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HomeFootball2024 FootballA-Day Preview: What we're watching as spring-ending scrimmage arrives

A-Day Preview: What we’re watching as spring-ending scrimmage arrives

 

While Bama fans prepare to “Fill The Bowl” for new head coach Kalen DeBoer’s debut on an Alabama sideline, analysts are going to be looking for clues to the Crimson Tide’s future as the program moves on in the wake of Nick Saban’s retirement.

These aren’t the only ten things we’ll be focusing on Saturday, but everyone loves a good list, so here are the things we’ll be watching the closest during A-Day:

1. Quarterback isn’t necessarily a concern, but it also isn’t drama-free. Kalen DeBoer’s offense prioritizes quick decision-making, pre-snap reads and decisiveness. Those weren’t always Jalen Milroe’s long suits in 2023 despite Milroe finishing his year on the perimeter of the Heisman Trophy race. Milroe has consistently led the first offense in drills this spring and DeBoer has been consistently supportive, adamant even, that Milroe is atop the quarterback depth chart. This sets up several questions: Can Milroe improve in his areas of concern? Will Ty Simpson – who improved significantly over the course of 2023 and who has looked sharp in spring work so far – legitimately push for the starting job? Will Dylan Lonergan be content as a long-term backup to Milroe and/or Simpson, or will he portal out of the program at spring’s end? Is Austin Mack the QB of the future? It seems like DeBoer will have a strong quarterback no matter which player he picks, but navigating a depth chart has become one of the trickiest jobs of a head coach in the modern college game, and Alabama’s situation might be the trickiest of all.

2. Offensive tackle was a weakness at times in 2023, and now J.C. Latham is gone. Can Bama get this fixed? To be blunt, if Alabama can’t improve at offensive tackle, it might not matter who the quarterback is. For all the heat former center Seth McLaughlin got over his wild snaps, McLaughlin was tagged for only one sack in all of 2023, whereas the tackle combo of Kadyn Proctor and J.C. Latham too often resembled a pair of swinging gates. Losing Latham – who will be a high draft pick in this spring’s NFL Draft – doesn’t help the talent issue any, and Proctor is currently at Iowa, although most expect him to portal back to Bama over the summer. Still, the question is whether the four players grouped here for now – Elijah Pritchett and Texas A&M transfer Naquil Betrand at left tackle, Wilkin Formby and Miles McVay at right tackle – can handle the job. Alabama is widely expected to add at least one other offensive lineman besides Proctor during portal season, and that number will likely go up if Washington transfer Parker Brailsford doesn’t return to the program after spring work. If issues at tackle persist, more portal shopping will likely be necessary. The one bright spot here is that by all accounts, Alabama probably upgraded its coaching here as part of the coaching change.

3. Is cornerback in good hands, or will Bama have to hit the portal there, too? First, we believe this position is in much better shape than initially feared after Alabama lost Dezz Ricks, Antonio Kite and Trey Amos in the wake of Saban’s retirement. That’s because USC transfer Domani Jackson appears to be comfortable in the new defense, and a trio of true freshmen – Zabien Brown, Zavier Mincey and Jaylen Mbakwe – showed up in March ready to compete at a high level. Brown in particular has turned heads. Alabama is still expected to add a corner from the portal after spring ball, but this position has improved to being a mild concern rather than the potential forest fire it looked like in, say, February. Now it isn’t so necessary for Alabama to go out and get a bona fide starter at CB; it can probably make do with getting a depth piece. Having so many true freshmen in the mix at corner can be a difficult task in the SEC, but Bama did it several times during Saban’s tenure, too.

4. Is ILB depth quietly a concern? Depends on the injuries. One of the strengths of recent Alabama teams is now not necessarily a weakness, but has certainly been thinned out. Like at corner, where Alabama lost three important depth pieces, the Crimson Tide lost Kendrick Blackshire, Ian Jackson and Shawn Murphy over the offseason. Blackshire was Alabama’s primary backup middle and weakside linebacker in 2023, while Murphy would have been an important part of the depth situation this year had he stayed. As it is, Alabama’s reserve ILBs are the undersized Justin Jefferson and Jeremiah Alexander, who is converting from OLB after two nondescript seasons there. The rest of the depth chart is made up of true freshmen and walk-ons. While Alabama should be fine with Deontae Lawson and Jihaad Campbell in starting roles, both players missed time due to injury last year, so someone is going to have to emerge as the new Blackshire. A-Day will tell us a lot about the quality of the depth chart behind the two main players.

5. Alabama won’t be able to replace PK Will Reichard completely, but finding adequate options are key. Word leaked out about a week or so ago that Alabama might consider taking a transfer from a placekicker this summer. That would seem to indicate that Conor Talty, a redshirt freshman expected to take over for Reichard in 2024, was struggling, but reports from the last scrimmage say Talty kicked well. The major concern is range, as Talty did not appear to be able to hit long-distance kicks consistently in 2023. Range might also become an issue on kickoffs. Alabama has several walk-ons in camp as well, but Talty was considered the clear leader at the spot heading into spring camp. It will be interesting to see whether Alabama has Talty handle all kicks at A-Day. Reichard and returning punter James Burnip basically got all the work at those spots in recent A-Days.

6. Will Keon Sabb and Red Morgan be able to replace Caleb Downs (and others) at safety? The addition of Sabb, a Michigan transfer, stopped the bleeding in the secondary after the transfers of Kristian Story, Jake Pope and especially Caleb Downs. Then, Red Morgan showed up with the signees and began wowing observers from his first day in uniform. The return of Malachi Moore for his graduate year and hopefully, an injury-free season from Devonta Smith will give Alabama a deep safety group, but a lot is riding on Sabb’s and Morgan’s abilities to take key roles early on in this defense.

7. Defensive line depth and playmaking ability is always an item of concern. Alabama is going from three down linemen to four in its base package, although one of the defensive end spots is populated by the players that were formerly listed as Jack and SLB under Nick Saban’s terminology. For the other three spots, one is a hybrid OLB/DE body type and the other two are pure tackle positions. By all accounts, the defensive line has been one of the standout units of the spring, so watching how Alabama replaces Justin Eboigbe, who grew into one of the best defensive linemen in the SEC by his senior year, will be interesting. Alabama has good depth at the tackle spots but has lacked a real playmaker inside since Christian Barmore’s final season. Byron Young and Eboigbe were quality players but their value was sometimes measured in their versatility and how they opened up avenues for other players to make plays around them. Edric Hill is one player that has been consistently praised so far in spring drills, and we’ll take special notice of his performance.

8. The wide receiver group will change in the fall, but this is a good opportunity to judge depth. The loss of Jalen Hale to a broken bone in his leg earlier in fall camp took the wind out of the sails a bit, as Hale was setting up to be Bama’s new outside deep threat. Washington transfer Germie Bernard has been the most consistent receiver in camp, but Kendrick Law and Kobe Prentice have also received praise. Once fall gets here, Hale should return, and Ryan Williams will join the mix. For now, the question is which 3-4 receivers will fill out the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Cole Adams and true freshmen Aeryn Hampton and Caleb Odom seem to be separating a bit from the pack, along with junior Emmanuel Henderson. Alabama will probably use between 7-9 receivers in the fall in the new offense, so there are only so many snaps to go around. The big question for Bernard is whether he can go from being a useful spare part in the Huskies’ offense – and also, primarily from the slot receiver position – to being a featured outside receiver for Alabama. If he can, and if Hale can rebound without losing a step, the receiver group has a chance to be special.

9. What’s going on at center? Washington transfer Parker Brailsford was expected to claim the job almost immediately upon arriving in Tuscaloosa, but Brailsford has missed most of spring drills (and will miss A-Day as well) with an unspecified issue. It’s a bit of a mystery, but DeBoer has lately been consistent in his updates on Brailsford’s status and has insisted he will return to the team rather than transfer again. The other factor has been the emergence of last year’s backup center, James Brockermeyer, as a legitimate option. Brockermeyer’s size was an issue his first couple of years on campus, but he appears to have hit a growth spurt of sorts and has been one of the most consistent performers of the spring, at any position. Alabama figures to be strong up the middle offensively – Tyler Booker and Jaeden Roberts are two of the best returning guards in the SEC, although Roberts will likely miss Saturday’s scrimmage with a minor leg injury – and if Brailsford returns, it will set up a scenario in which Bama has an extra lineman in its interior group. Booker has worked some at tackle this spring, and Roberts certainly has the athleticism to do it as well. If Brailsford or Brockermeyer move to another position along the line, there is also the question of who the backup center will be. True freshman Joe Ionata seems to have settled into the spot for now, although fellow signee Will Sanders is an option along with redshirt freshman Roq Montgomery. Given the erratic snap issue that befell Seth McLaughlin in 2023, what is typically a boring position has become one of great interest to fans.

10. New season, new coaching staff … are there any opportunities for walk-ons? Waine Bacon, Levi Wallace, Darren Mustin … many times, even in recent seasons and with a talent-stacked roster, Alabama has found a spot for a quality walk-on or two to make a contribution. Alabama is currently a bit thin at defensive back, inside linebacker and offensive line. There could be a narrow path to playing time for a walk-on corner, safety or linebacker, but offensive line will probably be the property of scholarshipped players. A couple of names at wide receiver, though, could break through, at least until Alabama adds Ryan Williams and Rico Scott to the roster in August. Sam Willoughby came back for a graduate season; he was consistently first among the walk-ons under the Saban staff and has been seen running drills with some of the scholarshipped wideouts this spring. But the name we’re going to pay special attention to is Andre Craig, a junior walk-on transfer from Kennesaw State. Craig was a 2-star or 3-star depending on the recruiting service coming out of high school, and had a productive prep career. He’s also been a regular in spring drills. There’s also the chance that one of the walk-on kickers rises up to push Conor Talty for the starting placekicker spot, or at least serve as kickoff specialist.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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