Alabama took to Bryant-Denny Stadium yesterday afternoon for the first scrimmage of spring practice, and as is to be expected for this time of the year the first team units largely dominated the session. Nick Saban mentioned in his post-scrimmage press conference the need to develop more quality depth throughout the roster, but on the whole he generally seemed relatively pleased with the overall performance.
AJ McCarron led the way offensively, going 25-43 for 290 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. The turnover was a costly one -- a 93-yard interception returned for a touchdown by Deion Belue -- but outside of that lone mistake McCarron generally played as one would expect from an incumbent. Given his play last season it is all but a foregone conclusion that McCarron will retain the starting job in 2012, but even so it's comforting to see him put on a relatively strong performance against a quality defense.
Solidifying McCarron's status even more, Phillip Sims was limited with a shoulder injury yesterday and did not meaningfully participate in the scrimmage. In his press conference yesterday afternoon, Nick Saban indicated that he did not have any structural damage and was instead suffering from bursitis. Even so, it's hard not to be alarmed at the specter of a shoulder injury for a quarterback, and for what it's worth Saban also mentioned that Sims could not throw the football twenty-five yards during warm-ups yesterday afternoon. Hopefully Sims will return later this spring, but it wouldn't be a major surprise if we simply shut him down until later this summer. In his absence, redshirt freshman Phillip Ely saw the majority of the snaps leading the second team offense.
While the passing game may have had a productive day, the running game simply never materialized. Jalston Fowler, Dee Hart, T.J. Yeldon, and walk-on Ben Howell combined for only 107 yards on 38 carries (2.8 yards per carry), and none of the backs were particularly successful on an individual level. With that, the battle for playing time behind Eddie Lacy remains largely unsettled. On the whole, though, it's hard to be overly concerned with the struggles in the running game yesterday. Line play is expected to be strong on both sides of the ball this season, and scrimmages under Nick Saban have traditionally been pass-happy with little success on the ground.
The first team offensive line looks set just over halfway through spring practice. Moving left to right, the starting unit goes Cyrus Kouandjio, Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones, Anthony Steen, and D.J. Fluker. Kouandjio and the recovery from his knee injury was the big concern coming into the spring, but he has held up well to date and that has solidified the rest of the line. The second team line has been more of a crapshoot, and as is usually the case under Nick Saban it's almost impossible to predict how the line would react if one of the five starters missed any meaningful playing time.
At wide receiver, true sophomore Christion Jones led the way yesterday afternoon with seven catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns. Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell added seven more catches for 108 yards and a touchdown, and together that triumvirate looks to the leading candidates for playing time this fall. Marvin Shinn grabbed five balls for 40 yards and a touchdown yesterday, and true freshman Amari Cooper also got in on the action while receiving some praise from Nick Saban, so you can safely add those two as serious candidates for large amounts of meaningful playing time this fall. Redshirt sophomore DeAndrew White will clearly have a role in the wide receiver corp this fall as well, but he was held out of the scrimmage yesterday with a lingering hamstring injury.
On the defensive side of the ball, Adrian Hubbard is beginning to look like an every-down player as he makes his semi-permanent transition to Sam linebacker. He has drawn praise for his movement in space during drill work, and he finished with four tackles, two passes broken up, and a sack yesterday afternoon. At 6'7 the easy impression is that he's too tall to play in space, but with an impressive showing to date Hubbard is proving critics wrong. He'll be an interesting guy to watch in the A-Day game, and for the time being he looks to be the likely starter at Sam linebacker. Given his obvious pass rushing skills, if Hubbard can hold onto the Sam job, he will rarely come off the field this fall.
At cornerback, John Fulton has been consistently taking first-team reps outside, and it certainly does not look like he is headed the way of Burton Scott, as some had previously feared. Meanwhile, DeMarcus Milliner has largely remained inside at the star corner position in the nickel package, while incoming JUCO transfer Deion Belue looks to be well on his way to earning a starting job outside at corner alongside Fulton. Belue has had a strong spring regardless and has received some praise from Saban, and of course the aforementioned 93-yard interception of A.J. McCarron returned for a touchdown only strengthens his cause. Fellow JUCO transfer Travell Dixon is fourth in the corner rotation at this point, and as expected from someone who really only has two years of experience playing football, he has been a bit slower to acclimate himself to the complexities of the defensive scheme.
Vinny Sunseri continues to impress in the defensive backfield, and he in fact led the way defensively yesterday with five tackles, one TFL, one PBU, and an interception returned for a touchdown. Sunseri's versatility plays particularly well in Nick Saban's defensive scheme, and the odds seem relatively strong that he will actually be the starter at safety opposite senior Robert Lester. Having said that, though, the starter designations at safety will likely be largely meaningless in the end, as there figures to be a three-man rotation at safety with Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix. Much like is the case with Sunseri, Clinton-Dix's versatility helps his cause tremendously, and he has the raw athleticism necessary to be more of a coverage asset when isolated in space on a receiver. Corner is still somewhat a cause for concern, but the safety rotation looks more than sufficient even in the wake of Mark Barron.
In general, the kicking game had a relatively strong showing yesterday afternoon. Rising junior punter Cody Mandell is continues to become more consistent, as he had nine punts during the scrimmage yesterday for an average of 42.6 yards per boot. Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley combined to convert seven of eight field goal opportunities -- Nico Johnson blocked a long attempt by Foster for the only miss -- but without knowing more about the distances of the kicks it's hard to make any meaningful insight here. For better or for worse, placekicking this fall will largely hinge on whether or not incoming true freshman Adam Griffith can immediately live up to the hype.
In other quick hitters, inside linebacker looks to mainly feature the three-man rotation of C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson, and Trey Depriest, with Tana Patrick also seeing some time. Xzavier Dickson looks to be the odds-on favorite at Jack linebacker. Kellen Williams has been getting reps as the second team left tackle. The H-back position is still up in the air. T.J. Yeldon has been sporting some type of wrap or cast near his left wrist, but the injury has not seemingly slowed him. Chad Lindsay was held out of the scrimmage yesterday with what was officially described as a "head injury," presumably a concussion. Blake Sims did nothing yesterday aside from a brief period on the exercise bike, and it seems certain that he will miss all of spring practice with a hip injury. For the most part, though, this spring has been very kind to injuries, and to date no one has suffered anything that expects to limit their availability this fall.
Spring practice will resume tomorrow afternoon in Tuscaloosa with the tenth practice session of the spring.