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2009 Spring Practice: Early Primer

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With the first practice of the Spring completed before the break, now we start to settle into a normal practice routine as the players return to campus. Let's get the Spring practice coverage started here with a quick primer:

  • When Spring practice opened on March 13th, Saban announced the suspensions of inside linebacker Prince Hall and Jack linebacker Brandon Fanney. With Fanney it was a very light punishment, probably for a small shortcoming like a missed workout or something along those lines. With Hall, though, it's obviously a bit more serious. At this point, you really cannot say much more than what has already been said about Hall. He's not a bad kid, and he has never been in any real trouble, but he always seems to have some issues like this popping up. Truth be told, he's seemingly a pretty good kid, but I'm just not sure he has the complete commitment and effort required to play for such a demanding coach like the ol' Nicktator.
  • Speaking of Hall, what impact does his absence look to have? From the outset we'd obviously love to have Hall in the fold, but if not it's far from a major loss. He was a standout player in 2006, but a lot has changed since then, and quite frankly we have a lot better players now. He was just a back-up a year ago, and was not going to crack the starting rotation in 2009 regardless of the suspension. He could certainly provide us a few snaps in terms of quality depth, but that would effectively be the limit of Hall's production. I would obviously like for him to get back in Coach Saban's good graces, but again his absence wouldn't have any major negative impact on us moving forward.
  • The quarterback battle is certainly going to get the majority of the attention during Spring practice, and we should all realize that from the outset. Greg McElroy has gotten a lot of good publicity thus far, but if he's going to emerge from the Spring as the starting quarterback, he's going to need a far better Spring practice this time around than he did a year ago. Last year McElroy was ungodly terrible in Spring ball (click here, here, and here), and honestly he had a slow start to the 2008 season as well. All everyone remembers now is the touchdown pass to Maze against Auburn, but forgotten is the interception against Arkansas that almost made Saban explode. Either way, this much is clear... if McElroy wants to definitively stake his claim for the starting quarterback job, he's going to have to perform much better in the next five months than he did a year ago.
  • Speaking of the quarterback battle, hopefully we'll get a clear cut winner from the outset, but I'm afraid we might not be so lucky. Star Jackson probably still has a ways to go, and he'll probably make plenty of mistakes this Spring, but he's got the raw ability to make a lot of plays that McElroy cannot, and Thomas Darrah will probably make at least a few eye-catching throws with the cannon he has. Hopefully we'll know who our starting quarterback is going to be after the A-Day game, but realistically I think the smart money is on this battle extending into the Summer and Fall.
  • At tailback, things don't look to be near as exciting. With Roy Upchurch sitting out all of Spring practice and Trent Richardon not reporting until the summer, the only back we have participating fully in Spring practice that is expected to make a major contribution this Fall is Mark Ingram. For the rest of the tailbacks on the roster, though, they will have an opportunity to showcase their abilities, and honestly will see a lot more carries than they otherwise would have. This will be interesting for us viewers before we'll get to see guys like Ivan Matchette, Jermaine Preyear, Terry Grant, Jeramie Griffin, Demetrius Goode, and others a chance to strut their stuff. In reality, though, whoever looks to be the second back coming out of the Spring is unlikely to be anything higher than fourth on the depth chart come Fall.
  • One of the least talked about positions to keep your eye on this Spring is the tight end position, which must recover from the departure of Nick Walker and Travis McCall. With Walker moving on, Colin Peek ought to be just as good, and should actually represent a bit of an upgrade. However, replacing Travis McCall won't be so easy. He was a great blocker for us a year ago, even if not a great threat in the passing game, and guys like Brad Smelley and Preston Dial are all smaller, receiving threats, both of which ill-suited to play the role of a physical blocker at the point of attack. So, the staff will likely be turning to Chris Underwood and Michael Williams for the solution. Underwood was a player out of Vestavia Hills who was going to sign with UCLA before Saban arrived, and he has developed nicely thus far. However, definitely keep your eye on redshirt freshman Michael Williams. The 6'7 and 275 pound Williams was a highly-touted signee in the 2008 recruiting class, and he seems to have the perfect physical build needed to take over McCall's blocking role.
  • The offensive line is going to get a major work-over this Spring, and frankly I don't think you can say anything definitive from the outset. I think at this point all you can say is that we've got several guys who will be tried at several different positions, and that you could probably could up with eight or ten legitimate combinations of starting fives. Only time will tell with the big uglies, but I imagine we have a good idea of things after the A-Day game. 
  • On the defensive line, the most pressing issue will be finding a replacement to Bobby Greenwood, but fortunately that should be about it. Lorenzo Washington should fill that role quite nicely, and frankly thanks to the spoils of the recruiting trails, we have a lot of talented players on the defensive line. At this point it's just seeing how well those guys can perform, and seeing how things shake out. Fortunately, though, we look to have a very solid two-deep rotation at all of the line positions, and we can go three-deep with some quality players at some positions. Things have really changed since Saban arrived...
  • The linebacker corps, however, could be a different story, and don't be the least bit surprised if you see as much shuffling there as you do on the offensive line. Though we have a great linebacker corps against the run, it's clear to everyone, including Saban, that we need to greatly improve our abilities in pass coverage and in rushing the passer. And to that end, it looks like we are going to see a lot of experimentation. Dont'a Hightower may be getting a look at Jack linebacker, Brandon Fanney may actually be moving to defensive end, and it looks like Jerrell Harris will be moving inside, just to name a few moves. This one is just one we'll have to keep our eyes on, and things will be further complicated by the arrival this summer of Nico Johnson, Tana Patrick, Jonathon Atchison, and Ed Stinson. Bottom line, the starting four at linebacker last year was Cory Reamer (Sam), Rolando McClain (Mike), Dont'a Hightower (Will), and Brandon Fanney (Jack). Don't be the least bit surprised if you see a completely different line-up in 2009.
  • At cornerback, things are perhaps a bit more simple. All of the cornerbacks return from last year -- Javier Arenas, Kareem Jackson, Marquis Johnson, and Chris Rogers -- plus we should see the continued development of Alonzo Lawrence and Robby Green. All in all, with everyone returning, it helps that we don't really have any holes to fill, and we can just focus on improvement. None of the names will surprise you this Spring, but hopefully we can continue to see improved play across the board from all of the corners.
  • The safety position, however, is perhaps going to be another story. Justin Woodall returns, but Rashad Johnson graduated and there is no clear-cut replacement. There has been talks of moving Woodall over to Johnson's old position, but he has stiff hips, limited range, and took a lot of bad angles last year, all of which makes putting him in a free safety position a bit scary. With that said, however, again, there's no real clear-cut replacement there. We do have several young, promising players who could fight it out for playing time there, such as Mark Barron and Robert Lester. And I'm sure that Ali Sharrief will get a look as well. At cornerback it's all about who will improve and by how much, but at safety you could have several different combinations, and it's almost impossible to say from the outset.
  • Finally, the kicking game is also something we should keep our eyes on. Leigh Tiffin was inconsistent last year (despite being on scholarship), and though P.J. Fitzgerald improved a bit, he was still a below average punter. We had brought in Corey Smith on scholarship in the 2008 recruiting class to improve both positions, but he had a really bad freshman campaign, where he burned a year of eligibility while doing nothing but, frankly, screw up almost every time he got on the field. And apparently the staff isn't too excited about his prospects moving forward, as we've extended a written scholarship offer to 2010 kicking prospect Cade Foster (who many think will commit to us soon). At this point, I think all you can say is that Saban and company put a very high value on the kicking game, our returning starters have ran the gamut from inconsistent to outright bad, and don't expect Saban to tolerate either one of those two outcomes. If Tiffin's inconsistencies continue, as well as Fitzgerald's struggles, you may very well see some new faces in those positions after the A-Day game.