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August 10th: Fall Practice Update

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With the close of today's scrimmage, the first full week of Fall practice is now in the books for the Crimson Tide. With that in mind, let's get up to date on things:

  • First and foremost, Saban and company have worked this group very hard. Since things first began nine days ago, this team has practiced every single day, and went through two-a-days as well. In fact, on Friday there were two practices, and that was followed up by an unusually long scrimmage today. At the very least, the staff has not been easy on anyone this Fall, and the off day is well deserved at this point.
  • Fortunately, though, despite all of the hard work, we have been able to stay healthy and have avoided any major injuries. We've had a few nicks and dings here and there, but nothing major just yet. We're not a team with any real amount of quality depth, and we cannot weather the injury bug without seeing a significant drop in performance and production, so this is perhaps the best news of all in the first week of practice. Let's just keep our fingers crossed and hope this holds up.
  • John Parker Wilson is our starting quarterback, and rightfully so given our performance. Wilson may not be a great quarterback, but even so it's clear he gives us the best chance to win this season.
  • The real question at quarterback surrounds the back-up position. Coach Saban made it quite clear today in his post-scrimmage press conference that Greg McElroy currently has the back-up job, but I'm not really sure how much I would read into that. McElroy has looked better this Fall than he did with his stomach-churning performances in the Spring, but it's still a bit hard to say. At bottom, he's really the back-up at the moment by default. Fanuzzi has looked bad, being quite frank, Darrah is probably still in the doghouse stemming from his arrest last Fall, and though Star Jackson has turned heads this Fall, you cannot realistically expect a true freshman to come in and snag that job in the first week. McElroy is the back-up at the moment, and I do expect that to continue in the near future, but I do think that if Wilson goes down and we need to use the back-up for any extended period of time, all bets might be off. 
  • Speaking of Star Jackson, he has definitely impressed. He has good size, good mobility, and a very big arm. Making matters better, his release is really nice to watch. It's very quick with little wasted motion... the ball comes up and out quickly. He clearly needs development, as all true freshmen quarterbacks do, but nevertheless you have to feel very good about his future. And again, if Wilson goes down for any extended period of time, I would not be shocked to see Jackson under center.
  • Julio Jones has came in and quickly justified the hype. He's a physical specimen at wide receiver unlike any we've ever had at Alabama, and he has good hands and good route-running skills to boot. He may not get a starting job for the Clemson game because the returning players in front of him have also performed well, but he will be high up in the rotation and he will get a lot of balls thrown his way. If he stays healthy, he'll get plenty of starts this season, I'm sure. At this point, the only question mark is how high the decibel meter will go when they first announce his name during the pre-game in Bryant-Denny.
  • As a whole, the wide receiver corps has looked very good. Mike McCoy is having one of the best camps of anyone, and Earl Alexander has looked good as well. Darius Hanks has been highly impressive, and Burton Scott has disappointed no one at the slot position. Nikita Stover, in fact, might be a bit of an odd-man-out at this point, and I think anytime a player of his ability might watch a lot of the snaps from the bench, it really tells you a lot about the rest of the wide receiver corps. Even guys like Chris Jackson, Brandon Gibson, and Marquis Maze have looked good. At bottom, this is a deep unit that looks impressive. It's been a long time since we've had a wide receiver corps with this much quality depth throughout the rotation.
  • The offensive line looks very settled at the moment, and to be frank I'm not expecting any changes. Four of the five spots are locked up barring injuries, and the only position up for grabs is right tackle, and to be quite frank it looks like Drew Davis is just our man there. Taylor Pharr isn't able to push him -- he's still a bit on the small side -- and Tyler Love has kind of bounced all over the place. The stress fracture has slowed him a bit, and though he doesn't have the brace on his leg anymore, it just doesn't seem like he's going to take over the right tackle job anytime soon. I'm not entirely sold on Davis, but Saban has said good things about him, and the job certainly seems to be his.
  • Mark Ingram has really came in and impressed during camp, and I'd be highly surprised if he didn't get early playing time. If you look at the scrimmage statistics from today, Ingram is getting as many touches as any tailback, and he's looking very good. We all knew the raw physical tools were there, but he has shown that he can get it done on the field as well. At this point, I'd even go as far to speculate that he will split the bulk of the carries with Coffee once we go to Atlanta.
  • The rise of Mark Ingram, however, has probably come at the expense of Roy Upchurch. I never got around to doing it, but I was planning on doing a "Now or Never" type piece listing players who, as the title indicates, had better get the job done now or just fade away, and Roy Upchurch was going to be at the top of that list. He looks physically like a Heisman Trophy winner, but the production has never matched the physical tools, and now he seems hopelessly buried on the depth chart. Coffee and Ingram are getting the bulk of the carries, Grant is getting his fair share in a scat back role, and at best that leaves Upchurch barely even getting into the discussion. Unless Upchurch can really get something going soon, I'm afraid we just might have to close the book on him. There are just too many quality athletes behind him -- and more on the way again for 2009 (see Trent Richardson) -- for him to keep spinning his wheels without making any serious progress. It's now or never with Upchurch, and frankly at this point it's looking like never.
  • When browsing the scrimmage statistics from Saturday, pay close attention to the distribution of the pass receptions. I know the full statistics were not released, but even so look at what we do know. Of the 19 receptions listed in the official statistics, 12 of them went to backs and tight ends, whereas only 7 of them went to receivers. As has been long-noted now, the McElwain offense will use heavily backs and tight ends in the passing game.
  • On the defensive side of the ball, the biggest headliner to date -- both literally and figuratively -- has been Terrance Cody. A lot was expected of him anyway, but he has exceeded all expectations by leaps and bounds. He's probably still a bit bigger than we want, but he has amazing athleticism for his size. He has the lateral quickness required to be a two-gap nose guard, and he is quick enough off of the ball to get penetration when needed. Saban, in particular, mentioned that during goal line work today in the scrimmage, the defense -- led by Cody in the middle -- stuffed the offense four consecutive times from inside the one yard line. Coming into Fall camp, some people thought that Cody might redshirt to get in better shape, but he has quickly silenced those talks. We will probably limit his snaps this season due to his massive size, but I see no reason to think that he will not be highly productive once he is in the game. If anything, he might be the standout performer to date in this recruiting class, and as good as this class is that really speaks volumes.
  • Cody notwithstanding, the defensive line as a whole has looked very good. We really don't have the proven pass rusher that we need, but aside from that this is an impressive group and we have a lot of depth. Alfred McCullough is just as good as either Greenwood or Deaderick, and Luther Davis has gotten his act together. And both Marcel Dareus and Damian Square have looked good as well. Josh Chapman has had a great camp as well, and he and Lorenzo Washington are now splitting snaps with the first-team. You really just have to give Saban credit with these guys. A year ago this unit looked like it was taken straight from the pages of some football horror novel -- and I don't mean that in a good way -- and now it looks to be one of the better lines in the conference. We're probably still a year away from it becoming an elite unit, but it is certainly right on track to eventually reach that point. The difference between now and a year ago is a night and day difference.
  • At outside linebacker, there seems to be a battle shaping up between Chavis Williams and Jerrell Harris. Eryk Anders still has his hat in the ring because he has been able to rush the passer off of the edge, but his shortcomings in coverage will probably mean he cannot compete with either Williams or Harris in the coming weeks. At the end of the day it will be mainly Williams and Harris splitting snaps, and I actually expect Chavis Williams to start against Clemson. Harris has done well, to be sure, but Williams has more experience -- most people seem to forget it, but Williams played in almost every major game last year as the top back-up to Zeke Knight -- and he's no slouch in his own right. The two will split snaps a good bit, but for the time being I expect Williams to start.
  • The Jack linebacker position seems fairly settled, but I'm really not sure that's a good thing. Brandon Fanney looks to have a pretty firm hold on the job, but I haven't seen anything to indicate that he has really stepped up. He is an upgrade over Saunders, I would imagine, but the next report commending his good play will be the first. The problem is that there is just no quality depth behind him at the position, and though Courtney Upshaw is working out there, he is really going to have to put on some weight before he can handle the job on a consistent basis. I'm sure Upshaw will play some, but at the moment it looks like Fanney has a nice hold on the starting job.
  • One of the other surprises from camp thus far has been the play of Javier Arenas at corner. After Arenas nabbed a starting job at cornerback this Spring, most thought he would be quickly passed once Fall camp arrived, but that has been far from the case. Saban has lauded his play on several occasions, and it seems that Arenas has really improved his play. He's bulked up a good bit, and though he's a bit short, he's a physical corner who will play receivers tough... and we all know that he has plenty of athleticism.
  • Another name you can add alongside Upchurch to the "Now or Never" list is Justin Woodall. He currently holds the starting job at strong safety, but again it's largely by default because there is no quality depth behind him, and his hold on the starting job is weak at best. In fact, Saban specifically pointed out in his press conference today that we had three people performing really well in the secondary -- Rashad Johnson, Kareem Jackson, and Javier Arenas -- but still needed someone else to step up. I think that sums up Woodall's situation pretty well at the moment. Being quite honest, all of this time later, whenever I think of Woodall I still think to myself: If he couldn't beat out Marcus Carter...
  • Speaking of Woodall, I think it should be pointed out that we have a couple of starting spots on defense that you could very easily see a true freshman at in a couple of weeks. One would be the strong safety position currently held by Justin Woodall, and the other would be the weakside linebacker position curently held by Cory Reamer. Woodall hasn't done anything overly impressive, and though Reamer could be an asset in pass coverage due to his days as a safety, he's still really small for a inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, and he's not a particularly good tackler by most reports. At both positions, you have a true freshman having a very strong camp looking for playing time, Mark Barron and Donta' Hightower, respectively. Those guys have gotten settled in a bit now, and unless Woodall and Reamer really get things together quickly, it may very well be only a matter of time.
  • One of the interesting things that Saban said yesterday in his post-scrimmage press conference was that -- much like you have to do in the NFL when it comes time for roster cuts -- at some point in camp you have to take a younger player who may not be as good of a player as a veteran player at the moment, but one who may be a very good player in time, and invest your time in that younger player. I know that's a bit of a long paraphrase, but take a moment to digest it all because there is a great deal of insight to be found within. I think what he is getting at, in practical terms, is that we are probably going to see some young guys to start getting playing time over some veteran guys, even if they aren't quite as good at the moment, just because of the long-term benefits. That will go for both starting positions and back-up positions as well. I've mentioned several of the positions where you could see a youth movement at earlier, but that list is by no means all-inclusive. Bottom line, I think we are probably going to see a very big youth movement throughout the depth chart in the coming weeks.
  • Long-term, perhaps the most positive thing about camp to date has been the incoming recruiting class. It was hyped to be good, and it showed up as good as expected, and perhaps even better. There are so many high quality athletes in this class that it's almost impossible to even begin to analyze them... they are literally everywhere you turn. We've got a ton of great looking freshmen who are barely even getting noticed because they are just another face in the crowd. Nothing bodes better for the future of Alabama football than the basic fact that these kids have already started living up to the hype even at this early stage in their careers. 
  • Another positive thing about Fall camp thus far is that it is obvious that several of the returning players have really improved on their own. Glen Coffee is healthy again and has had a good camp, and Terry Grant looks to be doing well in the scat back role created for him. Mike McCoy looks to have a breakout campaign, and Earl Alexander has continued to make progress. Mike Johnson is doing very well at guard. On the defensive line, Josh Chapman has really improved and he might be the best every-down defensive lineman we have -- read: best sans Cody. Alfred McCullough has backed up his strong showing in the Spring, and Luther Davis is moving in the right direction. Chavis Williams continues to improve, and Javier Arenas has turned into a legitimate starter at corner. You get the idea. In the past I've went on the record stating that -- considering it's extremely tough to compete by relying on true freshmen in this league, regardless of how good they are -- we would need good development from returning players to be able to move to the next level in the short-term, and it seems like we are getting just that. I'm not sure how much the surge of returning players will help us on the field in 2008, but it will make us a better team. At the very least, we are not desperately depending on true freshmen at many positions like we all feared six months ago.
  • To close, PJ Fitzgerald had a nice day today in terms of average yards per punt, but I'm not really sure what to make of it. He also had a good average in the A-Day game, but it was mainly the result of a couple of bad punts that rolled a long way. Hopefully he has really improved -- Lord knows we need it -- but we'll just have to wait and see if he can consistently put up that kind of production once the season rolls around.