By Jess Nicholas
April 16, 2016
Saturday’s A-Day spring contest, the 10th of Nick Saban’s Bama career, was as much a time for reflection as it was an opportunity to look forward to the 2016 season.
Alabama didn’t pack out Bryant-Denny Stadium, but it did appear to reverse a trend of declining attendance, solidly packing the 60,000-seat lower bowl, most of the west upper decks, and scattering enough fans through the remaining three decks to lead the school to announce attendance at 76,212 – which may have been even a conservative estimate.
For that, fans were treated to a rare speech from the head coach himself, who addressed those in attendance at halftime, speaking for several minutes and taking the opportunity to call out his wife for special praise. It was enough that more than a few fans held their collective breath until he was done, perhaps fearing an impromptu retirement speech.
Instead, it was just more of the same from Nick Saban, who has turned the Alabama job not into just his own personal story of redemption and dominance, but also, once and for all, ended any debate about which program is the king of NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. Alabama’s multi-decade – for that matter, multi-century – run has given the Crimson Tide a sizable lead on whatever program comes second (Notre Dame? USC? Ohio State?) and thus, a buffer for when Saban finally does call it quits.
For the upcoming season, though, Saban had to have been happy about what he saw Saturday. He gets to start his 10th year on the UA sideline with perhaps the fastest, most aggressive defense he’s had in Tuscaloosa. Or Baton Rouge. Or maybe even Miami.
Unfortunately, the prowess of the defense causes Alabama fans to endure another 10th-year rerun of a story: Alabama’s quarterbacks, all four of them, left a lot on the table.
It should bear mentioning that Alabama’s two offenses combined to run only a handful of offensive sets. In fact, less than a handful. Add the total number of formations shown by both teams, count them on one hand, and you have at least one finger left over. A-Day under Saban has been as vanilla as soft-serve, and this one might as well have been unflavored frozen ice.
For that matter, the talk of the postgame revolved around the bipolar kicking game; placekicker Adam Griffith was 1-for-5, but punter J.K. Scott hit 15 punts that looked as if they had been shot out of a mortar. Other than special teams, the rest of the mouth-agape discussion centered on LB/DE Tim Williams, who did things to the Crimson Team offensive tackles that, off the field, would have gotten the attention of the FBI.
Williams epitomizes the next wave of Alabama defenders: lean and fast, but still strong, and disciplined enough to look for the optimal angle to take to get to the ball carrier. With Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson gone off the defensive front, Alabama will have to rely more on guile and aggression rather than pure size. The lack of depth along the defensive line was noticeable.
But because Alabama has an opening at quarterback to contend with, what fans came to see was one quarterback separate himself from the pack, and that didn’t happen.
True freshman Jalen Hurts came the closest, going 11-for-15, throwing the only touchdown of the game and showing elite scrambling ability that was betrayed by the officials’ strict adherence to the one-hand-touched-down rule. Moreover, Hurts showed the quiet feet that had been the hallmark of his recruiting films. His downfield vision is still developing, but he is far ahead of where Blake Barnett was last year when Barnett entered school early and competed in the spring.
As for Barnett, both he and presumptive starter Cooper Bateman appeared to have made significant strides from a year ago. Bateman’s release appeared quicker and his arm strength a bit more potent, but his greatest improvements were made in regards to knowing when to throw the ball away under pressure. If anything, Bateman looked a tad too safe, but it might be easier to loosen him up than to try to teach a young quarterback to dial back the aggressiveness.
David Cornwell was the only quarterback who really appeared to consistently struggle, but a nice out route to Calvin Ridley finally gave him a spring in his step and the play set up the Crimson team’s lone field goal. However, it must be noted that not just in the case of Cornwell and Bateman struggling, but also in the case of Hurts and Barnett excelling, was the fact Hurts and Barnett were facing the second-team defense, something that always makes A-Day quarterback battles tough to evaluate.
In the end, nothing was solved. But the competition may be tighter than before, with Bateman being pushed more now by a true freshman than an older player.
Here’s a look at 10 players who stood out at A-Day, for all the right reasons.
1. DE Tim Williams
The decision by Williams to come back for his senior year might be the most significant decision in recent memory by an Alabama defender. Williams recorded 2 sacks and 3 QB hurries, but he also blew up play after play that didn’t go to his side. Williams is not a particularly large player (roughly 6’2”, 250) but his speed is game-changing. It should be said, however, that he was working against Korren Kirven for much of the day, who was playing left tackle only because Cam Robinson was hurt. Kirven was honored after the game for his improvement, and he is in the mix to start the year at right tackle. The post-Robinson shuffle found Kirven playing left tackle with the 1s and Bradley Bozeman, primarily a guard, forced to play left tackle with the 2s, and neither man is ideally suited for such a role.
2. WR Cameron Sims
Sims caught 3 passes for 66 yards, including a 32-yarder from Jalen Hurts that probably shouldn’t have been thrown in the first place. Sims has spent two years working on his hands and, regrettably, dealing with injury after injury. He’s a make-the-easy-look-tough and make-the-tough-look-easy kind of receiver, and Saturday was his best day yet at Alabama. He had another pass along the sideline waved off when an official said he ran out of bounds on his own, a call that was close enough to have been controversial if made during a live game. Alabama has needed a Kevin Norwood type to step up ever since Norwood exited Tuscaloosa; Sims could be that guy.
3. WR Derek Kief
With the loss of Richard Mullaney, Alabama’s slot role is open. Many fans don’t understand the nuance of Alabama’s three wide receiver positions; while there is much in common across the three spots, there are some specialties that multiple positions don’t share. In 2015, Kief played as an outside receiver only against lesser opposition, and only when Alabama was far ahead. But on a couple of occasions, he replaced an injured Mullaney in close games. Saturday went a long way toward nailing down the slot spot for Kief. He played well without the ball, found soft spots in zones and looked good going across the middle. He ended up with 5 catches for 58 yards and the game’s only touchdown. If he can get rid of the drops for good, he’ll have a key role this fall.
4. TE Miller Forristall
Alabama won’t have a Michael Nysewander on this team, but it might not matter if Forristall continues to develop. Hale Hentges is likely to start at the Y and O.J. Howard at the H position this fall, but Forristall showed his value as a safety-valve receiver, slot tight end and H-back on Saturday. He ended the day with 8 catches for 53 yards and put himself in the conversation for playing time in the fall, something few expected when he committed to Alabama last year. Alabama has needed a reliable receiving tight end to step up as the heir apparent to Howard, and Forristall may be the guy.
5. C Ross Pierschbacher
You can probably now change Pierschbacher’s position from “OL” to “C” permanently. It was telling, in the postgame award ceremony, that while many awards were shared by multiple players, Pierschbacher won the Paul Crane Offensive Lineman Award outright. Pierschbacher’s snaps were perfect all day, and he held his own against Alabama’s first-team defensive line. With Pierschbacher set at center, Lester Cotton apparently is now locked into the left guard spot, and Alabama can focus its attention on the competition on the right side of the line.
6. P J.K. Scott
Alabama legitimately has to worry about its punter jumping to the NFL a year early. There’s not much left to prove for Scott, who absolutely hammered every punt Saturday. That he can do it while making it look so effortless speaks to his immense raw talent for the job. Just give him the Ray Guy Award now and be done with it.
7. RB Damien Harris
Harris needed this showing in the worst way, given the way 2015 ended for him. Harris looked tentative and even small during his true freshman season, and ultimately lost the backup job to Bo Scarbrough at year’s end. But Saturday, he carried 20 times for 114 yards and added another 20 yards receiving on two catches. Meanwhile, it was Scarbrough who couldn’t get going (9 carries, 20 yards, 2.2 avg.), although it must be noted that Scarbrough was facing a tougher defense. Regardless, Harris made this a battle heading into the fall, and presuming both players stay healthy, there could actually be more functional depth at running back in 2016 than in 2015, as Henry was pretty much a one-man show for the second half of last year. A mini-shout-out here should also go to walk-on Derrick Gore, who looked like a scholarshipped player in relief of Harris and is now a legitimate presence on the depth chart.
8. LB Rashaan Evans
Evans was credited with a whopping 17 tackles on the day, meaning the move inside worked. He still didn’t start – Shaun Dion Hamilton got the call next to Reuben Foster with the 1s – and that very well may not change in the fall. But Evans has certainly won himself more playing time, and he is still a threat off the corner, meaning Alabama could feasibly run sets featuring all three players.
9. DE/LB Anfernee Jennings
Jennings played defensive end and as a stand-up Jack on Saturday, and finished the day with 6 tackles, 3 of them for sacks. Jennings, like Tim Williams, is an oddly-built guy for this defense but he uses it to his advantage, creating mismatches with both slower offensive linemen and smaller skill players trying to block him. Jennings also has a little bit of Wallace Gilberry in him, in that he is a tactician who plays with great leverage and guile. It’s hard to imagine him not contributing this fall.
10. LB Christian Miller
Like Jennings, Miller also finished the day with 3 sacks. He’ll probably play strongside linebacker exclusively this fall in twin-rush sets opposite either Tim Williams or Ryan Anderson. Miller started playing special teams at the end of the 2015 season, which is how Saban has worked countless youngsters slowly into the mix for playing time. Now that he’s finally carrying enough weight, look for him to be a bigger part of the plan going forward.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN