After the conclusion of the second scrimmage on Saturday afternoon, spring practice is almost over for the Crimson Tide. With the A-Day game now a mere five days away, a few thoughts on some developments we have seen so far:
The biggest news maker of the spring has been redshirt freshman quarterback A.J. McCarron. After receiving a late-season bump from the scout team to the back-up position last fall, McCarron has followed that promotion by going a combined 38-58 for 444 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions in the two scrimmages to date this spring. That is about a 66% completion percentage and nearly 8.0 yards per attempt, doing it all without turning the football over. In a statistical sense, it would be difficult to perform better than McCarron has done to date this spring.
Now, as I said last week, Greg McElroy is clearly the starter and as a fifth-year senior he will be our leader when Penn State comes to town. Again, however, Saban is clearly very high on McCarron -- he has consistently heaped praise upon him for weeks now, and praise is the rarest commodity in the Saban dominated empire -- and the gap between McElroy and McCarron is, by all accounts, very small. The real world implication of all of this is that McElroy, while being the starter, will have a very small margin of error. If he wants to remain on the field in the 2010 season, he will have to consistently play at a high level. And if he does have another stretch like he did for much of last year (see Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU, and much of the Auburn game), you will see A.J. McCarron come into the game.
Something that is not garnering much attention is the battle at wide receiver. Julio Jones has been the unquestioned #1 receiver since he first set foot on campus and that will remain the case until he leaves, but beyond Julio the situation is much more unsettled. Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks were the #2 and #3 receivers a year ago, but neither produced with any degree of consistency. Instead, they sprinkled in a handful of big plays with very long stretches in which they became complete and total non-factors. Moving forward, put simply, that is not going to be enough to keep them on the field in their previous roles. We have entirely too much raw talent at the wide receiver position right now to have such limited production, so rest assured that will change moving forward. The bottom line of the current situation is that, despite their experience from the past two years, Maze and Hanks have no real guarantee for playing time moving forward, and unless they improve they will be passed by other players. I did find it highly interesting that, in the stats released by UA, neither Maze nor Hanks were credited with having a catch in the second scrimmage. Keep your eye on this position. A lot of people just nonchalantly assume that the rotation at wide receiver will be a lot like it was a year ago simply because everyone returns, but outside of Julio Jones there is no real reason to expect that to be the case.
Kendall Kelly and Brandon Gibson continue to split time back and forth between safety and wide receiver, but given how things have played out over the course of the spring, I think it is quite clear that both are really nothing more than emergency options at safety. If we were really serious about moving one of them over to the defensive side of the ball for any extended period of time, we wouldn't keep swapping them back and forth between wide receiver. I think we are likely just familiarizing both players with the position so that if something does happen during the season where our depth at safety becomes particularly tested, those guys can transition over to the defensive side of the ball and give us at least some reasonable performance under the circumstances. For all of the publicity it has generated, I really don't think there is anything more to it than that.
And speaking of Brandon Gibson, he registered 10 catches on Saturday afternoon for 74 yards and a touchdown. On a raw absolute sense, it's the most production we've seen out of him since he arrived in Tuscaloosa. The yards per reception is low, admittedly, but Gibson isn't really an elite athlete and will probably always be more of a possession receiver than anything else, so that number is hardly surprising. Nevertheless, no one can complain about a player catching that many balls, so hopefully things are starting to come together for him. I had largely written him off prior to this spring, but it does seem like he has done pretty well thus far. Hopefully this is a sign of more good things to come. As I mentioned earlier with regard to Maze and Hanks, playing time is there for the taking at wide receiver for anyone who steps up their performance.
D.J. Fluker and Alfred McCullough are still battling things out for the right tackle position, and I still get the feeling that the further we go the further that Fluker will solidify his hold on the position. I don't think it's necessarily a given that Fluker will win the starting job, but at this point I think it's at least relatively clear that the smart money is on the former Mr. Everything recruit. The battle for left guard, on the other hand, between Chance Warmack and John Michael Boswell will likely go well into fall practice, and will probably become definite only in the days before the season opener.
With the suspension of Robby Green for the 2010 season becoming official a few days ago, it should be noted that Nick Saban explicitly stated in one of his press conferences that the decision ultimately received was the decision that was expected all along. In short, it came as no surprise that Green will miss the entire 2010 campaign, and we have been planning accordingly all along. Unfortunately, though, we just aren't very deep at that position at this point -- I tell you, Lane Kiffin snagging Darren Myles away from us last year really stings right now -- and to be honest the coaching staff is just very limited in what they can do, regardless of how much they have planned for Green's absence. As I have said since the initial reports on Green came down several weeks back, for better or for worse rising sophomore safety Rod Woodson has effectively become the starter at safety by default. Keep a close eye on him at the A-Day game, because I'm afraid we're going to be forced to sink or swim with him. Hope for the best.
Speaking of the safety position, one random thought... when Dequan Menzie returns to full health for the 2011 season, I fully expect him to be at safety. With at least the top five cornerbacks on the roster in 2010 returning for the 2011 season -- Kirkpatrick, Scott, Jones, Milliner, and Fulton (and perhaps Belue if he qualifies), Menzie will have almost no chance at seeing any meaningful playing time at cornerback in 2011. And physically, a torn Achilles is a very serious injury, and even aside the fact that it has turned many corners into safeties over the years, Menzie was a pretty big guy for a cornerback in the first place (around 6'0 and 200 pounds). Combine all of that with our lack of depth at safety, and I think you'll see Menzie at safety next spring. There is just no reason whatsoever why a guy should linger as scout team fodder as the #6 or #7 cornerback when he could easily be the #2 or #3 safety, especially if his physical skill set likely fits him better at safety than cornerback.
The best news we've had in spring practice to date is the relative lack of injuries. A few players have been dinged up here and there, but fortunately there have been no serious long-term injuries sustained. Of course we are not completely out of the clear just yet, but so far so good. Fingers crossed for the next five days.
The worst injury news to date has been with Milton Talbert, the rising fifth year senior. No one really knows what is wrong with the Mississippi native, but he has spent much of the spring on an exercise bike and has not participated in any of the contact drills to date. Given that he doesn't look to have any great chances for meaningful playing time -- Talbert, unfortunately, could probably qualify as the poster child for the tweener 3-4 end / linebacker -- I expect that it is only a matter of time at this point before we have an announcement that he will be going on a medical scholarship. I certainly hope that is not the case, mind you, but I'm afraid to say that at this point it certainly seems like an inevitability.
Finally, I'll close with a blurb on the battle to replace P.J. Fitzgerald at punter, and from all indications things are simply not going well on that front. Performances have been erratic at best, and the mere fact that offensive lineman Taylor Pharr is still seeing some time at the position -- even though with his length you would probably need a sun dial to time his release, and the fact that he too has been inconsistent -- probably ought to tell you all you need to know about how things are going. If nothing else, I'll say this much... if Jay Williams is even half what the coaching staff thought he was as a prep senior, he shouldn't have any trouble winning the starting job this fall.