A-Day Review: Alabama will win with defense in 2015

 

By Jess Nicholas

TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

April 18, 2015

If Alabama is going to be successful in the immediate future, it must go back to its not-so-immediate past.

Alabama’s first-string defense almost pitched a shutout in Saturday’s A-Day game, holding the first-team offense scoreless until the final minute of the game, when Blake Barnett – who got snaps under center for both sides – hit ArDarius Stewart on a corner route against man coverage. The only score the second-team offense managed all day was actually scored by its defense, off a Maurice Smith interception return.

Most of the 50,000 or so in the crowd came to see the quarterback battle, which based on snap counts alone, seemed to be roughly evenly split, with the possible exception of Jake Coker. The final results mirrored the coaches’ snap-division plan for the most part, as Coker looked ahead of the rest of the group for most of the afternoon.

But even though Coker appeared slightly ahead, all five quarterbacks – Coker, Barnett, plus Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Alec Morris – are significantly behind where Blake Sims left off at the end of 2014, even the subpar Blake Sims that showed up for the game against Ohio State.

If Alabama is going to win a title in 2015, the defense will do it.

Here’s the 2015 A-Day breakdown, presented as a scouting report of key position strengths and weaknesses, presented in a 20-80 scale:

Quarterbacks: 50

Jake Coker (14-of-28, 50.0%, 183 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) got off to a slow start before warming up substantially towards the end of the first half. But his second half performance started cold and stayed there. Coker’s best throw went to Robert Foster down to the 2-yard line, but he missed on an earlier touchdown hook-up to Foster when he simply didn’t get the throw off quickly enough. Coker appeared to lock onto his primary receiver and rarely moved to a second option. He displayed good arm strength, but Maurice Smith pick-sixed him on one throw and Dillon Lee nearly baited him into another interception. Still, Coker is clearly the best quarterback at the moment. He may get caught from behind before the start of the season, but he’s the best Alabama has now.

As for backups go, Alabama could draw the rest from a hat. Alec Morris (7-of-11, 63.6%, 60 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT) looked the most comfortable of the others, likely due to his veteran status. But Morris also didn’t make many big plays, and didn’t particularly show the potential to do so. Depending on how conservative Alabama wants to be, Morris could end up being the guy. Worthy to note: Morris played behind the starting offensive tackles, which we’ll touch on later. It made a difference.

Cooper Bateman started with the second unit, which was a mild surprise given that he’d worked at receiver for portions of spring camp. Bateman (7-of-11, 63.6%, 48 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT) arguably had the worst day of the group. His passes were frequently late and soft, and Jabriel Washington picked off his worst pass of the day. Bateman’s arm strength didn’t look up to the level of the others, but regular practice observers report that Bateman has looked like the best quarterback overall in a couple of practices.

David Cornwell (12-of-24, 50.0%, 110 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT) was coming on late in camp and most expected him to start for the second unit. Cornwell has the quickest release of the group and appeared to be the most open to throwing to second and third receivers, but he made several poor decisions, forced a couple of passes and took a long time to get comfortable. A late drive that ended with a touchdown pass to Parker Barrineau probably saved his afternoon.

Blake Barnett (2-of-3, 66.7%, minus-1 yard, 0 TD, 1 INT for the Crimson team; 4-of-6, 66.7%, 26 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT for the White team) looked clearly behind the others in terms of build, and he made his fair share of rookie mistakes, the worst being a pop-gun interception to Anthony Averett that never should have left his hand. But he also displayed the best wheels of the bunch, and after switching from the Crimson to the White team late in the day (and getting better offensive tackles in the trade), engineered a nice late drive that ended in the touchdown pass to Stewart. Alabama had been reduced to a passing scrimmage thanks to the injuries at running back, which explained Barnett throwing touchdowns in the final minute while already up a score, but he still made a perfect throw to Stewart on a route to the front pylon.

Running backs: 65

DeSherrius Flowers injured either a shoulder or a collarbone on his first carry, which deprived the Crimson team of a true running back. Ronnie Clark did a solid job the rest of the day (7 receptions, 40 yards, 5.7 avg., 0 TD; 5 carries, 12 yards, 2.4 avg.), but he isn’t a true running back and may end up at H-back eventually. As for the White team, Derrick Henry (15 carries, 46 yards, 1 TD, 3.1 avg.) and Kenyan Drake (5 carries, 13 yards, 2.6 avg., 0 TD) looked much better, especially Drake, who was down with one-hand touch contact all day as the result of wearing a no-contact jersey. Drake’s speed is still there, and he looks thicker than ever. He did not run routes at wide receiver. At fullback, Michael Nysewander (1 reception, 9 yards) has gotten bigger but he won’t be confused for Jalston Fowler. The biggest thing lacking here is depth. Walk-On Watch: Brandon Turner (1 reception, 11 yards) and Lawrence Erekosima (1 carry, 2 yards; 2 receptions, 4 yards) both showed good speed, but they’re tiny. At fullback, Nysewander is now on scholarship; David D’Amico got some reps late in the game.

Wide receivers: 60

This group looked much better than expected, but the production was top-heavy. Robert Foster (6 receptions, 125 yards, 20.8 avg., 0 TD) and ArDarius Stewart (8 receptions, 118 yards, 14.8 avg., 2 TD) aren’t Amari Cooper, but both were operating at a level higher than last year’s No. 2 guy, DeAndrew White. That kind of production will give Alabama a smooth transition from Cooper, White and Christion Jones to the new guard in the fall, but Alabama must avoid injuries. Chris Black caught only 2 passes for 13 yards, while Raheem Falkins caught 3 for 28. Parker Barrineau caught 3 passes for 16 yards and a touchdown, but dropped an easy third-down catch. Derek Kief and Deionte Thompson were shut out. With Cameron Sims likely out for 2015, those five players need to step up, along with incoming freshmen Calvin Ridley and Daylon Charlot. Walk-On Watch: Barrineau is a former walk-on now on scholarship. Alabama also used Armani Purifoye and Tevin Isom, but neither caught a pass. Isom, at what appears to be a true 6’1”, 185, may be the one to watch.

Tight ends: 50

We’re splitting tight ends off from the receivers because this position deserves almost an entire wrap-up article by itself. Starter O.J. Howard was shut out and was just OK as a blocker. But senior Ty Flournoy-Smith made the most of his A-Day opportunity. Flournoy-Smith caught 5 passes for 46 yards (9.2 avg.) and was wide open on what would have been a longer reception that got batted down at the line. But most importantly, he showed the ability to get open underneath, displayed good quickness and did a credible job blocking even though he’s built like a wide receiver more than a tight end. The fact that he was one of the players lauded as “most improved” in the postgame awards round spoke volumes. Flournoy-Smith (and, to be fair, Howard as well) are built more like H-backs, while Dakota Ball and Johnny Dwight are the Ys on this roster. Ball looked slimmed down and more athletic than in 2014, when he first moved over from defensive line. He caught 3 passes for 23 yards (7.7 avg.) and did a good job on the line. Dwight, who is much bigger, caught a pass for 7 yards and moved well after the catch, much better than Brandon Greene did a year ago. With Hale Hentges coming in the fall, the conventional wisdom has been that at least one of these players will be moved out of the rotation. But the emergence of Flournoy-Smith and Ball give Alabama some hope here. Walk-On Watch: Truett Harris got quite a bit of work as the third-team H-back.

Offensive line: 65

This is completely the result of Alabama’s starting group and particularly the depth at guard. As noted in the pregame preview, Alabama’s tackle depth at the moment is troubling. Brandon Greene and Korren Kirven, both of whom played different positions in 2014, were the starters at right and left tackle, respectively, for the second offense. While both look the part, the Crimson team quarterbacks often dealt with snap-to-effect times of 2 seconds or less, with most of the pressure coming off the edge. The starting line of Ryan Kelly, Bradley Bozeman, Ross Pierschbacher, Cam Robinson and Dominick Jackson were highly effective. The second unit – Greene, Kirven, J.C. Hassenauer, Alphonse Taylor and Dallas Warmack – were much less so, and then Taylor got knocked out with a minor knee injury. Isaac Luatua replaced him, while Josh Casher eventually replaced Bozeman for the White team. Alabama can absorb some hits to the interior three, but Lester Cotton can’t get to campus fast enough to give Alabama more tackle depth. Walk-On Watch: Will Davis got some work at guard, and Alexander Stier gives Alabama a big body on the bench. Chris Posa got in some work at center.

Defensive Line: 75

The loss of Jonathan Taylor didn’t appear to have much tangible effect, as Jarran Reed and friends controlled the line of scrimmage all day. Alabama had two full teams’ worth of depth here, and A’Shawn Robinson didn’t even play. Some people are wondering if this is the best defensive line Alabama has ever fielded, and the only response to that notion is to wait until the season plays out and see. It would be nitpicking at its finest to look for weaknesses at this A-Day game, given the number of sacks, batted balls and the fact that the two teams combined to rush for 16 yards. Kenyan Drake was the only running back to break a long run, but a linebacker touched him as he ran by and got the play blown dead thanks to Drake’s black jersey status for the afternoon. Of note was newcomer O.J. Smith, who blew up J.C. Hassenauer and stuffed Ronnie Clark early in the game. Smith is low and thick but looks able to move well, which makes him useful even against spread offenses. Walk-On Watch: Bernel Jones and Steven Hodge both got in the game late at defensive end.

Linebackers: 70

Reuben Foster has indeed made strides at inside linebacker, but while he, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Reggie Ragland and Keith Holcombe all played well, it was Alabama’s outside linebackers that were the story of the day. With Denzel Devall and Ryan Anderson out, Alabama mostly played its speed rushers – Tim Williams, Rashaan Evans and Christian Miller – and the result was that Alabama’s offensive tackles largely couldn’t handle the pressure. Dillon Lee had his best outing, looking good in pass coverage as well as run support. Walker Jones played well in the middle in reserve. It’s hard to say what the return of Devall and Anderson might mean – Devall, in particular, was criticized for being slow and stiff at times in 2014 – and Evans and Williams both appeared to handle their overall assignments well enough to start if called upon. But one thing is known, now: Alabama no longer has to panic to get Evans or Williams out of a game when offenses change personnel alignments. Walk-On Watch: Jamey Mosley is a solid athlete with the frame to add weight, and did an admirable job in run support from an outside post. Gussie Busch has added weight and could contribute down the line at inside linebacker. Massive senior Max Fequiere got some work on kickoff coverage.

Defensive backs: 60

The best news of the day came from this group, as several newcomers had solid debuts. Marlon Humphrey had a terrific game all around, showing good hitting ability against the run and good coverage ability. Maurice Smith and Geno Smith both appeared to be much improved at safety, and Eddie Jackson was comfortable in his new safety role. True freshman Ronnie Harrison already has the body of a fourth-year junior, and while he wasn’t around the ball as much as he needed to be, this was a good debut. Tony Brown and Bradley Sylve were the first-team corners and both did a good job staying with receivers, and with body positioning. Jabriel Washington continues to cement his status as Alabama’s best ballhawk, inducing an interception from Cooper Bateman. Anthony Averett, who briefly moved to receiver this spring, didn’t appear to have fallen behind at all. He also worked as the second-team kickoff returner, so he is clearly in the team’s plans to some degree. Even with Cyrus Jones out with an injury, this group looked much more composed than it was at the end of the 2014 season. Walk-On Watch: Cedric Powell appears to be third-team at one of the cornerback spots. Powell, who looked a true 5’11”, 185, appeared much more comfortable in his role than walk-on DBs tend to be at Alabama.

Special teams: 65

J.K. Scott averaged 53.8 yards per kick, but had some low line drives and wasn’t his usual self. Adrian Lamothe averaged 43.8 as his backup, which means Alabama has probably cornered the college football world in terms of punting depth. Adam Griffith made 2 of 4 kicks, although the slick field caused him to miss a 53-yarder when he slid down while trying to plant for the kick. Kickoff returners included Chris Black, Kenyan Drake and Anthony Averett, while Black and Parker Barrineau were the top options at punt returner. Cole Mazza’s snaps were better than where he left off in 2014. Walk-On Watch: Lamothe’s punting gives Alabama some breathing room in the event Scott was to get hurt. Alex Harrelson did a nice job as Cole Mazza’s backup at snapper. Placekickers Gunnar Raborn and Nick Gauna looked capable in warmups.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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