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Alabama in somewhat uncharted territory with football practice, ticket renewals

Analyses of sport-specific issues are difficult enough to write. How about one dealing with the entire umbrella of Alabama’s decision-making process concerning the entire football program?

Whether you think the COVID-19 scare is just that, a scare, or whether it’s the second coming of the Spanish Flu (that makes this the second TideFans.com article to reference the Spanish Flu in two days, following Chris DePew’s fine recap of the end of basketball season, found elsewhere on this site), the fact remains Alabama football – as far as being a spectator sport is concerned – is likely done for the spring.

The questions fans wanted to see answered during open competition, chief among them the battle at quarterback between holdovers Mac Jones and Taulia Tagovailoa and incoming freshman Bryce Young, are either going to be answered behind closed doors, or not at all. The process will certainly be delayed, and unless COVID-19 leans heavily toward “scare” and away from the alternative, everything will get pushed to fall camp, which is going to make August an absolute madhouse nationwide.

In the event the NCAA relents quickly on its public sports ban, Alabama then has to decide (assuming it answers the “if” question) how to old A-Day. There are construction schedules in place, and Alabama was already going to have to limit the crowd to around 30,000 people for safety reasons. It’s a good bet COVID-19 fretting will take care of any overcrowding issues by itself, but the question is whether Alabama could turn A-Day into May-Day, or whether the team overseeing stadium expansion would allow it.

Heck, for that matter, will Bryant-Denny Stadium even be ready on time for the fall season?

Will there even be a fall season?

What seemed unconscionable a week ago is now a legitimate concern. There are still questions of the world’s response to COVID-19 – why panic here, and not during earlier scares like SARS or Swine Flu? – and if there is any kind of forced containment or quarantine coming down the pike, how long would it last? Would the U.S. economy survive long enough to wait it out?

A better question is, what happens next? Viruses similar to COVID-19 are difficult, if not impossible to truly kill, so if this becomes a recurring part of our vocabulary, are we due for an annual hibernation of sorts? What if COVID-19 ceases to be a threat, but another one comes along in a year or two? Do we dance this same dance again?

There are loads of questions generated here, with no good answers, nor consensus on who should have a say in answering them. Human spirit being what it is, it’s hard to imagine we’d all get accustomed to yearly or semi-yearly forced home confinement. It’s a good bet people would grow weary of their retirement accounts being firebombed every year or two by the virus-of-the-month club, too.

And just when it couldn’t look any crazier, with toilet paper becoming currency and hand sanitizer taking on rare-earth qualities – Alabama mailed out its ticket renewal forms this week.

The obvious question becomes, what if there isn’t a season? Playing the what-if game for a moment, what if COVID-19 is dastardly enough that teams either can’t get ready in time to start the season, or worse yet, the virus is still virulent when the calendar rolls to September? Does Alabama refund the money it takes in for tickets?

With Greg Byrne running things and a stadium expansion underway? Not on your sniffly, sneezy life.

If spring practice goes on as scheduled (or once it eventually happens following a delay), here’s what we’re watching.

  1. Quarterback: We’ve talked about it before and it’s going to get talked about ad nauseam everywhere, but Alabama has to decide whether to go with the upperclassman with experience (and a superb showing in Alabama’s bowl game), Mac Jones, or whether to hand the reins to the next latest and greatest, true freshman Bryce Young, and sit back and let him develop. Taulia Tagovailoa appears to be a man without a country at the moment, although he did nothing to damage confidence in his abilities during a limited number of opportunities in 2019. Paul Tyson is in the mix but as a developmental quarterback only at the moment.
     
    Prediction: This will be a Jones-Young battle well into the season, and Tagovailoa’s future may be at a different program.

  2. Tight end: Alabama recruited Carl Tucker as a graduate transfer from North Carolina, but he won’t be in Tuscaloosa until the summer. That gives holdovers Miller Forristall, Major Tennison, Cameron Latu, Giles Amos, Kendall Randolph, Michael Parker and Jahleel Billingsley a couple more months to state their respective cases for playing time. Alabama uses an Ace package set with enough regularity that the second tight end is technically considered a starter. Forristall leads primarily Tennison and Billingsley at the moment, and if he picks up where he left off against Michigan, Forristall would be a safe bet to do no worse than start at H-back as the second tight end. Tucker wasn’t signed to ride the bench, so Tennison and Amos especially need to show out.

    Billingsley, a true freshman in 2019, has more time in the future to make an impact and will likely be Alabama’s starting tight end in 2021. Randolph did fine as a blocking specialist but Tucker’s ability to catch passes as well as block probably consigns Randolph back to offensive guard for 2020. This position was a black hole for Alabama for much of 2019, as Forristall battled injuries and didn’t get consistent until right at the end. No one else made a significant impact, and Billingsley’s body hadn’t developed yet. Tucker already looks physically superior to his future competition.
     
    Prediction: Forristall holds serve and plays a key role at H in the fall. Tucker gets the Y spot the minute he steps onto campus.

  3. Punter: Skyler DeLong is the guy on scholarship, and scholarshipped kickers will always get every chance they deserve, and then some they might not. It’s unlikely Will Reichard will get another look here. He was too fragile as a freshman and didn’t rate a dual role next to his name in the newest roster, but others did. So the question is whether the third time’s the charm for DeLong, or whether Ty Perine, a walk-on who seemed to emerge from smoke at midseason as if he came from a spaghetti western, gets the call.
     
    Perine was well on his way to securing the job permanently until he dropped a snap against LSU that led to a crucial touchdown a few plays later. He still kept the job through the regular season but lost it to 2018 co-starter Mike Bernier during bowl practices. Now those two join two other walk-ons, Tripp Slyman and Jack Martin, in what figures to be a wide-open affair. Alabama is set to have another walk-on, Sam Johnson, join the mix in the fall, but for now it’s Perine and DeLong both looking for redemption.
     
    Prediction: This one gets punted (pun intended) to fall camp. We would not be surprised to see DeLong get one more shot if the competition is close.

  4. Inside linebacker: This was already going to be a battle to watch, and then Markail Benton, who had developed into a decent dime-package linebacker, apparently opted to go elsewhere. Dylan Moses returns and Christian Harris will probably start alongside him, but that creates another question – what to do with Shane Lee? Joshua McMillon is also back for a sixth year, and Jaylen Moody and Brandon Ale Kaho continue to try to break through. Given Kaho’s abilities on special teams, it’s curious why he hasn’t been able to make an impact at linebacker, beyond the fact he’s needed to add weight for two years now. Keeping Moses healthy will be the main objective; figuring out what happens at weakside linebacker between Harris and whoever is his backup (McMillon? Kaho?) is the other.
     
    Prediction: Moses and Miller are identified as starters very early in fall camp and developed as such. McMillon becomes a hybrid ILB/OLB, while Lee takes a step back to concentrate on technique.

  5. Staff changes: There weren’t many this time, but they were notable. Alabama alumnus Freddie Roach is the new defensive line coach, but even his return to campus played second fiddle to the story of replacing Scott Cochran in the strength and conditioning program. Depending on who you believe, Cochran’s departure had either been telegraphed, or at least, wasn’t considered a total loss.
     
    Alabama is moving forward with a sports science program on campus for which Cochran was considered a tough fit. The replacements – David Ballou and Dr. Matt Rhea, who together built a sports science pilot program at Indiana that became the envy of many larger schools – have promised to take a new approach to strength and conditioning, but one wonders whether the virus scare will elongate the process if Alabama has to endure a shutdown of any length. Ballou and Rhea will focus on injury prevention to a greater degree than Cochran did during his tenure, a welcome development for Alabama fans who consider 2019 to be “the season that should have been” prior to injuries to multiple linebackers and to QB Tua Tagovailoa.
     
    Prediction: This change won’t show up at A-Day. We’ll know more once the team returns for fall camp. As for Roach, expect a greater enforcement of on-field discipline and more cohesiveness with the defensive coaching philosophy as a whole.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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