By Jess Nicholas
April 21, 2018
At most A-Day games, especially those overseen by Nick Saban, it isn’t so much what you see as what you don’t see.
There aren’t a lot of complicated blitzes. There aren’t a bunch of funky offensive sets. There isn’t much more to be seen other than a basic overview of the depth chart, on-the-hoof estimations of successful (or not-so-successful) strength-and-conditioning efforts, and maybe a few tendencies sneak through in years – like this one – where Alabama is replacing an offensive coordinator.
What wasn’t seen this Saturday was a true picture of Alabama’s quarterback situation. Because Tua Tagovailoa wasn’t in it.
A pair of hand injuries shelved Tagovailoa and turned A-Day into a showcase for incumbent starter Jalen Hurts to work against redshirt freshman Mac Jones. And if the game had ended after the first half, so would have the competition: Jones would have won by TKO.
But games have two halves, and until the waning seconds of the game, when Jones hit Xavian Marks with a game-icing touchdown, Jones had spent the second half on his heels a bit while Hurts must have gotten the message at halftime (“Hey, what do you think third string looks like?”) and did a much better job of moving the starting offense in the second half.
It would be unfair not to note that Jones got to work against cornerbacks Nigel Knott and Rogria Lewis all day – two guys who won’t play much in the fall absent blowouts or injury issues – while Hurts had to face Trevon Diggs and Saivion Smith, a pair of corners who could see NFL action as soon as 2019. Jones also got to work against wideout-playing-safety Slade Bolden, who took a bad angle on Chadarius Townsend’s long touchdown catch-and-run in the first half. But a lot of Hurts’ faults from 2016 and 2017 were still apparent in 2018: He took too long to see routes developing, he didn’t throw anyone open, and he focused on primary receivers to the detriment of the play. Thankfully for Hurts, A-Day’s touch-sack rules wiped off a particularly horrible throw following an equally horrible decision to throw that ended up being an easy, would-be interception for Diggs.
Jones had a bad INT of his own – Jared Mayden was the beneficiary of one of the easiest-to-catch interceptions in the history of interceptions – but Jones is a redshirt freshman with no live-fire work under his belt. Hurts has 28 starts’ worth of experience. His development cycle still seems stuck at around the Week 5 or 6 mark of last year.
Aside from the quarterback debate, which can’t be fully answered until Tagovailoa shows up in August, the rest of the game might as well have been renamed “A Nightmare On 10th Street: Here Comes Alabama’s Defensive Line.”
It’s hard to imagine a line that lost Da’Ron Payne, Da’Shawn Hand, Joshua Frazier and Jamar King could actually be better, but it’s in the discussion. And it more or less comes down to Raekwon Davis, who went from barely playing as a freshman, to improving every week as a sophomore, to drawing comparisons to everyone from Ndamakong Suh to Godzilla as a rising junior. Davis batted his way through a very good, veteran offensive line much the way a spelunker clears spider webs from his path. In addition to Davis, Isaiah Buggs continues to improve, and Quinnen Williams appears to have thickened up enough in all the right places to make a push for the starting nosetackle job.
It wasn’t just Hurts who had to deal with a ferocious defensive line, either. Mac Jones has probably seen enough of LaBryan Ray to last him awhile. Johnny Dwight won one of the “Most Improved” awards after the game, and to some, looks already more effective in a reserve tackle role than Frazier did last year. Redshirt freshman Phidarian Mathis has probably changed the most in regards to body type, and now looks like a legitimate force. Combining these two lines together for the fall, opposing offensive coordinators are going to be scrambling to deal with the results.
Until August gets here, the fans have much to chew on, but few solid answers. Does Tagovailoa take the starting job? Does Hurts transfer? Does Jones catch him from behind? A quarterback discussion alone will take up all of June and most of July, and that’s before the fans get around to discussing who the sixth receiver will be.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama’s A-Day game:
1. At this point, it’s hard to imagine Hurts continuing to start at quarterback. Let’s address the positives first: Even with the one-hand-touch rule for quarterbacks during A-Day, Hurts hurt the first-team offense with his legs. Had live tackling rules been in force, Hurts would have easily been over the 100-yard mark on the ground, which would have given him another 300-yard day of total offense. It’s that reason most of all that he can’t be counted out of the competition. But from a passing standpoint, even working with a guru like Dan Enos hasn’t seemed to help. Hurts was victimized by more dropped passes than Jones, the most egregious of which came when Damien Harris dumped a perfect pass with 20 yards of green field in front of him – but that didn’t make up for several failures to get the ball out early. Jones threw too early on his interception, but his decisiveness was clear to all eyes. Hurts has seemed to improve in regards to spreading the ball around, and he threw several nice deep passes. But he had at least two easy interceptions dropped and a quick whistle wiped out a third. It’s possible we haven’t seen all of Mike Locksley’s ideas for a mobile pocket, as it’s impossible to run those plays at A-Day when the quarterbacks are bubbled. More likely, though, we’re seeing the transition of Hurts from starting quarterback to something else, whether that’s another position or another location.
2. New coaches, new aggressiveness on both sides of the ball. This appeared more prominent on the defensive side, where the combination of new defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi and new defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski looks like it could pay instant dividends. Alabama’s line had a fantastic 2017 season under Karl Dunbar, especially given how careful Alabama had to manage a thin depth chart. The numbers look a little better right now, so there will hopefully be more bodies in the rotation and therefore, fresher depth. The players that played there today on both teams looked quicker off the ball, more aggressive and more willing to get upfield. Perhaps no one looked more improved than LaBryan Ray, who spent his entire day running around or through offensive tackles. Davis and Buggs pounded the interior of the first-team offensive line, and Alabama rotated different players at guard trying to get the best look. Arguably, the best results may have come with Josh Casher and Lester Cotton in the game rather than Jedrick Wills. Offensively, Locksley’s preferred style – less straight-ahead than former OC Brian Daboll, but perhaps less varied than Lane Kiffin – would seem to let the quarterbacks off the 2017 leash somewhat. One noticeable change in the offense was the free release given more frequently to running backs in the passing game. Not only were the tight ends a bigger part of the game, but Alabama is going to make defenses pay for dropping back into coverage against Alabama’s superlative WR group.
3. Alabama has to feel good about special teams for a change. Joseph Bulovas kicked for both teams and while he isn’t going to challenge for a Groza Award anytime soon, he was vastly improved over where he was in fall practices in 2017 and Alabama can work with this. Once Austin Jones arrives on campus in August, Alabama will actually have one of the better PK depth charts in the conference, if not the country. Bulovas obliterated several kickoffs as well, and with the new kickoff rules, Alabama might see 5-10 kicks returned against it all year. At punter, Skyler DeLong has apparently won the job already, as backup Mike Bernier punted just once. DeLong hit one bad punt for every two good ones, but even the bad ones weren’t terrible. Whereas J.K. Scott got the ball airborne (and high) very quickly, DeLong hits on a lower trajectory but also in such a way that he manages to get extended hang at the end of the kick, while Scott’s kicks would often plummet quickly over the last 10-15 yards. There was nothing that could be gleaned from the return units, which aren’t live for A-Day. We’ve called for at true special teams coordinator for years and it’s nice to see Nick Saban dedicate the extra assistant position that went live this year to hiring Jeff Banks.
4. Offensive line looked rougher than expected. The defense being ahead of the offense is nothing new at Alabama or anywhere else in spring ball. The fact Alabama’s veteran offensive line, which goes at least three platoons deep, had such trouble against the Tide’s front seven, though, is a bit troubling. Only two positions look settled at the moment, with Jonah Williams at left tackle and Ross Pierschbacher at center. There’s plenty that could happen elsewhere. Despite fans writing off Matt Womack’s return at right tackle, the fact is Womack was Alabama’s second- or third-best OL down the stretch in 2017, especially as it relates to consistency. If Alex Leatherwood holds onto right tackle, fans who have been begging to see Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills in the game at the same time will probably have to wait a year. Wills, Lester Cotton and Josh Casher appear to be in a dead heat for the two guard spots, and from the second unit, both Deonte Brown and Dallas Warmack appear to have made strides from last year, particularly in regards to conditioning. Alabama will probably figure this puzzle out before fall, but with the offensive line perhaps being the last piece still suffering from erratic play at times, it could also be that those in charge of fielding this unit will start feeling some heat.
5. If you’re looking for a problem spot, look to the secondary. If Alabama had to go to war with only this group, the Crimson Tide would be fine so long as everyone stayed upright. But the Crimson Tide is two injuries, perhaps just one, from being in the danger zone. The biggest issue is at cornerback. Trevon Diggs and Saivion Smith are big, physical, can run and can catch. Their backups are walk-ons with no real prior work on the field (Rogria Lewis, Donavan Mosley) and Nigel Knott, who did appear somewhat bigger than last year, but who is still more of a pure cover corner who lacks positional versatility. The situation at safety and Star is much better, but an injury to Deionte Thompson in particular would be devastating. Fortunately, Alabama recruited exceptionally well at these positions in February, but there is always the possibility of players not being able to make the transition from high school to college. Patrick Surtain Jr. looks as close to a sure thing at corner as one could possibly look at this point, but he has to prove it first. If he does, a lot of the worry goes away. If he’s slow to transition, the background music drops into a minor key. Other than this group, Alabama looks almost embarrassingly deep everywhere else.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN