Things have been quite busy as of late between real life and Yea Alabama, but I did want to take some time and get up some content on how things are developing with Spring practice. You know the routine:
- Greg McElroy has not been perfect, but he has been very solid thus far, and there is no real doubt that he is clearly the leader in the quarterback race. In the two scrimmages thus far, McElroy has gone 34-59 (57.6%) for 324 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. Those numbers are far from spectacular, but again they are solid (especially given the windy conditions of the second scrimmage) and they greatly out-distance the rest of the field. Moreover, parsing the tea leaves, if you dissect what Saban says, every time he gets onto something that might not look positive in McElroy's favor, he always emphasizes that it is the result of external factors beyond his control, such as poor wide receiver play, a blown block, etc. At this point, it's clear that McElroy is our quarterback, and going forward the inescapable conclusion seems to be that we will either sink or swim with the native Texan. We still do not know whether or not Saban will officially name him the starter at the end of Spring, but at this point it is a matter of semantics.
- The real race seems to be for the back-up position. Scrimmage statistics are not the end-all, be-all, but nevertheless Star Jackson's combined showing of 11-28 for 37 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception never looks good regardless. Jackson has immense physical potential, but most knew he was a developmental quarterback when we signed him, and it looks like he has a very long way to go at this point. Truth be told, right now it seems that Thomas Darrah is probably out-performing Jackson. He has seen more snaps and has posted much better production. Of course, he has a huge arm, but the concern is that he stares down routes a bit and holds onto the ball too long. Darrah may be a decent back-up option because he can stretch the field vertically with his arm, and that combined with a good rushing attack could form a decent, even if not spectacular, combination. Nevertheless, at this point there seems to be a very big gap between these two and McElroy, and if McElroy goes down this one could turn ugly.
- We continue to have good luck with the injury bug. Mike Johnson, Mark Ingram, and Chris Jackson have all missed time with minor injuries, but all have returned. In particular, both Johnson and Ingram returned to practice from ankle and hamstring injuries, respectively, yesterday.
- Earlier in the Spring I wrote that the absence of Ingram and Upchurch could help us sort out back-end of the tailback rotation, but it has been hard to see anything definite. Terry Grant had a decent first scrimmage, but followed that up with a 16 carry, 2 yard performance in the second scrimmage. Moreover, the rest of the guys have done little to speak of. Ivan Matchett has nice statistics from the second scrimmage, but Saban made it clear that nearly all of the production came on one run against the third-string defense. Jeramie Griffin continues to look pretty decent as a short-yardage option, but with Upchurch, Ingram, and Richardson, those guys can handle short-yardage situations just fine on their own. Griffin looks to be a talented prospect, but he is not really filling a need at the moment. It shouldn't be anything overly surprising, but I think what we have learned this Spring is that none of these guys are going to see meaningful playing time above the triumvirate of Upchurch, Ingram, and Richardson.
- In the second scrimmage, the rushing attack was simply atrocious, and when factoring out the Matchett scamper, we averaged about two feet per carry on 42 carries. Some may see that as cause for concern, but I wouldn't worry. None of the tailbacks currently getting the ball will be seeing it in meaningful situations this Fall, our best returning offensive lineman is missing (Mike Johnson), and besides, with a healthy Terrence Cody anchoring the middle, we will probably have the toughest run defense in the nation. Combined, our running game really doesn't have even a fighting chance this Spring.
- Darius Hanks continues to have an impressive Spring. In the two scrimmages thus far, he has caught 14 balls for 103 yards, and has been making himself known. If you recall, Hanks was a practice squad star in 2007, and big things were expected of him in 2008, but it just never materialized. Now, once again, Hanks continues to be very strong in practice, but the real question is going to be whether or not that can translate over into the regular season this time around.
- For other receivers, one that keeps getting mentioned is Mike McCoy. It's hard to believe that he is now a senior, and he wants to go out on top. He has been a bit more outspoken this Spring, and has seemingly developed as a receiver. Saban and company have always loved McCoy for his size and his abilities as a run blocker, but the actual receiving production just hasn't quite came around. Nevertheless, he is having a good Spring thus far, and it looks like he may be stepping up, alonside Hanks, as the early favorites to see playing time along with Julio Jones.
- With the offensive line, James Carpenter has locked up the left tackle position, while Drew Davis remains a stalwart at right tackle. The right guard position is still up for battle, but most still expect John Michael Boswell to eventually emerge victorious. Mike Johnson has been out at left guard, and in his place Bryan Motley has played and from all reports has looked pretty good. The center position still has a battle going between Vlachos and Ross, and while it seems that Ross may be the leader there, apparently our centers have been consistently eaten alive by the interior defensive line, so I'm not sure that's saying anything. At at rate, the smart money on the starting five right now, moving left to right, seems to be James Carpenter, Mike Johnson, David Ross, John Michael Boswell, and Drew Davis. Do not set that one in stone just yet, though, because with Pendry's philosophy of getting the best five on the field, an injury to just one lineman or the emergence of just one other lineman could completely alter the composition of the starting five.
- Defensively, the run defense has been inpenetrable as expected, but the pass rush seems to have really stepped up. We have gotten a lot of sacks, and while some of that is certainly due to the re-shuffling of the offensive line, Saban has generally noted that we have done a better job at rushing the passer this year. We're seemingly getting better production out of the linebacker corps, Lorenzo Washington is having a good Spring, and Marcel Dareus is really starting to come along.
- Tyrone King certainly deserves to have his name mentioned. The former Grambling transfer earned himself a scholarship last season, but has really had a great Spring thus far. In the first two scrimmages, he has had 11 tackles, 3 interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown), and 3 passes broken up. King is another one of those gutsy players that Saban is so fond of, and he deserves a lot of credit for what he has done. My instinct tells me that he won't ultimately end up a starter, but that he will play quite a bit in nickel and dime situations. King is simply the type of player you want to root for, and his hard work will be rewarded accordingly this Fall.
- At safety, we still have a ways to go but it certainly is starting to seem like that Robby Green will be taking over Rashad Johnson's old role. I wrote in one of the previous updates that Green was probably, in terms of physical ability, more similar to Johnson than any other player currently on the roster, and it seems like he is starting to emerge as the front-runner at safety. From the looks of things thus far, we'll try to keep things largely as they were last year, with Woodall playing in more a strong safety role while Green plays free. Hopefully it will work well, Green has good mobility and he has the mix of range and intelligence that you want with a free safety. I do not expect him to be as good of a contributor in the running game, but with our front seven that shouldn't be a problem.
- All in all, you really have to feel confident about or defensive backfield. Everyone aside from Johnson returns from a year ago, and there has been a lot of development among the returning players. Aside from the aforementioned Green, Burton Scott has apparently made the transition to cornerback quite successfully, Tyrone King has stepped up, and Saban has gone out of his way to explicitly state that he expected big contributions out of Mark Barron this year (an unusual occurance for the ol' Nicktator). And of course that does not even begin to include the shortcoming matriculation of Dre Kirkpatrick and Rod Woodson (who has successfully addressed his academic situation). All told, the Alabama pass defense was extremely good last year -- more on that when I release the 2008 SEC pass defense statistics -- and with an improved pass rush and a much deeper defensive backfield for 2009, opponents ought to dread throwing the football against us.
- With special teams P.J. Fitzgerald has been somewhat solid, even if not spectacular. He's averaging around 40 yards per punt, and while I'm sure his hang time is still nothing special, that is probably as good as he has punted since arriving on the Capstone. Meanwhile, it certainly seems like the whole Corey Smith project has been deemed a failure. Aside from the fact that we are offering firm scholarships to both kickers and punters in the 2010 recruiting class, Smith has attempted only two field goals in scrimmages thus far, and zero punts. And with Leigh Tiffin, in the second scrimmage, he hit from 54, 29, and 24, but missed twice from 43. His amazingly consistent inconsistency continues...
Finally, I would like to close by urging all of you to attend the A-Day game this Saturday. It looks like the Weather Gods are going to give us a nice day for Spring football -- assuming a passing shower or two holds off -- and the incredible turnouts that we have had the past two years have had a phenomenal impact on Alabama. We literally now have recruits who are widely considered locks for other schools coming to Tuscaloosa from opposite ends of the country, on their own dime, just to see the spectacle of 75,000+ people to show up for a glorified practice. Bottom line, the passion and dedication that we have collectively shown for Alabama football the past two years via the A-Day game have had a tremendous positive impact on the program as a whole, and if there is any way you can attend this year's game, please do so. I'll be there, and hopefully the rest of you guys can make it as well.