A few thoughts from the early aftermath of the 2011 A-Day game:
The wide receiver corps had a solid day, but at the same time presented cause for concern. With Marquise Maze, Darius Hanks, DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell, and Keiwone Malone there is an abundance of small speedsters on the outside and we will see more than our fair share of big plays in the passing game this fall, but there is just no real physical presence in this group to be relied on in the short and intermediate passing game, and that is probably one reason why the completion percentages of McCarron and Sims were relatively low this spring. Kendall Kelly is headed for a medical scholarship, while Michael Bowman barely got into the game yesterday and looks to be a recruiting bust. Kevin Norwood is the biggest viable option at this point, but he is inconsistent and has a tendency to play smaller than his frame indicates, and in any event he looks to be in a middling position on the depth chart. Brandon Gibson has relatively decent size, but who knows if he can be a meaningful contributor on a consistent basis? Ronald Carswell looked decent enough in his debut, but he does not look to be a significant contributor in 2011. For better or for worse, this group is far more reliant on Duron Carter than most would like to think, and for incoming freshmen like Marvin Shinn and Danny Woodson, Jr., early playing time is available if they can quickly pick up the offensive system and acclimate themselves to this level of play.
A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims fought to a draw in the much-ballyhooed quarterback race with both generally playing well while showing some room for improvement. For those keeping a scorecard at home, McCarron threw the deep ball outside the hash marks better and was more proficient with check downs to the backs, but Sims showed better poise in the pocket, a quicker release, and much better accuracy in the short-to-intermediate passing game. Sims struggled somewhat early, and McCarron's low completion percentage throughout the spring remains a concern, but in general both played at a relatively high level against one of the best defenses they will face all season and there is legitimate reason for optimism moving forward. The expectation for now seems to be that both players will see snaps in the first three games of the season, with one player likely emerging as the starter by the time conference play opens against Arkansas. My feeling is still that Sims will ultimately prevail, which was somewhat buttressed by his performance yesterday, but admittedly it looks to be a very close race and at least the staff is seemingly crafting a way to guarantee that both will remain on the roster throughout the 2011 season.
Blake Sims was somewhat of a pleasant surprise as the number three quarterback. It was clear all along that his athleticism would allow for the staff to design a package around his raw physical ability, but he impressed yesterday with his arm strength and his development as a passer. While he will not challenge either A.J. McCarron or Phillip Sims for the starting job, his performance yesterday should provide some degree of comfort in the event that something sidelines both of the players ahead of him in the depth chart. In all honesty, he looked like a more athletic while slightly more raw version of Star Jackson, which is frankly a much better player than most teams have at third on the quarterback depth chart.
Trent Richardson played as well as expected, but the real story was behind him. Given the heavy reliance on Eddie Lacy and the fact that Demetrius Goode did not enter the game until the third quarter, it is clear that for all intents and purposes Lacy has won the back-up job. However, while Lacy looks great as a pure runner, he struggles in pass protection and is not a viable option to catch balls out of the backfield. That creates the opportunity -- read necessity -- for playing time for another back, and to that end Dee Hart was very impressive in his debut, especially with his touchdown scamper around right end against the first-team defense. Exactly how he fits in remains to be determined, but barring injury a redshirt should not be expected and it seems obvious that he has a role on this team somewhere. Jalston Fowler may find it more difficult to get playing time because there is no real need for the skill set he provides -- a big, bruising tailback who should excel in short-yardage situations -- but he too had a solid showing yesterday and can contribute if needed.
Barrett Jones had an impressive showing yesterday at left tackle. While he does not have the length you would ideally prefer at left tackle, he held his own against Courtney Upshaw -- likely the best edge rusher he will see all season -- and he displayed nimble footwork while bringing a power element to the running like you would expect out of a converted guard. The late move of Jones seems like a vote of no-confidence in Alfred McCullough and Aaron Douglas, and it seems very possible at this point that Jones may stick at tackle unless either Douglas significantly develops this summer or Cyrus Kouandjio can step in immediately as a starter. Either way, while Jones may not have the ideal length, given his performance on Saturday the left tackle position looks to be in good hands if he is tabbed the starter come September.
- The rest of the offensive line was somewhat of a mixed bag. Alfred McCullough spent most of the day at guard after competing all spring at left tackle, and while Anthony Steen had a good showing at right guard, the performance from William Vlachos and Chance Warmack was somewhat inconsistent at times. Aaron Douglas did not really stand out and needs to add more weight to be a force in the running game, but D.J. Fluker looked very good at right tackle and Arie Kouandjio stepped in seamlessly and played at a high level against the first team defense when Fluker left the game. Consistency on the interior needs to improve, but it's hard not to be bullish on this group moving forward, especially with Cyrus Kouandjio reporting in June.
The interior defensive line, unfortunately, remains a legitimate concern moving forward. Josh Chapman showed clear signs of improvement and he is playing his best football to date as his senior season approaches, but he's still not a star player on the interior in the mold of Terrance Cody. Likewise, while Brandon Ivory is clearly making progress in the strength and conditioning program, I'm still not convinced that he is a reliable option at this juncture. Finally, while Jesse Williams received much hype coming in, he really did nothing to stand out yesterday and honestly did not have his name mentioned all spring. We all knew that he was a raw prospect coming in, but obviously he is a long way from being a difference-maker at this point. Given the hype, Williams was one of the biggest disappointments this spring, and as a whole the ability of the interior line to be a dominant force in the running game is still a very shaky proposition.
Defensive line concerns notwithstanding, Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw were dominant forces yesterday. Upshaw could be the best edge player in the SEC in 2011, and while Hightower is still not quite as quick as he was before his knee injury in 2009, he has obviously made a great deal of progress in recent months and gave fits to our offensive line all afternoon. They will present a problem for any team in pass protection, and if we can find a couple of other quality rushers for the Rabbit package then the pass rush in 2011 could be the best we've seen at Alabama to date under Nick Saban.
Even without Hightower or Upshaw, the depth at linebacker depth looks very impressive at the moment. Nico Johnson is beginning to show progress in pass coverage, and C.J. Mosley was more stout against the run after adding some weight in the winter strength and conditioning program. Chris Jordan looked like a different player with the shoulder injury behind him, and Trey Depriest is clearly going to contribute as a true freshman. Jerrell Harris is still, well, Jerrell Harris, but Adrian Hubbard provides a legitimate threat as an edge rusher, and Alex Watkins will do the same when he returns from injury. Consistency needs to improve, but this has the potential to be a very special unit.
The defensive backfield showed clear signs of improvement over a year ago. DeQuan Menzie may be the best corner on the team now that he is healthy, and both Dre Kirkpatrick and DeMarcus Milliner continue progressing. Throw Phelon Jones and John Fulton into the mix and this is probably the best cornerback group in the conference. Mark Barron starred as usual at safety, and while Robert Lester was still inconsistent in run support, both Jarrick Williams and Nick Perry look ready to be quality contributors in 2011. The only real uncertainty with the defensive backfield for now is that with such vanilla schemes we did not get to see how well anyone played as an edge rusher from the star position, but given the renewed health of Menzie the odds seem good that finding such a rusher won't be a problem in due time. The situation here is almost the same as linebacker. Consistency needs to improve, but there are loads of raw talent and depth, and there is potential for this to be a very special unit.
Special teams was, unfortunately, special for all of the wrong reasons. It's really impossible to evaluate the return game given the nature of the A-Day game, but the kicking game remains a major concern. Cade Foster may have a strong leg, but his mechanics are still poor and as a result he remains highly inconsistent at best. With Alabama having another kicker committed in the 2012 recruiting class, his situation is fairly uncertain moving forward. Jeremy Shelley is a pure technician, but the lack of leg strength simply will not allow him to be a legitimate option with anything beyond 35 yards, and given certain conditions even 35 yards may be testing his range at times. Likewise, Cody Mandell and Jay Williams remained inconsistent, following up booms with shanks. All in all, unless things significantly progress over the summer, any kick this falls looks to be a nail-biting adventure.
Notwithstanding actual performance, the best news from yesterday was the lack of serious injuries. Marquise Maze looked like he may have suffered a mild concussion, and both Dont'a Hightower and D.J. Fluker were banged up at times throughout the scrimmage, but on the whole there were no serious injuries and nothing happened that would prevent anyone from participating in the summer strength and conditioning program in the coming months.