With the start of Fall semester at The University of Alabama, Fall camp finally came to a close for the Crimson Tide. The grueling two-a-day sessions are now over with, and with a return to the classroom, life for the football players returns to essentially the "normal" in-season daily grind of early morning workouts, followed by classes all day, and evening practices almost to dusk. The Tide will scrimmage once again tomorrow, once again the following week, and after the completion of the final scrimmage, all eyes will officially turn to the season opener against Virginia Tech. Believe it or not, kick-off in Atlanta is a mere fifteen days away. Before we focus in on tomorrow's scrimmage, however, let's do a final wrap on Fall camp.
On the positive side of things, the most surprising thing to me about Fall camp was Nick Saban's particularly positive demeanor. Yes he did complain about a lack of effort in a couple of practices, and he did go nuts on a reporter a time or two, but all in all when Saban spoke of his team as a whole, as well as with regard to individual players, he was much more positive and optimistic than I've ever seen him. Part of this should be expected considering the team as a whole is still improving over what we were when he arrived, but nevertheless the reviews given by the ol' Nicktator seemed to be particularly glowing. He consistently talked about how many players were doing very well, and how talented they were, etc. If nothing else, it's hard for me or any other observer to overly complain about this team considering how highly Saban has spoken about them to date. It goes without saying that Saban himself is notoriously a harsh critic, so to please him requires a player (and a team) to meet a particularly demanding standard.
On a more somber tone, Injuries, of course, are everyone's major concern during this period, as nothing is ever more disheartening that losing a player for any extended period of time when we are, frankly, just playing with ourselves. Unfortunately, as Lombardi said, football is a collision sport and injuries are not a possibility but a certainty. To that end, Jeramie Griffin went down for the year with a torn ACL, and his loss is an unfortunate one because he is a very talented player. Fortunately, aside from Griffin's knee injury, the rest of the Tide remained quite healthy throughout the course of camp. There were some nagging injuries, but nothing major, and nothing expected to keep anyone out for an extended period of time.
At the quarterback position, Greg McElroy is clearly the starting quarterback, but the back-up job is still very much up in the air. In the first scrimmage last Saturday, all three candidates vying for the back-up job received approximately the same number of reps, and there is little separation. If I had to wager right now, a decision has not been made, and likely will not be made until after the third scrimmage. With no disrespect intended to Thomas Darrah, the battle is likely between A.J. McCarron and Star Jackson, but in all fairness it would be no major shock to see Darrah win the back-up job. On way or the other, though, performance in the coming eight days will decide who is the back-up, and to date all Fall camp has done is to underscore the uncertainty that we have with regard to who is actually going to win the back-up job.
The tailback position is likely just as much of an uncertainty. Clearly Mark Ingram is the starter, but from there it's hard to figure. Roy Upchurch will see a lot of playing time in some capacity, but even if he can stay healthy all year (something that he has never done before), there will still be a lot of carries to go around to another back, and to that end both Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy have had very impressive showings to date in Fall camp. Moreover, Saban has even said that Terry Grant has also done well, so perhaps he can find a niche role here as well. One way or the other, it's just really hard to say how things will shake out from here. Ingram will start and Upchurch will play a lot, but aside from that we have a great deal of uncertainty. Both Richardson and Lacy look excellent, but one of those likely will (and probably should) get a redshirt this year, and right now we simply do not know how that will play out. They are two very similar players in terms of physical skill sets, and they have both impressed. It could go either way, and again Grant remains a bit of an x-factor. Much like with the quarterback position, once we get past the starter at tailback, we really do not know how things will play out from there.
The offensive line looks to be relatively set. There is no doubt that James Carpenter has locked up the left tackle job, and likewise there is no doubt that Mike Johnson will start at left guard. William Vlachos was thought to be in a position battle coming into Fall camp, but if all indications we have are even remotely true, he has won that battle and is now effectively the unquestioned starting center moving on to Virginia Tech. Furthermore, Drew Davis seemingly has the right tackle job locked up, and those four linemen seem to be pretty much set in stone. D.J. Fluker has looked solid thus far, but he still needs some refinement, and barring a late surge, he may very well be looking at a redshirt season. At the very least, a starting job does not seem likely for him early in the season.With others who were expected to compete for a starting job, like David Ross, they seemingly have not been able to make much progress one way or the other towards a starting job. That may be bad news for them, but in all honesty it's probably a good sign for the Tide. Our back-up line now consists of the likes of John Michael Boswell, David Ross, D.J. Fluker, Tyler Love,and others, and frankly the second string figures to be better than any we've had in Tuscaloosa in ages.
The big opening on the offensive line has been at right guard, where Alfred McCullough spent most of the early part of Fall running with the first unit, and where Barrett Jones has spent the latter part of Fall running with the first unit. As of right now, most expect that Jones will win the starting job, but I'll be brutally honest... all of this has came as a major surprise to me. Coming into the Fall, it was thought to be a three-way battle for the starting job between Chance Warmack, Bryan Motley, and John Michael Boswell, with the possibility of David Ross joining the fray if he moved back from center. McCullough wasn't even in the picture, and neither was Jones. In fact, I specifically wrote that I felt that Jones was still a year away from making a major contribution. I really have no idea as to what to make of this development, and I'm not even going to feign for one second that I do. For better or for worse, the starting line going to Atlanta will seemingly be (going left to right): James Carpenter, Mike Johnson, William Vlachos, Barrett Jones, and Drew Davis. That seems to be the starting five that we will sink or swim with.
The wide receiver position has underdone a massive overhaul in the past year, and the quality depth at the position is really starting to show off. Julio Jones will be the cornerstone of the corps, of course, but Marquis Maze, Darius Hanks, Earl Alexander, and Mike McCoy are all seemingly progressing very well in their own right, and the incoming group of true freshmen have been very impressive as well. This Fall, I think, has shown us that Chris Jackson probably had good reason for transferring... it's going to be very hard for anyone to crack this group and get some legitimate meaningful playing time in the near future.
Of the true freshman at wide receiver, seemingly the most likely to earn playing time at this point is Kevin Norwood. The Mississippi native has had a very productive Fall camp, and Saban himself even explicitly said after the first scrimmage that he was the most consistent of the true freshmen receivers. Moreover, in the media session shortly thereafter, Norwood was spotted working with the first unit at wide receiver, something that we have not seen out of any of the other three true freshman wide receivers, Kendall Kelly, Michael Bowman, and Kenny Bell. Now, to be sure, both Kelly and Bowman have impressed to date, and both are physically ready to play at the college level, but at some point a redshirt becomes an increasingly attractive option. In other words, those guys may play, but unless you figure that they can do enough to play a significant number of snaps, a redshirt is probably the better route to go. For now, Norwood seems to be the only true freshman wide receiver almost guaranteed to play from the start.
And speaking of Kenny Bell, expect him to redshirt. Saban recently said that he was suffering from shin splints and that he was going to be in a boot for about a week. That injury is particularly difficult for a guy like Bell who relies so heavily on his raw speed. Shin splints usually just need a lot of time off to heal, and I imagine that is what the doctor will order for Bell. Combine that with the inherent difficulty in cracking the line-up with the quality of this receiver corps, not to mention the unanimous opinion that Bell needs to add some weight in the S&C program, and I think you can almost be entirely certain at this point that Bell will redshirt.
The defensive line just continues to get better and better, and depth is just continuing to grow even further. The starting front three boasts three high-end players, and the back-ups at the end positions really do not consitute any real drop-off. Marcel Dareus and Luther Davis are probably the two best back-up defensive ends in the conference, and those two would probably be starting on at least half of the other SEC teams. Furthermore, the rest of the rotation has filled out as well. Damien Square continues to impress, and incoming true freshman Chris Bonds has finally gotten healthy (big news for someone with his raw ability). Darrington Sentimore has already drawn rave reviews from the upperclassmen, and Brandon Moore looks good as well. Furthermore, Kerry Murphy -- despite the setbacks stemming from the recent tragic murder of his brother -- has done a great job in the past year in the S&C program, and a role can be found for him somewhere. The truth of the matter is that this line looks incredibly good. Even with it being only a base three-man front, we nevertheless still have around ten different high-quality players that we can rotate in and out at will.
Despite talk of Dont'a Hightower moving to Jack linebacker, that does not look to be coming to fruition. He will be moving outside in passing situations, no doubt there, but his base alignment will nevertheless come inside at the Will position, where he will once again be starting alongside Mike linebacker Rolando McClain. Chris Jordan has continued his development this Fall, and with the addition of Nico Johnson at inside linebacker -- not to mention the possible contributions at the position from Tana Patrick and Jerrell Harris -- we have a deep rotation at the inside 'backer position.
With Hightower staying inside, that essentially creates a battle between Courtney Upshaw and Eryk Anders for the starting job at Jack linebacker. Without doubt, Anders is clearly the team's best pass rusher off the edge, and he is going to play a lot this year regardless. However, the smart money is probably on Upshaw being the starter and more of the every-down player. For all of his edge rushing abilities, Anders is definitely on the small side, and Upshaw likely presents a better option on running downs. And, of course, it should go without saying that Upshaw is a talented pass rusher in his own right. I doubt it matters a whole lot one way or the other considering that both are going to see a lot of playing time regardless, but from the looks of things, the smart money is probably on Upshaw being the starting Jack linebacker for the bulk of the season.
The Sam linebacker position, however, has been pretty quiet all throughout camp. Cory Reamer returns and he can certainly play the position, but honestly with guys like Nico Johnson and the continued development of Jerrell Harris, we have better athletes who can play the position right now. Reamer is a smart, hard-working kid who is going to get a good deal of playing time regardless, but I expected to hear more out of this position. Chavis Williams is likely facing a now-or-never situation, and the aforementioned Harris looked like the prototype player for the position this Spring. Again, I think Reamer will play a lot regardless, but I wouldn't be surprised to see his playing time get chipped away at somewhat throughout the course of the season.
The defensive backfield has largely remained the same, particularly with the corners. Kareem Jackson and Javier Arenas look to start yet again, and Marquis Johnson also looks likely to continue being the most underrated player on the team, as he continues to generally give solid play despite vast outcries from fans completely shocked that Saban hasn't forced him to transfer to the Institute of the Blind, Deaf, and Disabled. All three of those players are upperclassmen with a plethora of experience, and they will see lots of quality playing time this year, no doubt about it. However, do expect Dre Kirkpatrick to make a contribution immediately. The consensus opinion is that Kirkpatrick has, without doubt, had the most impressive Fall camp to date of any true freshman, and he's going to play a lot this season. I look at it this way: right now we have five good, quality cornerbacks on this roster... Kareem Jackson, Javier Arenas, Marquis Johnson, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Burton Scott. When was the last time we could legitimately say that?
The safety position also looks to be quite settled, as Coach Saban explicitly came out and said recently that we effectively have three starters at safety: Justin Woodall, Robby Green, and Mark Barron. Woodall will play the strong safety role, whereas Green and Barron will play free. And, frankly, based on what we have seen lately, I think that Barron will probably get the start over Green against Virginia Tech and for most of the year as well. Though Barron is a great athlete in his own right, his tendencies are likely suited slightly more to the run, while Green would specialize slightly more against the pass. Both will see a ton of meaningful playing time either way, but the smart money is Barron being in the game more in running situations, with Green playing more in obvious passing situations. Now, with that basic insight, do the math... Virginia Tech was a horrendous passing team last year, and probably won't be very good in that regard this year either. And most of the other teams on the schedule are likely not going to have great quarterback play either, and will also look to establish the run. I think that probably leads to Barron starting most of the time, and getting slightly more playing time than Green.
All in all, when looking back on Fall Camp '09, it's hard to complain too much about the things going on in Tuscaloosa. We probably have more raw talent on the field than we've had since 1992, and quality depth is emerging almost everywhere. The incoming true freshman class looks incredibly talented, and even Coach Saban is pleased. No one knows exactly what the 2009 season will bring, and make no mistake about it, success is still by no means guaranteed. Nevertheless, with Fall camp now in the rear view mirror, things have seemingly gone as well as we could have reasonably expected.