Initial Impressions from the A-Day Game

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Another A-Day game for Nick Saban, and another great day all the way around. Think about it... beautiful weather, 'Bama guaranteed a win, and no one needs tickets. If that's not heaven on earth, it's probably one of the closet things, and if that doesn't make you all jolly, you seriously ought to reconsider what the hell you're doing with your life.

Now, obviously there is a lot to cover in the aftermath of A-Day 2010, and entirely too much for just one piece. In this piece, I'm just going to give an overview of the individual units on the offensive side of the ball, and in the next few days I'll have a piece for the defensive side, and a piece breaking down some individualized thoughts on specific players. For now, though, a brief unit overview of the offense:

Quarterbacks

While the incumbent starter and fifth-year senior Greg McElroy is still the starting quarterback as we move into the summer months, I think it is clear that one quarterback stole the show this spring, as well as yesterday, and that player was A.J. McCarron. I expected McCarron to play well given all the praise that has been heaped upon him to date, but I must admit even I was blown away yesterday with how he played. He moved extremely well in the pocket, and when it came time to step up and throw the football downfield, he did so better than any quarterback we've had in ages. Everyone knew he had the big arm, but the downfield accuracy, the pocket presence, the improvisation, and the ability to throw on the run all came as extremely pleasant surprises. With all due respect to McElroy, in terms of their abilities to throw the football down the field, I don't think there is any question that McCarron is clearly the better of the two.

Greg McElroy, on the other hand, really didn't have all that great of a day, and continued to showcase effectively all of the same limitations of a year ago. Now, in all fairness, McElroy generally does a good job of not making the big negative plays, and he does generally work well on the short and underneath passing game, but we simply cannot throw the football down the field effectively with McElroy under center. He occasionally makes the throw, but more often than not he usually holds onto the football too long, looks too quickly for the checkdown, or just misses throw entirely. The "touchdown" pass to Maze yesterday provides a textbook example of the latter... we run a trick play, he has a receiver open for a relatively easy touchdown pass, and McElroy misses him so badly that Maze has to lay out completely to make the grab and in fact cannot get a foot inbounds (i.e. in the real world, not a touchdown pass, but an incomplete pass). It was plays like that against the likes of LSU a year ago that almost got us beat, and it's a disturbing sight to see those issues linger.

Moving forward, McElroy is indeed the starter, but his hold on the position is tenuous at best. McCarron is a better pure passer, he had a better spring, and given the praise McCarron has received from his teammates, I'm not so certain that a narrow majority of them may not think he is indeed the better of the two. The net effect of it all is that while McElroy is likely to be the starter, but McCarron may get into the game occasionally -- I figure they probably split snaps equally against San Jose State -- and in all honesty McElroy has absolutely no margin of error here. If he struggles this Fall, or struggles during the season anything remotely like he did at times a year ago, he will quickly find his way to the bench. Simply put, if McElroy wants to be the starter next year, he's going to have to consistently play like he did against Arkansas and Florida. If he plays like he did against Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU, or Texas, A.J. McCarron will be your starter.

Tailback

If there is a team deeper at the tailback position in recent history than Alabama, I am certainly not aware of it. Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson showcased everything yesterday that you would expect, and they continue to improve even further. Richardson in particular looked like he had taken his game to the next level, as he once again showed his soft hands out of the backfield and his pass protection skills. There is really nothing else of substance to add here, Ingram and Richardson are clearly the best tailback duo in the country.

Beyond Ingram and Richardson the pecking order is not quite so clear, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Eddie Lacy showed flashes yesterday of why he was such a highly-touted recruit, and frankly Jeramie Griffin and Demetrius Goode were no slouches. Those two kids would be starting on many SEC teams, and the fact that they are depth chart fodder in Tuscaloosa really speaks only to the incredible talent in front of them. Based on what we saw yesterday, Lacy is probably considered the smart money to be the third back come this August, but realistically we couldn't go wrong with any of them.

Wide Receiver

The big surprise of the spring at wide receiver was someone I had largely written off a few weeks back, namely rising redshirt junior Brandon Gibson. Admittedly Gibson was going against the second team defense yesterday, and admittedly he did have the better passer throwing the football to him, but even so grabbed 8 catches for 142 yards yesterday and was the most productive receiver on the field. Exactly where Gibson fits in the pecking order right now is uncertain, but I do think we can definitively say two things with regard to him: there's no chance in hell he really gets moved over to safety, and he'll have a spot somewhere in the rotation. I'm not certain that he'll be a starter, but he's ahead of most guys at receiver and he probably leaves the spring, at absolute worst, as the #4 or #5 receiver in the rotation.

The rest of the wide receiver corps, unfortunately, was a bit of a mixed bag. Kenny Bell impressed with his speed and his ability to stretch the defense vertically, but the rest of the unit didn't do so well. Julio Jones had a lot of drops -- which, admittedly, given the praise Jones' has received this year, I think it was an anomaly -- and while Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze did some good things, I'm not sure they did anything this spring to lock up their starting jobs as we move into August. Earl Alexander was a non-factor, Michael Bowman was banged up, and neither Kevin Norwood or Kendall Kelly really did anything special to stand out. We've clearly got a lot of talented players on the outside, but even so I think that behind Julio Jones things are still very unsettled as move on into August.

Tight End

The biggest disappointment of the spring game was probably at tight end, where virtually no one did anything particularly positive. Not only did a tight end not catch a single ball yesterday, Michael Williams probably had about two or three drops to boot. I don't necessarily think it is any major concern, and from all apparent considerations Williams did have a good spring. Nevertheless, you never want to see a unit struggle, and that is effectively what the tight ends did yesterday in the passing game.

On the positive side, however, those guys did look pretty good in the running game. Williams is a good blocker and did well, and while guys like Smelley probably never will be really high-end blockers, they did seemingly show some improvement over what they did a year ago. Even so, though, I still think a guy like Brian Vogler could come in this August and earn some early playing time in the rotation.

Offensive Line

Given the way that Joe Pendry and company loves to rotate linemen and teach everyone all of the different positions, I've long since given up any hope of trying to accurately predict what will happen in the trenches, and yesterday only reiterated that point. After most expected that Tyler Love would only be a left tackle, that Chance Warmack would win the left guard starting job, and that D.J. Fluker would beat out Alfred McCullough for the right tackle job... yeah, not really even close. Warmack and Fluker were indeed with the first team at left guard and right tackle, respectively, but oddly enough Tyler Love was on the second team at right tackle and Alfred McCullough -- at all of about 6'1 -- was on the second team at left tackle. Who even knows right now?

Regardless of the individual positions, all in all the offensive line as a whole did not play very well yesterday. Even though we were very vanilla in terms of rush packages -- with an exception or two, it all just a bland four-man rush -- we really struggled to pick things up on the offensive line. Now, admittedly, there are a couple of mitigating factors there in the sense that they were facing the best defensive line they will face all year, and that the starting center (William Vlachos) missed all of spring practice, but even so it is a bit of a concern.

Chance Warmack did look pretty good at left guard, but the right tackle position was pretty scary revelation. D.J. Fluker does look to be the frontrunner for the starting position, but he was a very mixed bag yesterday. I'll expound upon him at much greater depth in the individual piece, but the gist of his performance was that while he did at times do some good things, all too often he was out there looking like Zeus but playing like Athena. He is clearly making progress, but unfortunately it was pretty evident from yesterday that he still has a long ways to go. Saban explicitly mentioned that we needed to improve at right tackle, and frankly if we were forced to play a real game with that kind of performance from the right tackle position, I would be highly concerned. I really don't know exactly what we will do moving forward -- maybe nothing, but maybe Tyler Love gets a crack at the right tackle job now? -- but it's clear that we have to improve. Watching the film of the A-Day game yesterday was more than enough to make you start missing Drew Davis.

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