A-Day 2013: What we’ll be watching

 

Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban during the spring game at Bryant Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban during the 2012 spring game at Bryant Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

April 19, 2013

There is always a debate as to the importance of A-Day from the perspective of what translates and doesn’t translate to the field in the fall.

On one hand, both offenses and defenses are very vanilla. A good comparison would be postseason all-star games like the Senior Bowl, where, for the sake of simplicity in understanding, defenses are often limited to a certain combination of looks and coverages. The frenetic blitz packages designed by Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart rarely make an appearance in this game.

 

On the other hand, those who say A-Day is worthless as a prognostication tool should check A-Day depth charts against those of actual games the following season. Aside from counting in fall-reporting freshmen and players who miss the A-Day game due to injury, those you see (or don’t see) on the field this Saturday, for the most part, will be the ones you see (or don’t see) on the field this fall.

 

There are several storylines that fans are hoping to see play out at A-Day – which figures to be a difficult proposition, given the running clock and simplified schemes. Although extrapolating the results of what amounts to be a single scrimmage is a dicey endeavor, here are 10 things to keep an eye on Saturday.

 

1. The battle at cornerback

No position group will be under scrutiny as much as Alabama’s cornerbacks will be, thanks to an injury and overall concerns about quality depth. With Dee Milliner gone early to the NFL, Alabama will have to lean on returning starter Deion Belue, whose 2012 season was mostly solid but sometimes erratic. An injury to senior John Fulton has further complicated matters this spring, with sophomore Geno Smith and converted wide receiver Cyrus Jones currently atop the depth chart opposite Belue and at the Star position, a hybrid safety/corner. When Fulton returns in the fall, he figures to be no worse than the third cornerback thanks to his experience, so Smith and Jones are essentially battling for one position. Alabama rarely plays more than 6 or 7 different DBs, at least until a substantial lead is built. The loser of this battle might be relegated to reserve duty – and then there’s the question of whether Belue has improved enough to approximate Milliner’s contributions from a year ago. Offensive performances in earlier scrimmages suggest it hasn’t.

 

2. Rotation at tight end and H-back

Overlooked somewhat thanks to the offensive fireworks of the passing game this spring has been what Alabama plans to do with its tight end and H-back roles. Brian Vogler appears set to start at tight end, but what of H-back? It largely depends on who wins the job. Harrison Jones appears to be the frontrunner at the moment, but true freshman O.J. Howard is in play, and then there’s Jalston Fowler, who isn’t an H-back at all, but a fullback instead. If Jones holds on, Alabama will essentially have a twin-tight-end look much the way it did in 2008 with Nick Walker and Travis McCall, although Jones is a bit bigger than McCall. While the Walker/McCall duo wasn’t a pass-catching dynamo, the two probably represent the height of blocking skill at the position since Saban took over in 2007. Alabama could do a lot worse at this point. Vogler has been making steady progress since arriving on campus, but has yet to show signs of being a dynamic receiver. Howard’s bailiwick, on the other hand, is almost exclusively in catching the ball, meaning he currently is in a similar place to where Brad Smelley was a true freshman. If Alabama chooses to go with Fowler, the I-formation will likely be the order of the day.

 

3. The emergence of Derrick Henry as the third tailback Who will be the third tailback?

Derrick Henry’s broken leg will force fans to wait until the fall to see the debut of the most uniquely-built running back on a SEC roster. Henry appeared to be on the verge of nailing down a spot as the third tailback – perhaps even making situational backs out of veterans Jalston Fowler and Dee Hart – before breaking his fibula, meaning the floor is open once more for Fowler and Hart to make their statements.

 

4. Offensive line rotation in light of coaching change

As Mario Cristobal takes over as Alabama’s offensive line coach, he not only does so with three positions up for grabs, there’s also the question of whether Cristobal plans to substitute more freely (or, whether he’ll even be given the option by Saban). Ryan Kelly appears to have nailed down the starting center job, but left guard (Arie Kouandjio, Kellen Williams) and right tackle (Austin Shepherd, Leon Brown) are still up for grabs. A subplot here is Brown, who is an early-entrant JUCO signee, which typically means instant starter. But Austin Shepherd appears ahead at this point. Saturday will be fans’ first chance to see whether that’s because Shepherd has progressed, or whether Brown has been slow to develop – and whether Alabama plans to platoon any or all line positions.

 

5. The kicking competition

If you’re betting on which departed player from the 2012 team has been the most overlooked up to this point, look no further than Jeremy Shelley, who was essentially automatic from inside 40 yards for two years straight. Even though sub-40-yard kicks don’t seem like much to some, perfection at any kicking distance with game pressure applied is something not easily replaced. Cade Foster and Adam Griffith have been essentially even this spring, and Saturday might not do much to change that – unless the added pressure of kicking in front of a crowd helps separate them.

 

6. Unknowns making a statement

This is always a fun topic at A-Day, and it doesn’t always come to fruition. You’d have to go way back to Rashad Johnson’s second year on campus at Alabama to find the last time a completely unknown player made a strong statement – and Johnson did it as a running back, prior to moving to the secondary. It took Waine Bacon two years of solid A-Day play to get noticed, but he eventually became a starter thanks in no small part to his A-Day heroics. Best bet this year? Keep an eye on DE/LB Anthony Orr, who has drawn praise from onlookers as a pass rusher; LB Ryan Anderson, who is working both inside and outside; and CB Bradley Sylve, who needs to emerge at a position of need.

 

7. QB depth chart still cluttered

A.J. McCarron is obviously No. 1, and Blake Sims appears to have solidified the No. 2 slot. What comes after that is a hot mess. Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod, Phillip Ely and Luke Del Rio are all vying to make the weekly SEC travel squad. There simply won’t be enough snaps to evaluate them all Saturday, and it could be that Del Rio and perhaps McLeod don’t even get to play. Or, one of them will get snaps very late in the game when the coaches empty the bench of walk-ons for the benefit of parents, and call an endless stream of running plays. On the subject of unknowns getting significant mileage out of A-Day performances, it was at his first A-Day game that Blake Sims turned a few heads regarding his arm strength, so it’s well within reason to expect someone else to make a statement Saturday. Whether that’s enough to shake up the current depth chart – Morris is assumed to be third at the moment – is something else entirely.

 

8. Just how good are these receivers, anyway?

Good enough that, despite DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell not being 100 percent thanks to injury, Alabama moved Cyrus Jones to cornerback and Christion Jones has been getting reps on both sides of the ball. Practice observers say this is probably the best collection of receivers ever at Alabama, high praise for a program that not too long ago counted Julio Jones as a member of its team. Amari Cooper, along with White, Bell, Jones and Kevin Norwood, will make up the core nucleus of a group that adds redshirt freshman Chris Black and true freshman Raheem Falkins. Both newcomers have been turning heads this spring, with Black in particular expected to play a key role in the fall. Fans might not see the full spectrum of this group’s abilities Saturday, though, as White and Bell figure to be protected on top of the team being divided into two squads.

 

9. Defensive line still a question mark

If Alabama were to play a real game today, Brandon Ivory would start at nosetackle with Jeoffrey Pagan, Ed Stinson and redshirt freshman Dalvin Tomlinson rotating at the two end positions. With all the focus on the secondary this spring, the defensive line has flown under the radar a bit, but there’s nothing that can help a green secondary quite like a top-flight pass rush. The questions for each player are different: Can Ivory stay healthy? Is Pagan’s production ready to catch up with his immense potential? Will Stinson continue his steady progression forward? Is Tomlinson ready for SEC play? Alabama needs all to step up, along with getting at least some measure of consistent contribution from players like Darren Lake, Dakota Ball and LaMichael Fanning. The biggest question from this group as a whole is, outside of Ivory and Lake, one of pure size. This could be one of the smaller – but perhaps, quicker – groups of defensive linemen Alabama has had in some time.

 

10. New faces in key roles on special teams

The Adam Griffith-Cade Foster battle isn’t the only one to watch on special teams. With Carson Tinker gone, Alabama needs a new long snapper. Cole Mazza won’t be on campus until the fall, so far now, the long snapper question boils down to M.K. Taylor vs. Alex Harrelson. There is also the matter of Dee Hart’s health. The coaches would seem to prefer Hart at punt returner ahead of Christion Jones and others, but Hart is coming off his second major knee surgery and isn’t quite back to full speed yet. If Hart could somehow make it back to 100 percent health, he’d give the Tide a major weapon in the kick return game.

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