Baseball fans have the “Hot Stove League,” a nickname given to offseason speculation in the dead of winter while they await the season to restart. College football’s offseason, though, is the summer … so, “Backyard Cookout League?”
Whatever you want to call it, Alabama fans across the internet are about to bother the rest of the world to death. It’s a safe bet that 90 percent of the fans who showed up in Tuscaloosa for A-Day were there for one reason – to watch Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson battle for the starting quarterback. The other 10 percent were dragged along by die-hard family members and may not even have known Bryce Young was no longer on the team.
So for the 90 percent of the 50,000 or so that attended the game, it was disappointing, but not necessarily unexpected, that neither Milroe nor Simpson did enough to lock down the job. Not that it would have happened based solely on A-Day performance, anyway. In the coaches’ eyes, A-Day is just another practice scrimmage, one of a handful of opportunities to see the players under live fire. The only difference where A-Day is concerned is the atmosphere created by the fans, band, public address system and other external factors. And now, cue up the backyard barbecues, and get ready for three months of fans speculating about the identity of the Crimson Tide’s next triggerman.
Rather than end this analysis with our usual Five-Point Breakdown, we’re going to look at each position group, discuss how they performed, and whether those groups answered the questions we had for them entering the game. The score and the stats of A-Day are largely irrelevant.
The question: Who is going to be Alabama’s starter for 2023?
Was it answered?: Not really.
Analysis: Jalen Milroe and Ty Simpson were each picked off once during drives. Milroe’s stat sheet shows a second interception, but it was on a hail-Mary pass to the end zone at the end of the first half on a play ordered by Nick Saban. Milroe probably would have won the day in most fans’ eyes were it not for a terrible interception out of his own end zone that was returned inside the 5. That one play did a lot to even the score between him and Simpson, because Saban’s mantra all spring has been that the next quarterback needs to limit mistakes. Milroe’s rushing stats can’t be properly evaluated because of the touch-sack rule Alabama utilizes in spring ball – one hand on the jersey is enough to “sack” the quarterback – and that particular rule has been stifling rushing stats at A-Day since the days of Tyler Watts and Dennis Franchione. Under live conditions, Milroe would likely have threatened the 150-yard mark.
Ty Simpson had better footwork, and got better as the day went along, but has a problematic tendency to elevate his passes in the red zone or when he feels pressure. Several throws went high or were just tipped. Both quarterbacks threw too many passes behind receivers. The real news here was that Dylan Lonergan – judging solely off A-Day – separated himself from Eli Holstein as the No. 3 quarterback, by a long shot. Assuming Alabama stays with the roster it has going into the fall, Milroe and Simpson will continue to battle for the starting job, with Lonergan trying to position himself as the understudy. We predicted Simpson would ultimately take the job, but we didn’t see enough on Saturday to say it has happened yet.
The question: Can the younger backs shake up the depth chart and give Bama a power boost?
Was it answered?: Absolutely. This now looks like the deepest unit on offense, with each back having a role.
Analysis: Jase McClellan did nothing to lose the No. 1 spot, running hard again after a frustrating 2022 season in which he was recovering from a knee injury. Roydell Williams showed enough versatility to likely keep his seat as the third-down back in most situations. But true freshman Justice Haynes scored three touchdowns, looked like a veteran as a receiver, and was a lot of observers’ pick for A-Day MVP. Jamarion Miller also looked sharp running the ball, and Alabama will have a more downhill presence in 2023. Also, Richard Young isn’t even on campus yet, and walk-on Jonathan Bennett is good enough to play at several SEC schools. A true embarrassment of riches here.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
The question: Can Bama find an alpha to lead this unit back to prominence?
Was it answered?: Not Saturday. Too many drops and not enough attention to detail.
Analysis: Fans didn’t really get to see a lot of Malik Benson until late when the third defense was on the field and the game already decided. Up to that point, the only consistent receiver of the day was Kendrick Law, although both Kobe Prentice and Emmanuel Henderson Jr. both showed flashes. The rest of the supposed starting unit – Jermaine Burton, Ja’Corey Brooks and Isaiah Bond – had a tough time. Burton dropped multiple passes, then caught a long bomb – Ty Simpson’s best pass of the day – to flash on the stat sheet. Brooks had a couple of nice catches, but also disappeared for stretches. For the unit entire, it was a performance far too reminiscent of 2022. We’d like to see more of Law, but it would have to come at the expense of either Bond or a veteran.
As for tight end, Robbie Ouzts didn’t play, although he’s not Bama’s best receiving option at the position. C.J. Dippre had a catch in limited action, as he’s also been dinged up, so Danny Lewis Jr. ended up getting most of the work with the 1s and doing a good job, all things considered, given his lack of experience. The breakout player here, if there is one, was Miles Kitselman, the only true big-bodied, inline tight end Alabama has (although Dippre is close, and Lewis will likely grow into it). Kitselman caught 3 passes but it was his work without the ball that impressed the most. Amari Niblack still looks to be a year away, physically, from being able to play in a wider variety of situations. There were a lot of good pieces here but aside from the proven Dippre, each piece looks a bit situational.
The question: Could the OL keep making steady improvement, and replace both starters on the left side?
Was it answered?: A qualified, cautious “yes,” but with conditions.
Analysis: It’s now beginning to look like the Doug Marrone-led 2021 season did more long-term damage than good. Last year, Alabama put up better results with a far more blue-collar group than Marrone had access to, and OL coach Eric Wolford has, according to practice observers, continued to lead Bama back to a place of physical prowess – but it’s taking time.
The most important question of the day, personnel-wise, was decidedly not answered. First-team LT Elijah Pritchett had a terrible afternoon, giving up most of the sacks Jalen Milroe suffered. The situation appeared to be a little better at left guard, where Darrian Dalcourt and Jaeden Roberts rotated for most of the game, but success for the White team was almost always easier to find going right than going left. For that matter, Crimson team LT Kadyn Proctor shined – albeit against the third-team OLB set, as starters Chris Braswell and Dallas Turner were held out, which forced the entire depth chart to move up a row. Proctor has to be considered in the mix to win the job now heading into fall, which would combine a fresh quarterback with a new left tackle that was playing high school football last year. Oof.
Elsewhere, Alabama had to feel good. All of Bama’s incoming freshmen signees played well, and veterans Tyler Booker and J.C. Latham looked solid. The OL appeared much more comfortable being aggressive in the run-blocking arena, which was sorely lacking two years ago and scattershot last year. The centers – Dalcourt, Seth McLaughlin and James Brockermeyer – all looked improved by at least a smidge. Brockermeyer probably had the most surprising day of the three. This group could be special, but suddenly left tackle is a potential problem spot.
The question: Can Alabama regain its swagger here, and will someone step up to replace Byron Young?
Was it answered?: More likely than not, on both fronts.
Analysis: Relative to talent, most observers felt Alabama’s defensive linemen were the biggest underachievers of 2022. Byron Young had a solid year by all counts, and D.J. Dale developed into a dependable rotational piece. But Justin Eboigbe was lost to a neck injury early, and Young ultimately got no help. On Saturday, a lot of those issues looked to be under successful repair. Eboigbe is back, and played with confidence, a nice sign given the seriousness of his injury. But the biggest reason to cheer was that Tim Smith and Jamil Burroughs both appeared to be disruptive, far more than either were in 2022.
Up the middle, Jaheim Oatis is poised for a strong year, and true freshman James Smith is going to play early. Jah-Marien Latham didn’t play, and Damon Payne either didn’t play at all or at least not very much, but that allowed Anquin Barnes to stage a breakout of sorts. It’s not clear yet whether Barnes will ever develop into a top DT, but if looks mattered, few players fill out a uniform better than Barnes does. There’s a lot of flexibility with this year’s group, probably more than at any time in the last three or four years, as everyone other than perhaps Oatis or reserve NT Tim Keenan can play anywhere across the line. The intensity was obviously better today than at any point in 2022, so the most substantial remaining question is whether Alabama can develop consistency week-to-week and play with an imposing attitude.
The question: Can Bama replace its two starters in the middle, and how will the change in ILB coach go over?
Was it answered?: All engines were firing Saturday, and this unit could wind up being a strength of the team.
Analysis: Alabama had originally hired Austin Armstrong as its new inside linebacker coach, but Florida then offered him its defensive coordinator position and Armstrong chose to take that offer instead. Armstrong was then replaced by Robert Bala, who had been an analyst for Liberty but who had never before been an on-field coach at the FBS level. If Saturday was any indication, Nick Saban appears wise to have taken a chance on the young coach.
Alabama is replacing Jaylen Moody and Henry To’o To’o inside, and with Deontae Lawson out of this game with injury, the spotlight turned to Georgia transfer Trezmen Marshall and JUCO transfer Justin Jefferson. Both had solid afternoons, with Jefferson putting in an off-the-charts performance. Jefferson is built differently from the typical Alabama inside backer – he’s more of a large defensive back, and it may be no accident he was assigned jersey No. 28, typically reserved for a DB under Saban. Jefferson frustrated receivers going across the middle and was also active in the pass rush. Bama got nice work as well from Kendrick Blackshire, Jihaad Campbell and others.
Outside, both Dallas Turner and Chris Braswell sat out the game, so Keanu Koht and Quandarrius Robinson found themselves elevated to starters, with Jeremiah Alexander and true freshman Qua Russaw playing for the second defense. Koht and Robinson had drawn raves at Alabama’s most recent closed scrimmage, and carried those performances over to Saturday, where they combined to make White team LT Elijah Pritchett’s day miserable. If Bama goes to the fall with four OLBs ready to play, on top of an ILB group that is playing faster and more aggressive than before, the sky’s the limit.
The question: Can Bama develop depth at corner, and can the safety trio be rebuilt?
Was it answered?: Yes and yes, especially in regard to the safeties.
Analysis: The loss of Jahquez Robinson and Tre’Quon Fegans to the transfer portal hurt from a depth perspective, but provided Alabama can stay reasonably healthy, the retooled secondary put on a show Saturday. The starting five in the fall will likely include Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Terrion Arnold well ahead of their backups at corner, but safety will be a mashup of veterans (Malachi Moore, Kristian Story, Devonta Smith) and rookies (Earl Little II, Brayson Hubbard, Caleb Downs, Jake Pope). The biggest coming-out party Saturday was put on by the safeties Hubbard and Pope, who patrolled the middle for the second defense like they’d been doing it for a decade. All-everything true freshman Caleb Downs more than looks the part, and both Little and Story had interceptions and made several key plays.
The best news of all was that Malachi Moore, who flashed brightly as a true freshman three years ago, then suffered multiple injuries and appeared to lose a step, looked back to normal finally. Moore played Star safety in this game and was the source of frustration for the offensive line several times on blitzes, but he will probably be at a high safety slot in the fall with Downs moving down to play the Star position. Devonta Smith was held out, presumably with an injury. At backup corner, both Antonio Kite and Dezz Ricks looked promising. The transfer situation means injuries could become an issue here more quickly than at most other position groups, but if Bama can stay healthy then there shouldn’t be a dropoff in performance.
The question: Will Alabama be better on kickoff returns in 2023?
Was it answered?: No. A-Day does not feature live returns.
Analysis: With Will Reichard back at placekicker and James Burnip steady at punter, there wasn’t much to see here. Burnip has become valued as a holder as well, and had at least one good save on an errant snap on Saturday. Ga’Quincy McKinstry returns as the primary punt returner, and Isaiah Bond and Caleb Downs both got work there on Saturday and each fielded at least one difficult punt each, but kickoff returns were handled by walk-on Sam Willoughby and were blown dead at the 25-yard line every time.
The most interesting development in this unit at A-Day was the emergence of redshirt freshman walk-on Upton Bellenfant as the backup placekicker and punter, unseating Chase Allen. Bellenfant hit from 49 yards on one of his field goal attempts, came up a couple yards short on a 50-yarder, and hit all PAT attempts. He wasn’t called upon to punt, but having a combo P/PK backup allows Alabama to save a travel roster slot in the fall. He will battle mostly with incoming signee Conor Talty in August.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN