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Spring Practice News and Notes

On-field preparations for the 2010 season kicked off yesterday afternoon in Tuscaloosa with the beginning of spring practice. Though it was a mere preview of things to come -- due to spring break, Alabama won't return to the practice fields until March 22nd -- there was plenty of news to be found yesterday. Let's take a quick recap and discuss what much of it could mean.

To begin with, there was some news of roster attrition yesterday, as it was announced that neither tailback Terry Grant or Travis Sikes would return for their senior season in 2010.

Tailback Terry Grant and wide receiver Travis Sikes have chosen to forego their final years of eligibility and will not return to the Crimson Tide in 2010. Each had already obtained undergraduate degrees.

The loss of Sikes is a complete non-issue. Hey was a greyshirt signee from several years back under Mike Shula, and never made any impact whatsoever. He never caught a single pass in his career, nor did he ever play a meaningful snap. The height of his career was playing special teams in a few games in 2007, but he redshirted in 2006 and did not play in a single game in 2008. This past year in the Crimson Tide's national championship run, the only playing time he saw was some mop-up duty against Chattanooga. He was a good kid and it is certainly good to see him get his degree -- both for him personally and for us (APR purposes) -- but he was just never a meaningful contributor in any real sense, and frankly I'm not even sure that he was still on scholarship towards the end.

With Terry Grant, however, it was a different story. He was the highly-touted tailback signee in 2006 out of Lumberton, Mississippi -- though in hindsight, it was clear that Rivals dramatically overrated him -- and at one time he seemed to have a relatively bright career in front of him. Of course, though, that was before surgeries for a sports hernia, and it was also before the arrival and emergence of players like Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Glen Coffee, Eddie Lacy, and Jeramie Griffin. You hate to see it for the young man, but as I mentioned yesterday, it is simply the harsh reality for some by having a roster so loaded with talent and depth.

Interestingly enough, though, it seems that Grant didn't necessarily just give up football, but instead is probably looking to go out the way of the medical scholarship:

"He's been injured two years in a row," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Grant, who had two surgeries for a sports hernia.

"He decided because of injuries -- he's already graduated -- that he would not come back for his fifth year. He does qualify for a medical, if we need to do that, so he can continue academically. ..."

That obviously doesn't make a difference for his football career moving forward, but it is a nice move by our athletic department. Grant already has his degree so we could have easily decided to just pinch pennies with the purse and send him along his way, but by giving him the option of going on a medical scholarship, it effectively means that Grant can opt to spend another year at the Capstone pursuing either another bachelor's degree or entering graduate school, all the while not having to pay a dime and having the athletic department foot the bill. A lot of programs wouldn't do that, and I'm glad to see that we decided to reward Grant accordingly.

Meanwhile, in other news, safety Robby Green was not at practice yesterday, but it wasn't quite what you may think:

Green was "excused today for personal reasons," Alabama coach Nick Saban said after the practice.

But when the Tide comes back from spring break for its second practice on March 22, "he will be back," Saban said, "and he will be able to practice."

When asked today about the due process, Saban said Green has "not been through that." But Saban said Green has been cleared to practice.

"I'll let you know when I get more information," Saban said. "I don't have any new information."

Contrary to most earlier reports, Saban explicitly said yesterday afternoon that Green would be allowed to practice this Spring. This is all speculation on my part, once again, but it certainly seems like from everything that we have heard to date on Green, this indeed is an issue involving a positive test for some sort of a banned supplement. I may be wrong on that, but everything I've read to date seemingly points in that direction.


William Vlachos was confirmed to have had offseason foot surgery yesterday, and he spent the afternoon in a black no-contact jersey and riding a stationary bike. That in and of itself was no grand secret, but it is somewhat news from Gentry Estes that apparently Vlachos probably won't practice at all this spring:

Bad news on the injury front: Starting center William Vlachos had offseason foot surgery and probably will not practice this spring.

All in all, it would probably be a pretty good decision to just have Vlachos take the spring off. A broken foot can easily become a lingering injury, so giving him the time off would probably be the safest course of action. Besides, Vlachos is an experienced guy and a proven commodity at this point, so the lack of reps won't likely hurt him. Furthermore, given how limited Vlachos looked down the stretch last year in terms of mobility, I would probably venture to say that his foot injury was at least relatively serious. I hope we give him the entire spring off.

In Vlachos' absence, it will be interesting to see the rotation at center. We generally know that Alfred McCullough was the top back-up at the tackle positions last year, but aside from that -- thanks, fortunately, to good injury luck up front -- we never really had the need to play the back-up linemen during meaninful situations, so we really do not have much of an idea as to the pecking order on the offensive line, particularly on the interior of the offensive line. At least now, with the graduation of Mike Johnson and the foot injury to Vlachos, we'll start to get a good idea of how things are shaking out in terms of depth on the interior offensive line.


Kendall Kelly was indeed at safety yesterday afternoon, as expected:

Kendall Kelly is a defensive back.

Kelly, a former Gadsden City High School standout, was redshirted last fall as a freshman wide receiver. He has been moved to the secondary, where the Crimson Tide must replace three of four starters, plus nickel backs and backups.

Admittedly, I'm still a tad bit skeptical over this one. I don't suppose that I would be overwhelmingly shocked if Kelly ended up staying at safety, but I still somewhat expect that he will be moved back to wide receiver at some point. The guy has just been so banged up for so long, I still get the feeling that this is a Demetrius Goode type situation. Admittedly, though, others like Chase Goodbread feel differently:

The Kendall Kelly-to-safety experiment we reported on was on full display. Depth is needed there in a major way, so that comes as no surprise. Kelly is an athlete with more size than people realize. Although he may not be quite as chiseled as Mark Barron, he’s every bit as big. Look for that move to stick.

I'll be brutally honest on this one... as long as Kelly makes a big impact and lives up to his physical potential, I really couldn't care less whether or not he does it at wide receiver or safety. Kelly at safety isn't what any of us expected when he signed in 2009, of course, but if he can be even in the same ballpark as Mark Barron, I can guarantee you that you won't hear the slightest complaint from anyone.


Brandon Gibson was also moved to defensive back yesterday:

Saban added that former UMS-Wright standout Brandon Gibson will also practice some at defensive back in addition to his usual wide receiver spot.

"We're kind of playing him both ways out there," Saban said.

Unlike Kelly, the move of Gibson was a bit more of a surprise, but it's easy to see why we are trying it. He was a pretty highly-touted recruit coming out of high school -- the consensus had him as a low four-star recruit -- but he hasn't been able to make in impact in Tuscaloosa yet as a wide receiver. He redshirted in 2007, didn't catch a single pass as a redshirt freshman in 2008, and only caught two passes last year (against FIU and Chattanooga).

The harsh reality for Gibson is that he was buried on the depth chart at receiver, and that was before the arrival of 2010 signees like DeAndrew White, Corey Grant, Blake Sims, Ronald Carswell, and Keiwone Malone. Being brutally honest, Gibson was simply unlikely to ever see any meaningful time at wide receiver, and with him only having two years of eligibility left, this is probably a now-or-never move for Gibson. If he cannot find a way to get on the field in a meaningful way at defensive back, he'll probably be a career back-up who never makes an impact.


Jalson Fowler, interesting enough, started his career in Tuscaloosa yesterday afternoon at inside linebacker:

Jalston Fowler is an inside linebacker.

Fowler was signed in February as a running back from Vigor High School, but the 6-foot, 245-pound prospect worked today on defense. Perhaps a full-house offensive backfield led by Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and super sophomore-to-be Trent Richardson is the reason. Of maybe the reason is that the Tide needs depth at inside linebacker.

As Don Kausler hinted at in his blurb, I think this move is likely both an issue of depth at tailback and the relative lack of depth at inside linebacker. At the very least, the tailback situation is a bit self-explanatory. Heisman Trophy Mark Ingram is returning, as is Trent Richardson (who may be even better than Ingram), and everything we've heard of Eddie Lacy indicates that he will be every bit as good as the recruiting hype indicated. Furthermore, with the return of Jeramie Griffin to full health, we already have a player at tailback who largely fills the role that a guy like Fowler would play.

Linebacker perhaps requires a bit more explanation, but even so the point remains valid. With the early departure of Rolando McClain, depth on the inside isn't necessarily what you may think. Depending on how Dont'a Hightower's knee injury affects his mobility, he could very well be headed to Jack linebacker, and if that indeed comes to fruition, the rotation at inside linebacker will have Nico Johnson, Tana Patrick, Chris Jordan, and Petey Smith. Three of those four will be freshmen or sophomores in 2010, and the only upperclassman in the group is Chris Jordan (who has yet to start). It's not necessarily that we are thin at inside linebacker, mind you, but we are perhaps not as deep as you would initially imagine, and Fowler probably has a shorter path to meaningful playing time at inside linebacker than he does at tailback. I do think Fowler could be a fine ball carrier on the offensive side, but I tend to think of this more as a situation of simply trying to do move people around to get your most talented players on the field as soon as possible.


Speaking of Dont'a Hightower, Saban was somewhat surprisingly a bit bullish on his status yesterday afternoon:

So much for that talk about linebacker Dont'a Hightower being held out of contact until August as he recovers from a serious knee injury.

"I never said that," Alabama coach Nick Saban said today after the Crimson Tide's first spring football practice.

"He'll practice every day like everybody else. ... I think he could play in a game right now."

Saban said a determination will be made before each scrimmage if Hightower is good to go.

For what it's worth, Hightower was not in a no-contact jersey yesterday, and he looked pretty good. On the other hand, though, he was sporting a pretty bulky brace on that rebuilt left knee. It seems like Hightower may be a bit more available for contact than most imagined prior to yesterday, but even so I imagine that Saban and company will still take things a bit slow with him. Unless they receive absolutely glowing medical reports from the training staff, I imagine we will still see him largely held out of contact work. Admittedly, though, if we could safely do it, having Hightower participate in the contact work could do wonders both for his confidence and our overall defense making the transition into 2010.

As I mentioned earlier about Fowler, I still tend to think that the question remains as to exactly where Hightower will play in 2010. Ideally he would stay inside and hold down one of those spots alongside Nico Johnson, while both Courtney Upshaw and Ed Stinson have standout campaigns at Jack linebacker, but of course none of that is a given. Necessity could force Hightower outside to Jack, so it's at least something to keep our eyes on.

In any event, though, don't let any of this overly distract you from what should be the key news in all of this... Dont'a Hightower is surprisingly healthy a mere seven months after destroying his left knee, and at the very least it seems that the odds of him being 100% when Penn State comes to town seems very, very good. Don't let all of the other discussion distract you, this is what you should really be focusing on.


Undra Billingsley is making another move, this time from tight end back to defensive end. This comes a year after he made the move from defensive end to tight end. I hope that Billingsley can made an impact at defensive end, but being brutally honest I tend to agree with Chase Goodbread:

The opinion here is that it’s not a good sign that Undra Billingsley was back with the defensive linemen Friday. Billingsley spent his redshirt season at defensive end before moving to tight end last year. Switches sometimes work. Switchbacks rarely do.

The good news for Billingsley is that he still has three years of eligibility remaining, so he has plenty of time to right the ship. Admittedly, though, things don't seem to be going very well for him at the moment. He needs to get it together soon if he wants to make an impact.


Remember the Michael Bowman to tight end talk? Perhaps we should move that more towards the unsubstantiated rumor pile. Bowman was limited yesterday with an abdominal pull, so it was hard to tell either way exactly where he was going to end up. Nevertheless, Chase Goodbread shot down the claim that Bowman had bulked up to 245 pounds:

But the talk that he’s bulked up to 245-250 pounds, just on the eye test, looks bogus. He’s a big guy, to be sure. But he’s not that big.

Furthermore, it should also be noted that in Saban's press conference yesterday afternoon, he made no mention whatsoever of Bowman being one of the position change experiments this spring. Admittedly it's still probably a bit too early to tell, but for now I imagine that you have to think that Bowman will stick at wide receiver (especially with Kelly and Gibson getting looks at defensive back).


More bad news for Earl Alexander, with this partial quote coming from the Nicktator himself:

Wide receiver Earl Alexander will be "limited for a while," with a stress fracture, according to Saban.

That is bad news on a couple of fronts for Alexander. First and foremost, stress fractures tend to be lingering injuries and the only thing that can really be done is more rest. Furthermore, injuries continue to limit Alexander's development overall, as if you will remember correctly he was limited in spring practice a year ago while recovering from the shoulder injury he sustained against LSU in 2008. With Alexander being a fifth-year senior and already being buried on the depth chart, I'm afraid this is very bad news for the young man from Phenix City. Hopefully he can get healthy and finally put it all together, but I'm afraid for right now it seems like he will never be able to live up to his recruiting hype.


Another position change also came for redshirt freshman Mike Marrow:

Mike Marrow working with the tight ends was an interesting move Friday that wasn’t mentioned by Saban post-practice. The power running back could provide some depth vacated by Billingsley’s move to defense.

Color me completely unsurprised by this one. He spent last year at tailback, I think, largely because of the early season-ending injury to Jeramie Griffin, but with Griffin and Fowler around -- not to mention Ingram, Richardson, Lacy, etc. -- I never saw him as having a future there. To me, in order for him to get on the field, he was always going to have to move to either H-back or tight end, or move to linebacker. I'm not surprised by this one, but I am looking to see what Marrow can do at his new position. He arrived in Tuscaloosa a year ago as an extremely impressive physical specimen, so he is clearly physically ready at this point. Furthermore, we need another solid blocker up front at the H-back position, so playing time is there for Marrow to earn.


Some good news from Chase Goodbread on greyshirt signee Petey Smith:

Grayshirt enrollee Petey Smith didn’t spend the fall sitting on the couch and eating King Dons, that I can promise. The short, stumpy inside linebacker types often carry something of a belly (remember this guy?) but Smith looked to be in excellent shape Friday.

It sounds to me like he has done everything we wanted him to do. Given he has already greyshirted, I figure there is a good chance that you see him play some -- even if on special teams -- in 2010.


Finally, Chase Goodbread also gives us the heads-up on the numbers assigned to some of the early-enrollees:

John Fulton – #10

DeMarcus Milliner – #28

Chad Lindsey – #78

Jalston Fowler – #45

Brandon Lewis – #95

Phillip Sims – #14

Petey Smith – #38

Anthony Orr – #60

All in all, it's good stuff. DeMarcus Milliner gets the old number of Javier Arenas, while Brandon Lewis gets Brandon Deaderick's old number. Phillip Sims takes a traditional Alabama quarterback number, while Chad Lindsey looks to continue the tradition of road-grader offensive linemen sporting the #78 in crimson. John Fulton wearing #10 isn't a great surprise, either, as I recall that he wore that number in high school.


One final note here... there was absolutely no news yesterday on greyshirt signee Darius McKellar. He signed originally in the 2009 class, then greyshirted, and a few months ago there was talk that he may delay his enrollment even further after undergoing wrist surgery. At this point, I'm not even sure if he is on campus. I was expecting to hear something about him one way or the other yesterday, but there was no news.


Finally, to close, as I mentioned earlier the Tide will not take the practice field again for another nine days, so expect there to be a pretty big lull in terms of football news in the coming days. Nevertheless, once things start again on March 22nd, we'll keep you up-to-date on all of the developments here at RBR.