With the Wisconsin Badgers finishing their spring practice season Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, many will look ahead through the long months of May, June and July until fall camp starts up. Then, everyone's excitement ramps up for the impending season through the month of August...and the Alabama Crimson Tide on Sept. 5 in Dallas for the Cowboys Classic.
The Crimson Tide finished their spring session last Saturday with their "A-Day" in front of a nice crowd in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Despite Bama being an annual contender for the National Championship, they come into the 2015 season with questions of their own.
B5Q: Over 65,000 people attended Alabama's "A-Day." What exactly is "A-Day," for those that don't know the story behind it?
Erik Evans (EE): A-Day is a glorified third and final scrimmage with split squads, officiated by SEC refs, intended to mirror a game as closely as possible. Now, it in no way actually mirrors a game. First, snaps are limited for players most likely to be injured (running backs,) there is no play clock, and there is no contact (or two-hand touch) for other players (special teams, quarterbacks, healing players, etc.) Still, it is a chance to see early enrollees play in game-like conditions, to open up the depth chart, and to see how the first team offense looks against the first team defense. The playbook is uniformly bland. Alabama threw the ball 50-plus times, but I saw only seven distinctive pass patterns.
The Alabama spring game has a very long history, dating back to 1946 when legendary coach Frank Thomas (a Notre Dame product) initiated the event in Tuscaloosa. It is a great day for many fans who could not otherwise tour the stadium, afford a game, etc., and many alumni use the event as an excuse to get back to campus and drink with pretty girls on a gorgeous spring day. I should note that by May, Tuscaloosa routinely hits mid/upper 90s with 90 percent-plus humidity.
So, April is also one of the few comfortable times to sit in an exposed bowl with 102,000 of your new best friends.
B5Q: Who played well for the Crimson Tide Saturday, and who left a little more to be desired?
EE: The good news here is the bad news for other units. The front seven absolutely dominated a rebuilding offensive line in passing situations. The past two seasons pass blocking has been an Alabama strength (27 sacks allowed in two years.) This year, however, run blocking was very physical at the point of attack. Alabama seemed to be returning to its zone-block monster roots of 2008-2012. The linebackers played especially well, including Reggie Ragland, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Reuben Foster, Keith Holcombe, Christian Miller, and Rashaan Evans among others. This will be a very good edge rushing team. Individually, Jacob Coker has progressed miles from his unsteady effort of 2014. For now he has to be considered the de facto starting quarterback. That may not be the worst thing, either. Coker's arm has never been an issue, and he made at least three NFL calibre throws during the game -- all in tight windows.
B5Q: Who will replace the likes of Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon?
EE: The quarterback battle is in no way over. Coker has the inside track: familiarity with the offense and the receivers goes a long way towards his improvement. Still, David Cornwell is likely to press him well into the fall. I would expect to see both guys get snaps in our Jerry World slugfest. Cooper's loss on an individual basis cannot be understated. The kid was transcendent and leaves as arguably Alabama's best wide receiver (yes, even over the likes of Julio Jones, Ozzie Newsome and Don Hutson). That said, the wide receivers this year are actually better as a unit than last season. Chris Black, ArDarius Stewart, Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster will overmatch most secondaries. That doesn't include the excellent pass-catching tight ends, O.J. Howard and Ty Flournoy-Smith. Whoever wins the quarterback spot has a deeper wide receiver corps at his disposal than Sims did. Yeldon's loss is mitigated by a faster Derrick Henry. After waiting his turn, the 6'2 246-pound beast is larger, stronger, more determined, and his footwork has improved. He will be spelled by the "Bush-back" Kenyan Drake, who is a home run threat with every touch, as well as Desherrius Flowers and incoming freshman Damien Harris. Harris is a huge kid in the Saban mold of every-down backs like Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. His availability is expected to be limited only by his ability to learn how to pass block.
B5Q: Aside from replacing those three, what were some of the major storylines heading into spring camp, and how did they play out?
EE: One storyline, and an underreported one, is how would the safeties fare. Since Nick Saban's arrival, safeties have been the cornerstone of the defense. Rashad Johnson, Mark Barron, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and soon Landon Collins are all collecting fat NFL checks. This year, however, every starter graduated or left for the draft. This left Alabama with two career backups, a converted nickel corner, a converted boundary corner, a true freshman, and a redshirt freshman to fill the void. I am pleased to report that early enrollee Ronnie Harrison is the real deal. He has excellent ball skills, great speed, and hits very well too. He will be joined by some combination of converted-corner Geno Smith, Maurice Smith and converted-corner Eddie Jackson. Jackson was, in 2013, Alabama's best lockdown option. After his injury, and perhaps being rushed on the field in 2014, he lost a step and lost some confidence. But, he is a big, physical guy that possesses corner skills. When not asked to man-up on the outside, he can be very good at his new role, which I would assume is a free-safety slot.
B5Q: Were there any major surprises or breakthroughs for Alabama in spring camp?
EE: There were a few surprises in the spring, and many were not positive. We'll take the one of most concern. Alabama lost one of its young luminaries at running back with Tyren Jones' arrest for marijuana and subsequent dismissal from the team. Following that up, running back Bo Scarbrough, also expected to contribute immediately, was lost for the year with an ACL injury. Running back depth suddenly becomes a position of concern.
B5Q: Lastly, are there any position groups or players you're most concerned about heading into summer conditioning and fall camp?
EE: For the third straight year, I am worried about the right side of the offensive line. Alabama lost its solid right tackle, and right guard has been a rotating door since 2013. The Alabama front abused this unit consistently, and there's probably no shame in that. It is one of the deepest, most talented fronts in the nation. Cam Robinson returns at left tackle and is playing even better than his freshman All-American campaign by all respects. Left guard, though occasionally shaky despite a somewhat de facto starter in Ross Pierschbacher, should be fine, as he's wedged between Robinson and senior center Ryan Kelly. There have been rumors that all-but the right guard spot have been locked down. I can handle uncertainty at the skills positions; I am far less sanguine about where games are won and lost -- in the trenches.