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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
April 14, 2012
Spring games always spur a unique set of questions each year, but Alabama fans in 2012 were probably most wanting to know if the 2012 team is in danger of pulling a repeat of 2010.
The answer is, not likely.
While Alabama (or any team) would be hard-pressed to repeat as BCS champions, post an undefeated season (a one-loss season this year probably won’t cut it) and – on top of it all – do it in the SEC, it seems a bit more plausible after watching the display the Tide put on Saturday.
The 2010 team’s shortcomings were not all of its own doing. A massive loss of experience on the defensive side of the ball – and especially leadership – weakened the team noticeably. Special teams were never on track, and Alabama got away from its running game too early and too often.
The 2012 team does indeed have to replace much of its defense from 2011, but not nearly as much, and there are plenty of key players back in the saddle. Notably, the defensive backfield returns two starters (Robert Lester, Dee Milliner) and there are three linebackers (C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson, Adrian Hubbard) with experience in chips-down situations. The defensive line is also fronted by three seniors, and is deeper than the 2010 unit by far.
Offensively, Alabama – like in 2010 – has its quarterback back from a year before, with a receiver corps missing its top dog from the previous season. But again, the current team is better-positioned to hold serve. A.J. McCarron has better upside than Greg McElroy, and the new receiver units (which appeared to be Kenny Bell, Christion Jones and Kevin Norwood backed up primarily by DeAndrew White, Amari Cooper and Chris Black) are picking up not far behind where Marquis Maze, Darius Hanks and Brandon Gibson left off.
The predominant problem the 2010 team suffered from, however, isn’t this unit or that unit: It was a lack of developed talent at some positions combined with an absence of leadership.
Weakness does not add to weakness. It multiplies it.
From hearing Nick Saban’s postgame comments, however, it would seem the 2012 team is in better shape in that department. If it is, perhaps the only thing the 2012 team will end up having in common with the 2010 team is that they were both even-numbered years.
Here are some individual observations from the game:
1. Status of the offense
Saban colorfully addressed this after the game, saying there was nothing new in the scheme, a tip of the hat to just how important it is to keep Michigan in the dark. Alabama ran a small collection of route combinations, but most passing plays appeared to be underneath routes by design no matter what the downfield coverage was. The only new wrinkle appeared to be the use of a slot-H formation when Alabama went to the Pistol. If Michigan was hoping to glean inside information from A-Day, it didn’t happen. From an execution standpoint, Alabama’s offense did as well as it could against a stout defense. Despite a slow start, the offense for both teams picked up in the second quarter, and increased depth and overall athleticism at the offensive skill positions meant the first defense was no longer a guaranteed winner in this matchup.
2. Depth on the offensive line
This could be better. Alabama’s first unit did a nice job of both run-blocking and pass-blocking, but the second unit couldn’t muster the same. Phillip Sims and Phillip Ely were too often trying to avoid defenders even on their way back from under center. The second unit did a much better job blocking for T.J. Yeldon on the ground, however. The depth problem goes across the board. Reserve right tackle Austin Shepherd did a good job, but second-team left tackle Kellen Williams had a tough time handing Xzavier Dickson and Quinton Dial off the corner. Alabama appears unsettled on a second-team center, as both Chad Lindsey and Ryan Kelly spent time there today. Guards Alphonse Taylor and Isaac Luatua are both projects at this point. If Alabama were to sustain an injury to either Cyrus Kouandjio or D.J. Fluker, Barrett Jones might have to move back out from his center position.
3. New outside linebackers
This might have been the best overall performance of any position group today. Alabama started Adrian Hubbard at Jack and Jonathan Atchison at strongside linebacker, but Hubbard rarely came off the field. He flipped over to strongside when Alabama opted to go with twin Jacks (Ryan Anderson or Anthony Orr, depending on the situation). Hubbard responded by having a four-sack day and disrupted the majority of plays in which he was involved. At 6’7” and 252 pounds now, Hubbard has the potential to develop into an even better player than the one he replaces, Courtney Upshaw. He is already faster than Upshaw was. Atchison, meanwhile, finally made it through a full game after two frustrating seasons fighting major elbow injuries. He still wears a brace on his right arm, but looked to be somewhere between former SLB starters Jerrell Harris and Cory Reamer in terms of effectiveness against run and pass. Dillon Lee is the primary backup for now, but Alabama also used Orr and Chris Bonds off the corner, and it seems a new wrinkle in the defense is the number and variation of personnel committed to the two outside positions.
4. The new secondary
There were few blitzes, with Alabama appearing to run mostly Cover 2/man-under or Cover 3 and keeping things vanilla. The best news of the day was how the safety trio of Robert Lester, Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri performed for the first-team defense. The safety group didn’t appear to miss a lick despite losing both Mark Barron and Will Lowery to graduation. At corner, John Fulton looks like a completely changed man. Deion Belue’s speed was clearly on display, but as Saban referenced in the postgame, he must get better at run support. Dee Milliner was never challenged. As for Travell Dixon, he is an impressive physical specimen to be sure, but did appear to be a clear step behind Belue at the moment. For that matter, Bradley Sylve looked like the best corner from the 2s.
5. Kickers are improved
Cade Foster will benefit on kickoffs simply from having them moved up 5 yards this year, but it would be unfair if we did not mention the clear improvement both he and punter Cody Mandell have made. Mandell could have made a case for game MVP, if it was (a) possible to give the award to a kicker (it’s not, thanks to the A-Day award system) and (b) Adrian Hubbard hadn’t played. Alabama put renewed focus on its special teams groups over the offseason and the results came through. After a couple of shaky punts to start, Mandell ripped off several in the high-40s-to-low-60s range, including a 45-yarder that pinned the first offense on the 1-yard line and led directly to the game’s first score, a safety. Mandell’s longest punt of the day, a near-70 yarder, exploded off his foot with a forward velocity heretofore unseen from him. Foster’s long field goal showed a ball spinning differently than his kicks the last two seasons, with more height and a less-hooky trajectory. Coupled with good performances on kick and punt returns by Deion Belue, Christion Jones and Dee Hart, and Alabama might just have some of the best special-teamers in the conference this year.
6. T.J. Yeldon
He gets his own category, because he deserves it. After a slow start to the game, Yeldon came alive in the second half. While not the inside banger Trent Richardson was for Alabama, Yeldon showed good explosiveness around the corner and is already one of the team’s best receivers out of the backfield. He still has a tendency to run too straight-up from time to time, but that will easily be coached out of him before the year is out. If Eddie Lacy returns at 100 percent for the fall, Yeldon will probably split time with Jalston Fowler as Lacy’s backup. One thing seems to be certain, though: He’s proved himself too good to redshirt, no matter what Lacy’s situation happens to be.
7. The backup quarterbacks
One of the most impressive, yet unsung performances of the day was the one turned in by second-team quarterback Phillip Sims, who was throwing despite suffering from shoulder bursitis. All he did was turn in his most consistent performance to date. He didn’t get rattled despite a lack of adequate pass protection from his offensive line, and was limited in the number of long passes he could attempt thanks to his injury. In retrospect, his injury might have helped him in that regard, as Sims’ weak spot is that he tries to force too many mid-deep passes, relying on his superior arm strength. He had to dial things back a bit for this game. Sims’ two touchdowns came on a dump-off pass that T.J. Yeldon turned into something special, and one of his few downfield attempts, a post route to Chris Black where the safeties got crossed up and Black outran walk-on Hunter Bush to the end zone. Ultimately, Sims took care of business and answered a lot of questions that arose after his slow start to the 2011 season. As for Ely, his lack of arm strength relative to Sims and A.J. McCarron was clear, and he started the game slowly. But he got comfortable later on in the game, leading a nice drive for Cade Foster’s field goal and not turning the ball over. He also showed good scrambling ability at times. Alabama still needs to avoid having Ely playing when the chips are down, but if he must play in 2012, he did show that it’s not going to be a total crisis.
8. Tight ends/H-backs
Alabama is back to a twin-TE setup when the starters are in, but Michael Williams and Brian Vogler showed today that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Vogler made several nice catches and at 6’7”, is a tough target to miss. He needs to improve upon his run-blocking, however. Williams, meanwhile, appears to be more involved in the downfield passing game this year, and aside from a late fumble, played a solid game. Harrison Jones and Malcolm Faciane back up that position. The most intriguing name, though, was H-back Brent Calloway, who caught the game’s first pass and is the closest thing Alabama has to Brad Smelley on the 2012 roster. Calloway showed his greenness at times, lining up on the wrong side of the formation at least once and failing to go into motion on one occasion, but he also showed moves that Vogler and Jones don’t have following a sideline pass that he turned into a 6-yard gain thanks to a nifty stop-and-juke move. Unless Alabama is planning to use Jones as another option at H, the third-teamer at the position appears to be Kelly Johnson. Johnson would actually stand a good chance at playing. He is Carson Tinker’s backup at longsnapper, and played on kick coverage a few times in 2011. He’ll already be traveling with the team each week, so carrying a third H doesn’t eat up a roster spot.
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