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A-Day wrap-up: Changing of the guard, but how much change in the product?

As far as A-Days go, the 2024 edition used a format that has been used infrequently before – pure offense vs. defense, not two separate squads facing off – and in the end, may have provided more clarity as to the health and depth of the team moving into summer workouts.

The offense won the steak dinner by a score of 34-28, as the defense was awarded points for stops and turnovers. The one turnover the defense managed to force – a Dre Kirkpatrick Jr. interception of Austin Mack – was waved off due to the defense being offsides on the play.

For those who were wanting to see every new wrinkle in the playbook, they wouldn’t get it today – not uncommon for A-Day, when schemes are technically vanilla-flavored and the day is more about seeing how players perform in front of a crowd than anything else. But fans did get to see enough to know that this won’t be their father’s Crimson Tide going forward, especially not offensively.

For our TideFans.com wrap-up, we’ll handle it in the same format as our Five-Point Breakdowns that follow regular-season games, except we’ll give you a double helping. Here are the things we saw, and that we predict going forward based on those observations:

1. QB room is deep. But is there really a QB competition going on? New head coach Kalen DeBoer has chosen his words carefully in regard to the quarterback position, for a host of reasons. First is the popularity, both within the team and outside it, of incumbent starter Jalen Milroe, who has undeniably become a leader. There is also the transfer portal to consider, as Alabama seems all but certain to lose one player from the group over the summer, and could lose two. But Ty Simpson, who finished 2023 as Milroe’s top backup, has made significant progress from about the midpoint of the 2023 season through now, and A-Day 2024 was his best work so far. Milroe got the whole of his snaps against the first defense, and made some nice throws, a couple of which were dropped by the receivers. Simpson got his work against both 1s and 2s, but he didn’t seem to be negatively affected during the times he faced off against starters. Dylan Lonergan probably looked the best of all, but he also faced backups exclusively. Austin Mack looked like the developmental quarterback that he is, shaky and nervous at times, but also forced to sometimes work behind an offensive line made up almost completely of walk-ons – who, by the way, weren’t going up against walk-on defensive linemen. Lonergan is widely considered the most likely to transfer if anyone does, and the threat is there with Simpson, too; either way, Mack is probably not ready to be the primary backup just yet. We still think Milroe begins the 2024 season as the starter, but if Simpson stays on the roster into the fall, he’ll continue to be just over Milroe’s shoulder.

2. OL looked better than advertised inside, a work in progress outside. This is another area that wasn’t much of a surprise, outside of the fact that RG Jaeden Roberts, who we did not expect to even dress out following a leg injury in the most recent scrimmage, ended up starting and playing very well. The interior OL, both first- and second-team, did a good job opening lanes for the running backs and, for the most part, kept quarterbacks clean. Defensively, Alabama didn’t throw a lot at its lines – it was only after the offense had rolled up 31 straight points and the defense had failed to record a stop that DeBoer seemed to give the green light for a little more defensive complexity. There were still a handful of bad snaps, but the thing Alabama must work on the most heading into the season is to get the offensive tackle positions aligned. It was reported that Kadyn Proctor attended the game on the sidelines, and he is expected to re-transfer back to Alabama from Iowa at the end of the semester. It’s possible that Alabama adds another tackle in addition to Proctor. James Brockermeyer displayed better quickness getting into his stance post-snap than Alabama had been accustomed to at the position recently. Overall, there were too many players either limited, or outright not available, to give a full analysis here, but the consensus opinion among knowledgeable observers was that this unit is in the process of improving.

3. RB group may be the best in the conference. When people point to Nick Saban’s very small collection of shortcomings, one of those invariably is the reticence to play more players, especially ones that weren’t “proven” at the time. The 2024 running back room will be headed by Jamarion Miller and Justice Haynes, two backs that probably should have gotten more work in 2023. Miller was the game’s MVP Saturday, rolling up more than 80 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 8 carries. We’ve lauded him as being the closest thing Bama has had to Mark Ingram since Ingram left town. Haynes got a little banged up early in this game but his potential was on full display while he was still in the game. Richard Young also made a statement Saturday, displaying a physical running style that will give Bama fresh legs off the bench. True freshman Daniel Hill is a load at around 240 pounds and once he gets used to the speed of the college game, he will be hard to contain. Even walk-on J.R. Gardner gave Alabama some quality work with the 2s in this game. Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams were quality backs, but what we saw Saturday was on another level. Or two.

4. Secondary showed nice quickness, but physicality isn’t yet to prior years’ standards. We’ll withhold full judgment here until we see the defense running at full throttle with a blitz package, but there were some tackling issues early and the difference in size from some of the 2023 starters (most notably Caleb Downs and Jaylen Key) to 2024 (Keon Sabb, Red Morgan) was noticeable. Sabb and Morgan had their moments, yes, but for about the first third of Saturday’s work, there were issues in the backend with consistency, especially in run support. It was good to see Devonta Smith play a full game completely healthy for once, and he will be able to allow the coaches to bring Morgan along at a more deliberate pace rather than having to pitch him directly into the fire. Brayson Hubbard also made some nice plays for the second A-Day in a row. As for the much-anticipated cornerback group, which is literally all-new in 2024, the initial feedback was mostly positive. Domani Jackson and Zabien Brown started the game, while Zavier Mincey and Jaylen Mbakwe were the second-teamers. None of the four did anything egregious, but again, there’s only so much one can tell at A-Day.

5. ILB depth will be OK so long as the injury bug stays away. Jihaad Campbell didn’t play Saturday, so Justin Jefferson took the starting weakside linebacker spot. He and Deontae Lawson had a productive afternoon for the first defense. The trick is going to be developing a couple of other players behind this trio. True freshman Justin Okoronkwo recorded 11 tackles and looked comfortable in his role, clearly a head above fellow signees Sterling Dixon and Cayden Jones. Jeremiah Alexander flashed a bit, but he is still transitioning from outside linebacker, and is a larger body than what the DeBoer staff seems to want in its inside players. Whether Alabama can get through the season with four, maybe five ILBs is certainly a question mark, and Alabama can’t really offer immediate playing time to any inside linebacker in the portal. That’s why Kendrick Blackshire left in the first place.

6. Germie Bernard gave a definitive answer to the question of whether he could move out of the slot. Now Bama needs to build a unit around him. Not having Jalen Hale, who injured a knee late in spring work, certainly affects the profile of the wide receiver group coming out of spring. Hale is expected to be ready for fall, and Alabama will add Ryan Williams as well. Washington transfer Germie Bernard put on a show Saturday in his first work as primarily an outside receiver, and it couldn’t have gone much better. He stepped onto campus as the most physical receiver Alabama has, and second on that list is probably signee Caleb Odom. Assuming Hale is the other outside receiver come fall, Kendrick Law looks like a natural fit for this offense as a slot receiver. The other name besides Bernard and Law that stood out at A-Day was redshirt freshman Cole Adams, who might finally be the answer to the question of finding a smaller, sure-handed possession receiver who can create mismatch problems on third down against safeties and linebackers on inside routes. Kobe Prentice put in his usual good showing, and Aeryn Hampton showed promise. Drops were an issue, though, and Emmanuel Henderson had one on a nice blitz pickup pass from Jalen Milroe that was particularly critical and stalled a drive. Others that got a lot of work included Jaren Hamilton (who also had a drop) and walk-on Sam Willoughby. Hale’s return will be critical, as will be Williams’ ability to quickly pick up the offense come fall camp.

7. Tight end group saw a lot of use and will be a big part of the offense. The key facet of DeBoer’s offense that separates it from more finesse-brand Air Raid variants is the use of multiple tight ends. Danny Lewis Jr. capped off a strong spring with a good showing Saturday, and Alabama also got contributions from Robbie Ouzts and Washington transfer Josh Cuevas. Alabama has five tight ends on scholarship at the moment with a sixth one hitting campus in the fall, and there were several walk-ons that also got into the mix. This was probably the most the tight end group has been featured so far this spring, and they delivered.

8. The design of the offense in general is reason for optimism. Any major transition in offensive and defensive systems can be tricky to manage in the SEC, and while a lot of DeBoer’s systems share some overlap with the Nick Saban-designed systems they’re replacing, this is still going to be an exercise in shock treatment come September. It was apparent early on that Alabama is going to be more dynamic, more versatile and have a thicker playbook in general than it did in 2023, and if the execution is there – especially from the quarterback position – the transition could go quite smoothly. The key change will be in how Alabama sets up its running game, because the RB group is widely thought of as the best unit on the offense, perhaps including quarterback. Alabama’s early offensive drives were a clinic in balance (and in keeping a defense off-balance), and it seemed liked the offense was only a player or two away (OT? WR?) from taking the next step. The hiring of DeBoer was done partly as a function of a shift in strategy from a program built primarily on defense to one built primarily on its offense, which follows a trend of changes in the rules that increasingly benefit complex offense-first teams. It might not be an easy switch for the fans to make, but it’s coming.

9. It might not mean anything come fall, but it was nice to see more widespread roster usage. Saban’s 2023 A-Day was practically a game-week scrimmage, with very little work from the walk-ons or down-the-depth-chart players. Saturday, DeBoer mostly emptied the benches on both sides. At one point, Alabama had an offensive line on the field made up of four-fifths walk-ons. Not only did this allow for some nice moments for a few guys who will likely never get the chance to play on a fall Saturday, it very well might have allowed a few of them to prove they could give a snap or two here or there, at least on special teams. Some of the ones that caught our eye were running backs J.R. Gardner and Michael Lorino, cornerbacks Alijah May and Chase Davis, safeties Kolby Peavy and Caleb McDougle, ILB Noland Asberry, OL Graham Roten, wideouts Sam Willoughby and Zarian Courtney, and TE Adam Thorsland. Alabama’s kickoff coverage units included several of these names along with safety Prince Butler.

10. If you absolutely must find something to worry about, worry about placekicker. TideFans tracked every kick in warm-ups and the game itself, and anything attempted from more than 40 yards away was sketchy. Alabama rotated kickers on every attempt in the game, starting with its oldest player (junior Reid Schuback) and going around. The only constant was Upton Bellenfant handling all kickoffs. Reed Harradine appeared to have the strongest leg in warm-ups, but was also the least consistent in terms of velocity and trajectory. Schuback and Bellenfant both hit short field goal attempts, while Conor Talty missed a 46-yarder that appeared to be on the very edge of his effective range. Alabama is said to be looking to the transfer portal for a kicker, so we’ll see where that goes. As it stands now, most any fourth down from 40-50 yards out is going to be a go-for-it scenario. Will Reichard will be missed.

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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