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5 Things to Watch at A-Day

Traveling to Tuscaloosa to watch Alabama’s A-Day spring scrimmage (or just sitting at home watching it on your TV)? Here are our top five things to watch on Saturday:

1. Offensive line, in particular left tackle

This quickly became an issue thanks in large part to injuries along the offensive line prior to the spring. With center Darrian Dalcourt and right guard Emil Ekiyor Jr. both out, Alabama has had to reshuffle the offensive line personnel to compensate. Still, the one thing we thought we’d see – talented sophomore J.C. Latham moving from a swing role to left tackle – never came through. Latham has been running at right tackle for the entirety of spring, with OL/TE combo player Kendall Randolph currently running first-team at left tackle. Word out of Alabama’s first scrimmage was that Randolph – and any other player who lined up at left tackle – struggled mightily in containing Alabama’s talented edge rushers.

Alabama is recruiting Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen heavily, and most recruiting analysts predict he’ll end up choosing Alabama over several schools, with Virginia likely the B-choice. There are still questions to be answered there – Vanderbilt ranked 72nd last year in sacks allowed and a dismal 128th in tackles for loss allowed – so it’s not like Steen is going to save Alabama’s OL situation single-handedly. But the battle for left tackle absent Steen will be Randolph against Amari Kight or Tommy Brockermeyer. Brockermeyer still needs more weight and has been dinged up this spring, while Kight is probably a better fit on the right side.

Also pay attention to: Right guard, where Damieon George Jr. is filling in for Ekiyor. George has drawn praise for his run-blocking, making it possible for Bama to experiment with Ekiyor at center once fall camp cranks up.

2. The wide receiver rotation

Agiye Hall finally ran afoul of team rules too many times to overlook, and now Alabama’s most dynamic young receiver is moving on to other things. With Ja’Corey Brooks out for the spring with an injury, and three of Alabama’s five signees not yet on campus, the biggest mystery at wide receiver is how much Saturday’s rotation will remain intact once August arrives.

Georgia transfer Jermaine Burton has appeared to lock up the X spot, and with Brooks not currently able to play at Z, it opens the door for holdovers Traeshon Holden, Christian Leary and Thaiu Jones-Bell to battle with true freshmen Kendrick Law and Aaron Anderson. Alabama typically plays just five or six players at receiver once the fall arrives, so assuming Brooks is one of those in addition to Burton and presumptive slot starter JoJo Earle, Holden and Leary have to make their snaps pay off, while Law and particularly Anderson have gotten the attention of practice observers. There should be some opportunities for walk-ons to play Saturday as well, but it would take a mammoth performance from any of them to stay in the discussion once Shazz Preston, Isaiah Bond and Kobe Prentice arrive in the fall.

Also pay attention to: JoJo Earle is having somewhat of a breakout spring, according to practice observers, which would give Alabama some dynamicism at the slot position it has lacked since Jaylen Waddle departed.

3. Tight end

Alabama is rumored to be scouring the transfer portal for a tight end that can come in and take the Y spot outright. For now, Cameron Latu has that position, even though he’s more of a natural at H. Robbie Ouzts appears to have the H role locked up for now. True freshman Elijah Brown is the only other scholarshipped player on the roster, and he’s pretty raw. Walk-ons Charlie Skehan, Adam Thorsland, Jax Porter and Robert Ellis are probably all going to play Saturday out of necessity.

Alabama is expecting Danny Lewis and Amari Niblack in the fall, but Niblack may be restricted to receiver-type work until he can add weight. Caden Clark officially left the Bama program last week after several injuries conspired to keep him off the field for two-plus years. There is no real 260-pound bruiser out there – hence why Kendall Randolph gets so much playing time at the spot despite not being a legitimate receiving target – and it would benefit Alabama’s offense greatly if it could find one. Otherwise, Alabama will have to hope for marked improvement out of Ouzts and possibly a walk-on or two heading into the fall.

Also pay attention to: Jax Porter turned down several scholarship offers from midrange programs (SMU being the most prominent) to walk on at Alabama. He’s 6’6” but just 230 pounds. A good showing on Saturday would go far.

4. Defensive line rotation

When the season kicks off in the fall, it’s a virtual lock that D.J. Dale, Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe – all seniors – will be the starting three. But Alabama has to develop some punch off the bench, because of those three, only Young has shown the ability to be a playmaker in the pass rush. The loss of Phidarian Mathis is one of those “heart losses” that can’t be adequately measured just by looking at a stat sheet, not that Mathis was statistically absent. Tim Smith is expected to be the next man up, but who else will step into the rotation?

Presuming that Stephon Wynn Jr. reprises his role as a backup nosetackle, primarily against running teams, the main question turns to the tackle/end combo role that Mathis (and the departed LaBryan Ray) filled so well. Jamil Burroughs has been tantalizingly close to knocking down that door on a couple of occasions, and he’s having a strong spring thus far. The other name that has been coming up has been Tim Keenan, a 6’2”, 350-pound wrecking ball who has surprising athleticism for someone that size. The other is true freshman Jaheim Oatis, all 6’5”, 370 pounds of him, although the depth chart is packed at interior tackle and Oatis getting all the way up the ladder so soon would be a shocker – albeit a welcome one.

Also pay attention to: Jah-Marien Latham doesn’t have the size of Alabama’s other interior tackles, but he’s able to play with strength and leverage and may carve out a role for himself as a mismatch player. Quicker than a big tackle, stouter than an end, this is the role in which Nick Gentry excelled for two seasons. Latham has a similar first step.

5. Inside linebacker

Jaylen Moody looks like the likely starter at weakside linebacker next to middle backer Henry To’o To’o, but fans who love the backups will have one eye on Deontae Lawson, who managed to save a redshirt for himself in 2021. Lawson is the same listed height and weight as Moody, but just looks thicker – and especially thicker and more developed than most freshmen. Lawson made a couple of plays in coverage in limited snaps last year that had people licking their lips and thinking of another inside linebacker wearing jersey No. 32 – C.J. Mosley. It will be interesting to see if Moody can keep Lawson in his current role as an understudy.

Apart from that, Alabama has to replace a lot of raw numbers from last year, because linebacker took a lot of attrition. Kendrick Blackshire was supposed to be right there with Lawson heading into spring, but hasn’t made the same amount of noise. True freshman Shawn Murphy garnered high praise coming out of high school, and Alabama could use two other true freshmen – Jihaad Campbell and Jeremiah Alexander – in multiple ways, both as inside and outside linebackers. Still, Alabama likes to work from a fairly rigid linebacker rotation even when the depth chart is deep, and opportunities behind the starters will be hard to come by.

Also pay attention to: Demouy Kennedy is a staff favorite for his can-do attitude; he moved from defense to offense last year when Alabama started losing running backs every hour or so, and while he was never going to be confused for Walter Payton, Kennedy didn’t dance around when he got the ball, preferring to deliver a hit rather than waiting on the hit to come. Word out of Tuscaloosa is that Kennedy has a nose for blitzing and may end up with some kind of hybrid inside/outside role when Alabama needs both some speed to burn as well as an inside linebacker’s coverage ability. Again, there’s only so much ball to go around.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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