Interpreting spring practice reports can be an iffy business. Pretty much all we have to go on is the reports from the brief media viewing periods at the beginnings of practices, the few cherry-picked stats that the Athletic Department releases after scrimmages, and, if your ear is to the ground, the rumors that inevitably emanate from the practice field.
All these sources are questionable. If the coaches want to keep secrets--and face it, they do--it's the easiest thing in the world to manipulate the media-viewed lineup with an eye to doing so, and for all we know, the scrimmage stat releases are designed purely to motivate players or even to give false impressions. Clever souls trying to make a name for themselves may be the sources of fictional but believable internet rumors, and even legit sources from inside the Athletic Department have been known to manipulate the gullible fanbase to support private agendas.
All in all, you can look at each source of info and figure that keeping the public informed is probably well down the list of motivations for whoever is pushing it out. Nevertheless, it's all the info we've got, and we're all collectively way too obsessed not to use it. Whaddaya think, Alabama fans are gonna just sit back and wait to see who comes out on the field against Virginia Tech without a little before-hand speculation? Figure the odds!
OK, that's got the disclaimer out of the way. Let's get straight down to the speculation.
The only backup who had scrimmage stats released was Blake Sims, and they were pretty good. We weren't blessed with full stats from Parker McLeod, but he threw a 33-yard TD pass. Coach Saban has indicated that other backup QBs will see more time in subsequent scrimmages.
- Sims improved his throwing during the off-season.
- Alec Morris isn't far behind him.
- McLeod came in ahead of the more-heralded Cooper Bateman, but don't go to sleep on Bateman, who did what he needed and added a few pounds during the off-season.
Prognosis: The Morris coronation by some was premature. Sims is second-string until somebody knocks him out, but the return of experienced first- and second-stringers means that the team can afford to have a whole lotta rotatin' goin' on during the rest of the spring. Every QB should get his chance.
- Henry is an impressive athlete but is still adjusting and may be half a step behind the pace set by Yeldon in Spring 2012 and Dee Hart in Spring 2011. He will need to pick it up a notch if he is going to pass Drake, much less slam the door on the crew that arrives in August.
- Jalston Fowler is a fair piece from 100% but still running better than expected. He is improving steadily and should be a factor in the fall.
Prognosis: Yeldon added a little muscle during the off-season. Don't let Drake's scrimmage stats fool you about who The Man is, but they may be a sign about who will be The Man's backup.
DeAndrew White had 7 receptions for 132 yards in the scrimmage, despite playing in a black jersey, and garnered post-scrimmage press conference praise from the big man. Amari Cooper hauled in 3 for 120.
- Cooper has started the spring the way he finished 2012, and a monster year may be in the offing.
- Chris Black is making a push for a starting position and perhaps may wind up as the #2 target.
- 6'4" true freshman Raheem Falkins has been consistently impressive.
- Christion Jones' work at defensive back will not keep him out of the wideout rotation.
Prognosis: Once again, we know who The Man is. Kevin Norwood is missing the spring, but he is a veteran who doesn't really need the work, so expect him to battle Kenny Bell, Black and White for catches behind Cooper. Jones should work hard at cornerback, because he will probably have to hold off Falkins and Robert Foster just to be the #6 receiver.
None of these guys got scrimmage stats released.
- Brian Vogler's blocking has been impressive, but he hasn't established himself as a serious receiving threat.
- O.J. Howard is working hard on his blocking and isn't as far behind in that regard as some had feared he would be.
- Kurt Freitag has struggled to make a mark.
Prognosis: Vogler and Howard appear to be out in front of the competition at tight end and H-back, respectively, although Howard is also getting a look at TE. If Fowler's recovery continues well, he will be a factor at H-back and give the team flexibility to feature the position in different ways. Howard is the first Bama receiver to step on the field for the first time and compete seriously for a starting spot since that guy who plays for the Falcons now.
Generally a stat-free position, and the first scrimmage was no exception.
- Arie Kouandjio is establishing himself at left guard, and will start if he stays healthy.
- You'll never get a line as experienced as Alabama's 2012 line unless some young'uns start somewhere along the road, but none of the guys who redshirted last year are generating much buzz, including blue-chipper Brandon Greene despite having put on 15 pounds to 307.
- Ryan Kelly is impressing the coaches and has center locked down--unless he winds up seeing time at tackle.
- Leon Brown has the athleticism, but needs some coaching up before he takes the right tackle position that much of the fanbase had awarded him pre-spring.
- Mario Cristobal has big shoes to fill, but the early word is good: offensive line drills have been organized and energetic. The writers, at least, are impressed.
Prognosis: It's hard to evaluate the offensive line from outside of spring practice, so it's usually a good sign when somebody wins a job decisively. That said, the first string line is coming into focus except for right tackle. Austin Shephard reportedly ran with the ones there on Saturday, but given that we signed two juco tackles and even ran Kelly over there a bit this week, he may not have the staff's full confidence.
Ed Stinson had three tackles and a sack.
- There is a battle royale at the nose. Brandon Ivory is leading by virtue of consistency, but the younger guy, Darren Lake, shows stretches of inspired play.
- Dalvin Tomlinson is having a strong spring.
- Nevertheless, the staff is not satisfied with the backup DEs in run support. Tomlinson has been stronger as a pass rusher, as has LaMichael Fanning, which isn't too surprising given Fanning's surprising (if not shocking) reported 28-pound weight loss since 2012. Tomlinson, on the other hand, has gained 21 pounds.
Prognosis: Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan are clear leaders at ends, but otherwise it's premature to say, especially given the new talent that will arrive in August.
Tana Patrick led all tacklers with six in the first scrimmage. Again, swallow released scrimmage stats with a large grain of salt, but that should surely be taken as a message that the former blue-chipper is serious about doing something with his last chance in Tuscaloosa. Trey DePriest also looks serious, with four tackles and two picks in the scrimmage. Denzell Duvall had four tackles and a sack and Dillon Lee added three tackles and a sack.
- Reggie Ragland has great athleticism but the light is not fully on yet and he is probably working behind Patrick.
- Xzavier Dickson hasn't lost that starting jack job yet.
Prognosis: There's no reason to believe that C.J. Mosley or DePriest is getting pushed for a starting job, and the door looks to be open for Reuben Foster to compete for the #3 inside ‘backer spot. There will be a throw-down at the jack position in August, where another newcomer, Jonathan Allen, will also have a real chance to fight Dickson, Devall and Ryan Anderson for playing time. Lee looks promising as a backup to Adrian Hubbard.
- Belue has stepped up his game and is the go-to guy.
- Cyrus Jones has taken to cornerback naturally and has a shot at playing time, maybe a lot.
- Lack of rumors can be noteworthy, too, and I haven't heard either Geno Smith's or Vinnie Sunseri's names getting called much. Sunseri lost the 5 pounds it seemed he probably needed to lose, but may nevertheless be in danger of also losing much of the playing time he got in 2012.
- Jai Miller may be a man among men, but he'll probably be showing his manliness on special teams because he's not quite ready to be a Nick Saban defensive back.
Prognosis: Smith may still lead for the cornerback position across from Belue, but Jones and Bradley Sylve are making a run at it, nor can Jabriel Washington be counted out; in other words, it's wide open. Clinton-Dix has a pretty tight grab on one safety spot. As to the other safety position, scrimmage stats show, if anything, who is getting playing time right now, and if the athletic Collins is already getting a lot of time, it's going to be difficult for anybody to take it away from him--not that Jarrick Williams isn't making a good run at it. I'm anxious to see how Collins carries his surprising 13-pound off-season weight gain. The only other skill player to gain more than 5 pounds was Jalston Fowler with 8, and Fowler had to spend much of the last several months off his feet.
No scrimmage stats. Coach Saban said in the presser that kickoff coverage and kickoff return play was good.
- Adam Griffith is looking sharp and has a good chance to not only replace Jeremy Shelley as the short field-goal kicker but take the long field-goal job away from Cade Foster.
- There is another notable absence of rumor for the returner jobs.
Prognosis: Cody Mandell will be the punter. Otherwise, the Magic 8 Ball says the future is cloudy.
Nick Saban was less than glowing in his press conference after the Tide's first scrimmage. The team is not where it would like to be and has a lot of work to do. Guys came back from spring out of shape. Mental intensity is lacking and players are showing fatigue. The defense is hit and miss.
And so forth and so on, but I wouldn't go too far with Saban's press conference evaluations, which are meant much more to motivate the team than to impart truth to the masses. Saban likes to keep his guys at a high but even level. When they're down psychologically he'll praise them; personally, I'd read these remarks as more of an indication that the team is feeling a little cocky than that they're playing poorly.
Saban is just as guarded about releasing injury news. But while it's likely that a player or two has a boo-boo or two we haven't heard about, you've got to feel good about the fact that not a single new guy has donned the black shirt, much less missed practice entirely, here half-way into spring practice.
Overall, things are shaking out a little but not all that much: there are still position battles going on all over the field. The next scrimmage comes next Saturday, after three practices this week; two more practices the following week will precede A-Day on April 20.