By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
April 20, 2013
As it often seems to be the case, A-Day 2013 turned more into a discussion of what Alabama has left to do than what it has already accomplished.
Several questions were left unanswered after a game that was, frankly, sloppy and a bit disorganized. Alabama turned the ball over eight times and two other fumbles were recovered by the offense, while quarterbacks appeared ready to throw into any coverage rather than take a two-hand-touch sack.
A-Day’s primary objective is to keep injuries to a minimum, which this one happened to accomplish. Aside from minor bumps to DE LaMichael Fanning and S Landon Collins, the worst hit anyone took at this game was a spectator on the sidelines who was in the wrong place when Collins came out of bounds on an interception return.
In between, Alabama fans were treated to a limited sampling of the Crimson Tide’s playbook, which consisted mostly of drag patterns to the running back and a single wide receiver, handoffs to a tailback out of the Pistol formation and the occasional deep post pattern. The defense’s signature blitz packages were mostly absent.
Prior to the game, we identified 10 questions and/or areas to watch at A-Day 2013. Here’s what we saw on Saturday:
Issue #1: The battle at cornerback
Results: Showing promise, but not there yet
Deion Belue showed a ton of improvement from the end of the 2012 season. After biting on a stop-and-go route from Kenny Bell on the game’s first series, Belue locked down all receivers from that point forward. His highlight was a beautiful swat of an A.J. McCarron pass when he had one-on-one coverage on Amari Cooper, with Cooper a step ahead of him. If Belue can continue to add a bit of size in summer conditioning work without losing his speed or fluidity, Alabama will be fine there. As for the other slot, Cyrus Jones got burned badly early on, getting turned around by Kenny Bell on a simple route and yielding a touchdown. He played better as the game went along, however. Geno Smith did a nice job at Star and also when playing at corner after Belue was removed late in the game. Jabriel Washington and Bradley Sylve had good days. Unless Belue is it, there doesn’t appear to be a true lockdown corner on this team, and we’ll need a larger sample size from Belue before we call him one. John Fulton didn’t play due to his foot injury, but it’s hard to imagine him not playing a role, perhaps even starting, once he gets back this fall.
Issue #2: Rotation at tight end and H-back
Results: Back to 2008
As expected, Alabama seemed to revert a bit back to its Nick Walker/Travis McCall days. Brian Vogler and Harrison Jones both played both positions, H and Y, and aside from their jersey numbers looked like the same player. Both did well in in-line blocking, and Vogler got free a couple of times and looked much more athletic after the catch than Michael Williams ever did. O.J. Howard was a real change-up for the Crimson team, and obviously needs more time in the weight room. He was practically another receiver when he was on the field, not a true tight end. Kurt Freitag, who along with Howard seems to be it as far as true H-backs are concerned, didn’t see a lot of action. If nothing changes before fall, look for Vogler and Jones to get the majority of the snaps, with Malcolm Faciane providing depth at Y and Howard a change of pace at H.
Issue #3: Who will be the third tailback?
Results: Injuries make this one impossible to answer
Jalson Fowler didn’t play, which affected both this question and the one that preceded it, since he’s in the mix at both H-back and fullback. Dee Hart played sparingly, but his lack of size continues to be evident, and for now his primary role looks to be as a special teams player. With Fowler and Derrick Henry out and Hart being protected, it fell to walk-on Trey Roberts to get most of the late work – for both teams – and he did a fairly nice job, getting 23 yards on 6 carries and catching a pass for 31 yards, showing some good speed. But he also got blown up in pass protection and it will be hard for him to crack the rotation once Alabama gets to full strength.
Issue #4: Offensive line rotation in light of coaching change
Results: Everything looks good to go
This was probably the most pleasant surprise Saturday, given Alabama was replacing three starters. Center Ryan Kelly did a fine job, and Austin Shepherd didn’t do anything in this game to loosen his grip on the right tackle job. Arie Kouandjio looked very good on pulls and traps at left guard, and did a good job getting up the field with his brother. The left side of the line appears to be a strength once again. Kellen Williams also showed nice ability as Kouandjio’s backup, and spent as much time with the 2s at left tackle as Brandon Greene did, suggesting Williams could wind up being the top sub at all five positions. The second unit did a good job as well, with Greene, Williams and RT Leon Brown being a bit ahead of C Chad Lindsey and RG Isaac Luatua. Alabama probably won’t be as dominating in 2013 as it was in 2012, but the Tide is closing in on having two SEC-quality platoons on this team, a unique feat.
Issue #5: The kicking competition
Results: Kickers weren’t tested, but mechanics looked solid
Cade Foster started with the 1s and didn’t appear to do anything to lose his position. His kickoffs had good distance and he hit the only field goal try of the day, from 29 yards out. The best news for Foster is that he didn’t have issues with his mechanics, which he seems prone sometimes to struggle with. Adam Griffith also looked solid on kickoffs and hit his two PATs. While his future looks bright, there would seem to have to be something major occur over the summer or in fall camp to elevate him above Foster.
Issue #6: Unknowns making a statement
Results: DBs, walk-ons get their jerseys dirty
This is always a fun one to watch because, for some players, A-Day will represent the only time they see significant action at Bryant-Denny Stadium. There is also a subset of this category, one we usually mention but didn’t this year, called “which senior will step up.” There seems to be one or two senior players each year that improve dramatically in that last season and go from being an also-ran to a key cog in the team. If you had to give it a name, you could call it the “Marcus Spencer Award.” This year, S Nick Perry got his name in both categories. Perry isn’t a total unknown, as he was a starter for part of 2012, but his role was minimized even in game that he started. Saturday, he looked like the second coming of Mark Barron, picking off two passes and affecting several plays. As for the three players TideFans.com identified in the pregame report (LB/DE Anthony Orr, LB Ryan Anderson, CB Bradley Sylve), Orr started at Jack with the 2s and had a decent game, as did Sylve and Anderson, but none of the three had the kind of coming-out party that Perry had. Several walk-ons had decent performances, including WRs Parker Barrineau and Ty Reed , OT Harold Nicholson and C Paul Waldrop, as well as the aforementioned RB Trey Roberts.
Issue #7: QB depth chart still cluttered
Results: No one had a great day, separation hard to come by
And that includes A.J. McCarron, who took some chances he wouldn’t have taken in a real game. Nick Saban expressed disappointment in Blake Sims’ performance, saying it didn’t look like what he’d done in scrimmages so far this spring, but Alabama will likely go into 2013 with him as the primary backup, so here’s hoping it was just a case of Sims having a bad day. Alec Morris turned heads thanks to his arm strength and final drive in the Tide’s two-minute offense, but he threw into coverage too many times and needs to throttle back somewhat. Pregame comparisons to Freddie Kitchens seem to be eerily appropriate. It’s likely that Morris has already passed Phillip Ely on the depth chart, and there’s no comparison between the two in terms of playmaking ability. Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman played just sparingly, and Bateman had a rough outing, getting picked twice. McLeod had a nice pass to Parker Barrineau on a smash route, but he looked just as skittish as Bateman did overall in terms of dealing with the pressure. Since Bateman’s first play was wiped out by a pre-snap penalty (and he was subsequently replaced by Sims), Luke Del Rio technically entered the game ahead of him, looking competent while directing the only pure 3s-versus-3s series of the game. If McCarron stays healthy the entire year, look for Alabama to use Sims as his backup and as an occasional change-of-pace quarterback. If McCarron were to miss a large number of snaps, though, Morris might have something to say about it.
Issue #8: Just how good are these receivers, anyway?
Results: Pretty darned good
While Deion Belue kept Amari Cooper relatively tame Saturday, Kenny Bell had a nice return to action, catching 3 passes for 71 yards and a score. But DeAndrew White might have looked the best overall, adjusting to passes in the air nicely, altering his routes to help his quarterbacks and looking solid after the catch. Christion Jones caught a late bomb from McCarron, while Chris Black and Raheem Falkins had nice debuts. Walk-on Parker Barrineau could probably break into the playing rotation at a lot of SEC schools, but probably won’t at Alabama, especially given that Kevin Norwood didn’t dress out and more talent is due in town once fall camp starts. The takeaway here is that opposing teams will have to have excellent secondaries in order to keep up.
Issue #9: Defensive line still a question mark
Results: Depth a factor inside, more control needed at point of attack
The first-team line was adequate, but certainly not spectacular at limiting T.J. Yeldon, given that Yeldon might be the best back in the SEC. The second-team line fared much better against Kenyan Drake, but both sides gave up several and-shorts conversions. Edge pass rush looked more cohesive than in 2012, which bore out what we highlighted in the pregame: Overall, this appears to be a quicker, but more slender defensive front group as a whole. The Tide’s depth chart at nose goes exactly two-deep at the moment, Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake. Dakota Ball was signed as a nosetackle, but he played mostly end Saturday, not being as big as either Ivory or Lake. It’s hard to know how (or if) Wilson Love figures into things; he was hurt and did not dress for Saturday’s game, and while he’s been mentioned off and on in connection with the nosetackle position, he has yet to line up there for meaningful work except in practices. Depth is iffy enough at the moment that an accurate three-deep at this point would include at least one walk-on, either Jay Woods or Michael Newsome, depending on where Ball lined up. Newsome played inside Saturday while Woods was at end. No matter who played, watching the point of attack revealed the defensive line has some catching up to do with the offensive line.
Issue #10: New faces in key roles on special teams
Results: Little real change from 2012 – and that’s a good thing
M.K. Taylor will leave spring practice the presumptive starter at long-snapper, and unless Cole Mazza just blows the doors off in the fall, Alabama might do well to redshirt him. Taylor had a solid day and gives Alabama some depth there, whether Mazza is the real deal or not. Alabama used multiple holders (all did well) and three punt returners (Dee Hart, Chris Black, Christion Jones). Hart and Black should solidify that position in 2013, as neither Christion Jones nor Cyrus Jones inspired much confidence in 2012. As for kickoff returns, Hart was not present on those teams, but that was perhaps because he was lining up as a gunner on the coverage side, a role he excelled at in 2012. A new name, walk-on DB Y’Latio Jones – who will win the award for most unique name if nothing else – ran with the 2s along with Bradley Sylve at kick returner. As for punter, Cody Mandell was killing the ball Saturday, while Worth Gregory backed him up. Gregory hammered several punts in warm-ups, but short-kicked his only attempt in the game. It’s worth remembering, though, that Mandell struggled with consistency his first couple of seasons on campus as well.
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