As any long-time reader of RBR knows, none of us here claim (or have ever claimed) any legitimate amount of "inside" information. We do not have a best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend who heard from this guy who knows this kid who's going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. That is not who we are, nor is that what we pretend to be. Here are RBR, our football-related specialty is really commentary and analysis, and we leave the reporting to the professionals. However, that fact alone creates a legitimate problem with regard to reporting on the Tide's practice sessions simply because no one is actually allowed to watch practice, so it goes without saying that it can often be difficult to separate the truth from the fiction and discern exactly what is going on. So, the best we can really do with this is to compile all of the information possible from all of what we would consider credible sources, and do our best to piece things together from there.
With that in mind, to the best of my analytical abilities, here are a few early fall observations:
- The off-season strength and conditioning program is clearly a success, and that can be confirmed via both photographic evidence and direct player quotes. The team as a whole is very impressive physically, and progress is being made in the right direction for all those that need to make progress. Those who needed to drop weight have, and those that needed to bulk up have added the mass as needed. For example, Jerrell Harris has added nearly 30 pounds in the past year, and Chance Warmack has dropped nearly 30 pounds since his arrival eight months ago. Even the players who were in good physical condition to begin with, like Mark Ingram, have noticeably improved. Rodney Orr went on the record last week saying that this was the most physically impressive freshman class he had ever seen. I'll go one higher... this is the most physically impressive Alabama team I have seen. Period. If Scott Cochran is not your favorite assistant coach, he ought to be.
Roy Upchurch has successfully recovered from his off-season surgery, and looks to be 100%. However, the notion that he is going to be "the" man at tailback are probably overstating his case. Mark Ingram beat him out for the back-up job last year, and all indications I have read lead me to believe that Ingram is clearly the number one back in the rotation right now. Ingram likely represents our best runner in between the tackles, and with his improvement in pass protection, he figures to be on the field much more often than a year ago. This is not, of course, to say that Upchurch does not have a role, because clearly he does. He is a highly talented player in his own right that can offer some things that Ingram cannot, he will play a lot of meaningful snaps in 2009 as long as he stays healthy, and he will likely be used in a variety of different ways as well. However, with that said, it seems clear right now that the starting tailback job is Ingram's to lose, and not Upchurch's.
- Speaking of the tailback position, both Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy have impressed observers with their raw size and ability, and Coach Saban has also explicitly stated that they were doing well. And in fact, some people actually like Lacy a bit better than Richardson at this point. Gentry Estes of the Mobile Press-Register, in a chat session two days ago, said he thought Lacy was the most impressive freshman on offense to date. One way or the other, these two have looked very good, and they are going to see a good bit of meaningful playing time in 2009. If anything, the real issue that we are fighting here is the same one that Auburn fought back in 2003... too many talented tailbacks, only one football.
- A year ago most expected that Alonzo Lawrence, the star cornerback signee from the 2008 class, would quickly snag a starting job as soon as he stepped foot on campus, only to have Lawrence became scout team fodder almost the second he arrived in Tuscaloosa. The star cornerback signee from the 2009 class, however, has had no such setbacks. Dre Kirkpatrick is a constant in the discussion for most impressive true freshman to date, and many dub him as the most impressive true freshman we have. Furthermore, we do know as a matter of fact from the open practice at Fan Day that Kirkpatrick is getting a lot of reps with the first team defense when we go to multiple defensive back sets, and specifically at one point we were even moving Arenas inside to the star position and putting Kirkpatrick on the outside. Simply put, he has blown everyone away with his sheer size, athleticism, and raw cover skills, and it seems clear at this point that he is going to play a lot as a true freshman in a lot of meaningful situations. At the very least, Kirkpatrick thus far has done all that he can do to justify the recruiting hype... this is not Alonzo Lawrence: Part Two.
- Here's a real head-scratcher to me... today in his press conference Coach Saban said the following regarding Star Jackson: [He has been] making a lot of athletic plays. He's a guy that ought to have some kind of role for us on this team, this year.'' The emphasis is obviously mine, and with good reason. When Coach Saban is referring to him making athletic plays and then discussing how he should have a role for us this year, I highly doubt he's referring to him being a back-up quarterback. But what else? I've said before that I don't think Jackson is a good enough of a raw athlete to star at another position, and truth be told we have more experienced guys there anyway, so that seems unlikely. This is all complete speculation on my part, but I'll throw this out there... Is it possible that we see Jackson used some this year in some sort of a Wildcat-like package?
- Michael Bowman has been the most physically impressive of the freshman wide receivers to date, and he probably has the best chance of any freshman wide receiver to earn early playing time. However, with that said, things are not going to come easy. Most reports have the top four receivers at the moment being Julio Jones, Marquis Maze, Mike McCoy, and Darius Hanks. Those who follow Alabama closely will be intrigued by the name of Darius Hanks. He was a star on the scout team as a true freshman and wowed everyone through Fall camp last year, only to fall of the face of the Earth after the Clemson game. Can he stick in the rotation this year?
William Vlachos is our center at this point, and to the best of my observations, it's not even a particularly close race. He had the slight edge coming out of Spring practice, and he seems to have locked down the job as well as anyone reasonably could. According to various reports from Fan Day, as well as some direct player quotes, Vlachos has held his own about as well as anyone can against Terrence Cody, and that's about as good of an endorsement as you can give for his abilities. And to be honest, almost nothing has been said anywhere of David Ross, who battled Vlachos for the starting center job this Spring, and that is probably not good news for the Homewood product.
- D.J. Fluker has bounced around a bit, spending time at both left tackle and right tackle. He has generally been grouped with the third team to date, though he has seen some time on up the ladder as well. In fact, on occasion, we have put him at right tackle with the first team unit, and when we did so Drew Davis would move inside to right guard. One way or the other, the scenario I discussed earlier in the year about Fluker possibly starting out guard does not seem to be a legitimate possibility at this point. He looks to be at tackle one way or the other, and we will have to see how he progresses throughout the rest of Fall camp. He hasn't came in and taken the world by storm like Andre Smith did three years, but given the quality of competition that surrounds him now (compared to what Smith had to fight through) no one expected him to either.
- Yours truly has some explaining to do about the right guard spot, but interestingly enough through most of Fall camp to date, Alfred McCullough has gotten the majority of the reps with the first-team unit. McCullough spent the spring backing up at tackle, but the staff has had him playing inside thus far, and he has impressed. Barrett Jones ran with the first team in the early morning practice on Tuesday, but aside from that temporary alignment, McCullough has been the man to date at right guard. For now, neither Boswell, Motley, Warmack, or Ross seemingly have anything on McCullough, and a lot of people think it is his job to lose at right guard. To date, the "typical" grouping of the first team offensive line has been, from left to right, James Carpenter, Mike Johnson, William Vlachos, Alfred McCullough, and Drew Davis. For what its worth, Saban did say yesterday that he had a "pretty good idea" of who four of the starters would be, and that probably only leaves the right guard position in play right now.
- Brad Smelley went on the record saying that he has bulked up to about 230 pounds in the off-season S&C program, which is probably fifteen or twenty pounds heavier than he was a year ago. And, for what it's worth, Smelley seems to be edging out Preston Dial for the best receiving threat from the position, but nevertheless we still need to find a blocker who can do many of the things that Travis McCall did last year. Keep your eye on two men: Michael Williams and Undra Billingsley. Also, don't sleep on true freshman Mike Marrow, who is quite a physically impressive player in his own right.
- When Drew Davis spoke to the media on Monday, one of the players he specifically called out as impressing him was Darrington Sentimore. I've long since raved about Sentimore's raw abilities, and it seems like he reported in good physical condition as well. I know we are very deep at defensive end, but you have to imagine that Sentimore will find the field sometime this year. It's really rare to see sixth-year seniors calling out true freshman as impressive and then watch that same guy end up with a redshirt.
- It seems like one of the themes of Fall practice is what I would like to call "Dont'a Hightower Watch." Everyone who is anyone is more than blown away by Hightower, and it seems like every single day there is yet another report of something amazing he did in practice that particular day. Now, it is a fact that he has spent some time working the Jack linebacker position, but nevertheless the bulk of his time has come working inside at the Will position. I do think that Hightower will largely play the Will position this Fall, and that he will play the Jack position situationally on obvious passing downs. My question is this... if all of this we are hearing is even remotely true, is Dont'a Hightower the best football player we have on the entire team not named Julio Jones? I'd say it's a distinct possibility.
- Largely the reason I say that Hightower will mainly stay inside is the development of Eryk Anders. He came out of nowhere last year to be the Tide's best edge rusher, and if all accounts are to be believed, he has been even more impressive this Fall. At the very least, he's making a legitimate run at being the starting Jack linebacker, and he's going to play a lot in 2009.
- The real issue with linebacker, though, isn't so much in finding the best player, but having to deal with a lot of guys legitimately being able to play and only having so much playing time to dole out. Jerrell Harris is really taking his game to the next level, and Chris Jordan has received praise for his play at inside linebacker. Courtney Upshaw is progressing immensely at Jack linebacker, Eryk Anders is playing better than ever, and that is to say nothing of Rolando McClain or Dont'a Hightower. Likewise, both Nico Johnson and Tana Patrick have been impressive to date, and Jonathon Atchison arrived much more physically ready to compete at this stage of his career than anyone expected. And that's not to say anything of Ed Stinson or Chavis Williams. Again, at this point with the linebacker position, it is really more of an issue of having a lot of guys who can legitimately get the job done, and nowhere near enough playing time to dole out to everyone. Much like the situation at tailback, it's an embarrassment of riches, really.
- The best news to date? No injuries, and I mean none whatsoever. Nobody wearing a black no-contact jersey, nobody riding the exercise bikes, nobody watching in street clothes, nothing. To be sure, injuries will eventually come as certain as the morning sun rising, but as of right now things are off to a good start on the injury front, and we can only hope that it will continue to go that way.
That's all for now, but obviously more will be coming up in the following days. It should be pointed out that we are still very early in the game -- pads went on for the first time Monday, and today was the first of two-a-days -- and in particular it's very early for the incoming freshmen. Keep in mind that at this point last year, Julio Jones was just beginning to start working his way up from the bottom of the non-existent depth chart. Bottom line, everything is very volatile at the moment, and things are subject to change. The first scrimmage of Fall camp is scheduled for this Saturday, and by the end of that we should have a much better feel on how things are progressing.