With some two dozen players held out or limited, the picture that A-Day painted will likely be more of an artist’s rendering rather than an exact representation of what the 2021 season will hold.
But that doesn’t mean some truths weren’t very clear and exceptionally apparent by the time the clock hit all zeroes Saturday. The next generation of Alabama football is here, and will be led by a much different quarterback than the one who preceded him.
Bryce Young has drawn far more comparisons to Tua Tagovailoa than to Mac Jones, but his real muse is probably Blake Sims. Whereas Jones was smooth and fluid, Young is twitchy, angular. He has some of Tagovailoa’s characteristics – pre-snap vision, never gives up on a play – but when he runs, he runs like Sims did: natural, with a running back’s feel for the cut and the hole.
Unfortunately, what Alabama might not have in 2021 is what Young would have given Alabama in 2020 had he been called upon to do so: A backup ready for the grind of the SEC who could have put the team on his back if an injury to the starter had demanded it. True freshman Jalen Milroe was one of the players held out of this game; Paul Tyson, the only other backup with either a scholarship or any game experience to his name, had a rough Saturday and didn’t look ready for prime time.
Rather than analyze this game the way we would a typical contest between two teams, here’s a breakdown by position group based on what we saw Saturday:
The Good: Bryce Young threw for 333 yards and a touchdown on 25 completions. While Young was tagged with 3 sacks, quarterbacks at A-Day are called down by two-hand touch, so in a live game situation the results would have been much different. For that matter, only one of Young’s sacks would have even had a chance to stand up under live fire. Young’s best attribute was his ability to keep his eyes downfield and be patient. He distributed the ball well and his arm strength isn’t a concern. Provided he stays healthy, he’s good enough to lead Alabama to another championship, even as soon as this year.
The Bad: Young completed less than 60 percent of his attempts, which has become the benchmark for good quarterbacking. He overshot some routes and had some general wildness he’ll have to overcome. He was strip-sacked for the Crimson team’s only touchdown, but there were about three breakdowns on that play far more egregious than anything Young did. As for the backups, Paul Tyson’s throws suffered from inconsistent velocity, although his placement was generally OK. Tyson had to contend with a far less effective offensive line setup than what Young had to work with, but he needed to identify the middle rush more quickly and throw the ball away earlier. When he did throw the ball away, some of those throws would have been flagged for grounding under different circumstances. Walk-on Braxton Barker showed good arm strength and good wheels, but also threw two ugly interceptions on balls that should have never left his land.
The Verdict: Speaking from a championship perspective, Alabama is one-deep at this position right now unless Milroe is ready to play, which is a concern given that Young will expose himself to more contact than Mac Jones did last year. Otherwise, Young looks like the next great Alabama quarterback in training.
The Good: Starters Roydell Williams and Jace McClellan both looked sharp and durable. With Brian Robinson and Trey Sanders both held out, Williams and McClellan got more work than A-Day backs otherwise would have, and both responded. Williams ran with more authority than he did as a true freshman, while McClellan’s ability to read the hole served him well on a day when the offensive lines struggled. Both appear to be capable receivers. Keilan Robinson continues to work some at receiver as well as running back, and added a nice burst when he was in the game. He’ll be exciting to watch on kick returns.
The Bad: Not much. If anything, Robinson’s absence cost Alabama some inside power, but McClellan and Williams both ran bigger than their size. Kyle Edwards didn’t get enough carries to evaluate.
The Verdict: Even with the loss of Najee Harris, there may be very little drop-off, if any, from 2020 to 2021, all things considered.
The Good: Given Alabama is basically pushing the reset button on this group, the end result was probably a little better than expected. Three receivers stood out: Traeshon Holden and Slade Bolden, who worked with Young, and Agiye Hall, who worked with Tyson. Hall could end up being the biggest mover of the bunch thanks to his glue-like hands. Given that held-out John Metchie’s weakness (if he has one) is pure catching ability, Alabama needed someone to step up to replace DeVonta Smith’s reliability. Hall caught just about anything close enough to touch his jersey, and had even more production wiped out by penalties away from the play. Slade Bolden made a handful of tough plays across the middle, and he has a clear lead for the slot receiver spot. Traeshon Holden had a couple of drops, but he also showed a lot of hand strength and physically went toe-to-toe with Alabama’s cornerback group, which are all on the large side of average for corners. Also having acceptable days were Xavier Williams, Thaiu Jones-Bell and walk-on Joshua Lanier, who played some last year at the end of games and is one of two or three walk-ons with a legitimate shot to have a role in 2021.
The Bad: Hands in general need work, outside of Bolden and Hall. Holden left at least two big plays on the field because of this. Javon Baker only had one catch for 4 yards; he has a lot of potential, but needs to cash in on it soon before Holden or Hall goes by him.
The Verdict: Lots of numbers here, but not much separation at the top, which means it might be difficult to identify the top six guys early in the season so that it can focus development on those players. Alabama rarely plays more than six, so guys like Jones-Bell, Lanier and the other true freshmen besides Hall will need to have a strong fall camp in order to avoid being relegated to the scout team.
The Good: Cameron Latu, Jahleel Billingsley and Major Tennison each had strong contributions, and Latu has clearly built his body over the offseason. True freshman Robbie Ouzts already has an upperclassman’s build. Given that Kendall Randolph appears to be the favorite to start at right tackle, it was critical that Alabama’s tight ends as a whole got better at run blocking in 2021, and Saturday’s effort was a good step toward that goal.
The Bad: Not much, other than a drop-off in depth after Ouzts. Caden Clark didn’t make much of an impact and walk-on Melvin Billingsley, one of the few walk-ons with a chance to get playing time, was held out with injury. Alabama still lacks the big tight end who can keep the edges clean in the running game.
The Verdict: We usually combine tight ends with the wide receiver unit in our analyses, but broke it out here because it deserved the extra attention. Latu and Jahleel Billingsley should both be weapons in the passing game; the key is whether their blocking skills will be up to snuff.
The Good: Where veterans were available, Alabama had success. Chris Owens looked comfortable at center, Evan Neal played well at left tackle and Kendall Randolph did a decent job at right tackle. True freshman J.C. Latham had mostly good moments and already looks the part of an SEC lineman.
The Bad: Plenty. Emil Ekiyor Jr. and Darrian Dalcourt were held out, which significantly affected the quality of the interior play, and then Javion Cohen appeared to tweak an ankle in the first half. Middle pressure was an issue all day, but a look at the stat sheet for Alabama’s outside linebackers told the story of just how much the young offensive tackles also struggled to keep defenders off Bama’s quarterbacks. Having Ekiyor available would have solved a lot, because it would have allowed a better distribution of talent. Crimson QB Paul Tyson especially paid the price, as his side experienced the lion’s share of protection breakdowns.
The Verdict: Receiver might have been the unit the fans were watching, but the Tide offense will rise or fall based on the play of this unit in the fall. Right now, it needs some work.
The Good: Even with Christian Barmore no longer on the team and Braylen Ingraham and Phidarian Mathis sidelined, Alabama was able to get a good push from both the White and Crimson teams. Tim Smith and Jamil Burroughs were both consistently in the backfield for the White defense, but it was Jah-Marien Latham who probably turned the most heads. Smaller than Alabama’s typical defensive tackle, Latham used quickness and innovative moves to make a statement and was ultimately named the most valuable lineman of the game. Alabama has uncommon depth on the defensive line this year, so finding a way to separate oneself from the pack will be a concern all season; it’s a good problem to have.
The Bad: We have to get into some extreme nitpicking to even find something critical to say here, but D.J. Dale wasn’t visible for most of the day. Of course, all that means is that Tim Smith may be on the verge of getting more opportunities, which may not be a bad thing.
The Verdict: Especially in the early going, this will be the strength of Alabama’s defense.
The Good: Even playing without several expected contributors – Will Anderson Jr., Shane Lee, Christian Harris and Drew Sanders were all held out – Alabama’s linebacker unit delivered a solid performance. Chris Braswell and King Mwikuta were the stars of the outside linebacker group; Braswell was credited with 3 sacks and 5 tackles overall, while Mwikuta had 2 tackles, a QB hurry and generally redirected plays all day. Reserves Deontae Lawson and Jackson Bratton also had productive days at inside linebacker along with Jaylen Moody.
The Bad: Having so many players held out meant Alabama never really saw its true starting unit take the field. There’s plenty of time to develop chemistry in the fall, but this was a missed opportunity under game conditions.
The Verdict: Just as electric off the edge as in 2020, with the potential for stronger play inside. What’s not to like?
The Good: Replacing Patrick Surtain at cornerback will be no small feat, and several young players stepped up Saturday. Jalyn Armour-Davis, Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Brandon Turnage all had solid turns at cornerback, and Alabama could win with any of the three as the starter. Ronald Williams also had a generally nice effort. In general, Alabama’s corners were physical and battled for the ball.
The Bad: With Malachi Moore out with injury, Alabama’s safeties had a scattershot day. DeMarcco Hellams recorded 12 tackles, but had some issues in coverage. D.J. Douglas, probably the most likely of the walk-ons to see playing time in the fall, was on the wrong end of a couple of highlight plays. Josh Jobe didn’t have his strongest effort as what will now be the primary cornerback position in 2021.
The Verdict: Big logjam at this position group, which threatens to have the same effect (or worse) that could befall the receiver group … meaning, it could take a while for the right rotation to emerge in the fall.
The Good: Backup placekicker Chase Allen hit a 48-yard field goal with room to spare, and it had good ball flight. The holders and longsnappers had solid days.
The Bad: Will Reichard was just 2-of-5 on kicks, probably his worst day yet in Tuscaloosa. The punting was a step above atrocious. Charlie Scott was decent at best, and Sam Johnson showed no improvement over the performances that cost him the job in the middle of the 2020 season.
The Verdict: We’ll chalk Reichard’s struggles up to a single bad day, and even though kick returns weren’t live, we’re generally excited to see what Keiland Williams, Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Xavier Williams will bring to the table in the fall.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN