL, Milroe wants to be The Man in 2023, because of course he does.
But nothing will be guaranteed for him, or any of the others vying for the holy grail of being the starting quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide. Things are different now with Young gone. There is a big, fat question mark when it comes to the position that hasn’t been there in a while, or really hardly ever in recent memory under Saban. Milroe showed in the Arkansas game in which Young was injured that he can make the big play at the most crucial moment (remember that 77-yard run?), and he showed the following week against Texas A&M that he can make multiple gaffes (remember those 2 fumbles?) and still hold it together enough to not lose the game.
Milroe tossed 5 touchdown passes but also threw 3 interceptions in 2022. It was mighty eventful and, yeah, it was a mixed bag. But what did everyone expect, really? He was a raw freshman, and he was stepping in for an all-time Alabama great. The big question in the coming weeks and months, right up until kickoff of the season opener, will be if Milroe can outlast fellow sophomore-to-be Ty Simpson and 4-star 2023 recruits Eli Holstein and Dylan Lonergan. If he does, Milroe will instantly become 1 of Bama’s top playmakers in 2023 because of what he will bring with his legs as much as his right arm. But even if Milroe doesn’t win the coveted QB job, we think he’ll still be an elite playmaker with this team, because we believe those in control of the offense will make sure his explosiveness, power and versatility don’t go wasted waiting on the sideline for another starting quarterback to get injured.