By Jess Nicholas | @TideFansJessn
April 23, 2017
For those with extreme Bama fatigue who were hoping Alabama’s chances at contending for a title would leave with Lane Kiffin, a review of Saturday’s A-Day game popped a few bubbles.
This is, once again, a potential title contender, although as head coach Nick Saban alluded to afterward, Alabama is not yet a complete team. Still, if this is what passes for incomplete in the college football world, a complete team would be a truly scary sight to behold.
From the outset, Alabama was aggressive Saturday, particularly on offense, where new coordinator Brian Daboll didn’t return the Crimson Tide to stoic roots so much as he re-taught the offense how to lean forward. Gone was much of Kiffin’s finesse elements; in their place, more NFL-level schemes, strategies and attitude. When everything was clicking, this offense hearkened back to the best years of Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier.
Some familiar shortcomings persist, most notably in the kicking game, and Alabama didn’t answer all the questions it had about defensive line depth or the situation at right offensive tackle. But on a day when two quarterbacks threw for 300 yards each, an embattled wide receiver corps made an impressive statement regarding both depth and ability, and its incumbent starting quarterback led a game-winning drive with just over a minute left, there were plenty of positives to be found.
Here’s a brief take on several situations that played out at Bryant-Denny Stadium:
Good News: WR depth. Calvin Ridley was the only known quantity heading into the spring, following the surprising-to-many early departure of ArDarius Stewart to the NFL. Robert Foster caught 2 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown early on before appearing to gently tweak an ankle. Cameron Sims caught 3 short passes, but the big news was true freshman Jerry Jeudy, who caught 5 balls for 134 yards and 2 touchdowns. Alabama has typically used 5 or 6 receivers in its main rotation under Nick Saban, so Jeudy looks like a lock to make the top group. T.J. Simmons had a circus catch for a touchdown and caught a total of 6 passes for 82 yards, but also dropped a couple of balls right in the bread basket. Xavian Marks looks to have settled into a slot receiver role. Derek Kief was shut out Saturday, but his experience and blocking ability will get him more looks in the fall. Donnie Lee Jr. looks set to be the annual walk-on who gets into the fringes of the playing rotation at receiver. Even with Trevon Diggs switching to cornerback, Alabama looks to have more than enough bodies here and most of them have true playmaking ability.
Bad News: Offensive line concerns, especially at right tackle. Matt Womack played well enough (although somewhat inconsistently) but depth at tackle is still an issue. Alex Leatherwood had trouble with speed rushers. Alabama’s first-team defense recorded 9 sacks. Alabama also tried Lester Cotton, Elliot Baker and Scott Lashley there this spring but quickly settled on Womack and Leatherwood. It’s going to be an issue for the entire season, most likely. To try to put a hat on the issue, it looked like the line had improved a bit from the end of last year but may still be the weakest unit on the offense.
Good News: Starting front seven is just as good as ever. In addition to the nine sacks, it was good to see Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs state their case to replace Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson at tackle. With Da’Shawn Hand limited by injury, Williams and Buggs spent the day doing a good bit of free-roaming behind the first-team offensive line. At linebacker, even with Shaun Dion Hamilton out, the Crimson Tide didn’t seem to mind much. Keith Holcombe had a stupendous day in Hamilton’s absence, recording 10 tackles and 2 sacks. Moreover, it was simply about how this unit looked. Both defenses were aggressive and confident, to say nothing of athletic and able to fill holes. Even down-the-depth-chart names like LB Jamey Mosley made an impact in limited work. A bad-within-a-good note here, though, is the depth situation at defensive tackle. While Jamar King looked much improved and Johnny Dwight appears to have worked hard to transform his body, there was no clear replacement for Da’Ron Payne at tackle should the situation arise. Joshua Frazier, who had gotten to that point by the end of 2016, played behind Dwight for the second unit. Raekwon Davis looked to be the only reserve ready to play now, although King wasn’t far off. Signees Phidarian Mathis and LaBryan Ray each have a chance to grab early playing time.
Bad News: Secondary still has major question marks. It wasn’t until Nick Saban turned the blitz packages loose in the second half that the secondary began to look like a typical Saban-led Alabama defensive backfield. LCB Trevon Diggs especially had a rough day, and while he did battle well for the ball, he was repeatedly targeted and subsequently burned. It took Cyrus Jones the better part of a year to successfully switch sides of the ball, and it appears Diggs is on the same time track. Backup corner Aaron Robinson was on his way to a solid day until a late leg injury. Safety 4Hootie Jones always seemed to be a step late. The best of the reserves was probably CB Levi Wallace, who appeared far steadier than Diggs. The silver lining here was the play of starting safeties Ronnie Harrison and Minkah Fitzpatrick and Star safety Tony Brown, although Harrison got flagged for targeting Calvin Ridley (he could have actually been flagged the series before for a questionable hit on Derek Kief). Aside from Harrison’s overexuberance, though, this was not a bad effort from the starting safety group. But Alabama has to find another cornerback, stat, and also improve on its six-DB packages. Alabama is still awaiting word on the legal status of Deionte Thompson, who could help there. For those insisting on a glass-half-full take, watching true freshman Kyriq McDonald emerge at cornerback gives hope that help could be on the way there soon.
Good News: The quarterback situation actually improved post-2016. Much of Tua Tagovailoa’s theatrics were contained in the first half, when Alabama’s defensive schemes were kept vanilla by design. His day got noticeably rougher in the second half, but it’s not hard to see what the hullabaloo is all about. By contrast, Jalen Hurts was steadier, and was able to maintain production in the second half when Saban dialed up the defensive pressure. Hurts’ running ability is the real door-slammer here, though, as the issues on the right side of the offensive line almost demand that kind of ability in Alabama’s quarterback for 2017. Still, it’s hard to imagine Alabama losing three reserve quarterbacks from a year ago and actually improving at the position, but it happened. Tagovailoa is miles ahead of where either Cooper Bateman or David Cornwell were a year ago, and probably ahead of Blake Barnett as well. One thing that did get decided Saturday, if it hadn’t already: There is a clear one-two-three pecking order at the position and Mac Jones is in third place. Jones didn’t perform badly in his first live work, but Tagovailoa almost looked like a sophomore or junior, whereas Jones’ eyes clearly revealed his inexperience. He’ll be good in the future, but he’s not ready now.
Bad News: Once again, the kicking game is an albatross, not an anchor. Andy Pappanastos missed both field goal tries from intermediate distance, although he hit all PATs and one of his field goal attempts might have been out of a bad hold. J.K. Scott went 3-for-4 on kicks but missed the only long attempt he was called on to deliver. Kickoffs were erratic. Betting on true freshman Joseph Bulovas to seize the position in the fall is a risky proposition, but it might be the only option Alabama really has.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessn