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Spring Practice News and Notes

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With the first scrimmage of the spring in the books, spring practice is now well underway in Tuscaloosa and we are beginning to reach a point to where we can make our fair share of observations on what is taking place at the Capstone. Let's take a look at some of the most important developments that are emerging:

First and foremost, the most positive news relates to the left knee of rising junior linebacker Don'ta Hightower. No one quite knew what to expect out of the Lewisburg native coming into this spring, but most expectations were generally cautious. No one knew the exact extent of the severity of Hightower's knee injury, but we did know that there was more structural damage to the knee that a simple torn ACL. My personal expectation was that Hightower would be pretty limited this spring -- definitely no contact work in scrimmages -- and hopefully he would be able to slowly transition his way back over the summer and play at near 100% this fall. Fortunately, however, Hightower has blown those expectations out of the water. He has looked very good this spring and his knee has held up better than anyone could have rationally hoped. Not only did he participate fully in the first scrimmage, but by all accounts he played at a high level as well. Having Hightower return to his past dominant form will be key to the Tide's defensive success in 2010, and on that front it is almost impossible to overstate how big of a surprise it is for him to be at this point in his rehabilitation this early. Don't forget, Hightower is really only six months removed from major reconstructive surgery.

More positive news on the injury front also comes from Julio Jones. Despite having two good years under his belt -- even without really having a great quarterback to get him the ball -- Julio has really never even be close to full health since his junior year of high school. As a prep senior he was limited by a turf toe injury, and in the twenty months since he has arrived in Tuscaloosa he has undergone three major surgeries and a sprained knee that limited him for more than half of his sophomore campaign. Finally, however,it seems that Julio has gotten healthy, and he is drawing rave reviews from everyone. Whether or not he can stay healthy is clearly another issue, but without doubt the upside to him is almost limitless if he can just stay healthy. If he can do that, all signs point to Julio posting a year unlike any we've ever seen out of an Alabama wide receiver in 2010.

On the offensive side of the football, clearly the emphasis this spring is on developing the passing game. The running game should produce at a high level, but we need to become a better team offensively to compensate for all of the attrition on the defensive side, and the key to doing that lies in the passing game. Regardless of how prolific of a campaign Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and others have in 2010, if the passing game bogs down like it did for much of the year -- see 2009 against South Carolina, Tennessee, et. al. -- the offense as a whole will slow down to the point to where we won't be able to sufficiently compensate for that defensive attrition. And to the end of improving the passing game, it should come as no surprise that Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron combined to throw 50 passes in the first scrimmage. Expect that trend to continue over the course of the spring and moving into the fall.

Speaking of A.J. McCarron, I think we are all well aware of the potential pitfalls of reading too much into raw scrimmage statistics, but I think it goes without saying that there can be no such thing as a bad day for a quarterback when he goes 21-28 for 229 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. Perhaps just as telling, from the raw statistics, it seems that the Mobile native received roughly as many snaps as did returning starter Greg McElroy. I don't think that should come as any great surprise. The staff is obviously very high on McCarron, and in fairness all signs point to him being a very productive quarterback in the coming years. The truth of the matter is that the gap between McElroy and McCarron is likely very, very small, and while McElroy will almost certainly start the 2010 season as the starter, if he has struggles for some stretches in 2010 like he did in 2009, you will almost certainly see A.J. McCarron under center for the Crimson Tide.

The loser on the quarterback front, of course, is rising redshirt sophomore Star Jackson. It was a positive sign to see him return from his Saban-imposed academic suspension, but even so the current outlook for his future at the Capstone is as bearish as ever. He has clearly fallen behind both McElroy and McCarron, and the suspension couldn't have come at a worse time in his career. If he decides to stay for the 2010 season, I think he would probably still be the number three quarterback on the roster just to keep the redshirt on Philip Sims, but the truth of the matter is that in terms of competing for playing time moving forward, Jackson is in a much worse situation now than he was even when he initially reported in the summer of 2008. Barring an apocalyptic run of injuries at the quarterback position (see 2004), it's hard to see him ever being the starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide at this point.

On the offensive line, the biggest position battle going on right now is likely at right tackle, where D.J. Fluker and Alfred McCullough are battling it out for the starting job. A few observers were concerned with Fluker's slow development on the offensive line last year, but he looks much improved this year and his development is coming along nicely. McCullough, on the other hand, actually played quite a bit for the Tide in 2009 -- particularly in goal line situations -- but admittedly he is a good bit shorter than a prototypical modern day SEC tackle, and that is probably hurting his chances. The gut feeling that I had going into the scrimmage this past Saturday was that McCullough had the slight advantage on Fluker at that point due to his experience, but that Fluker (obviously) has a much higher upside and that in time he would likely pass McCullough by. After the scrimmage, I feel that intuition may be getting reinforced. More positive reviews keep coming in on Fluker, and McCullough actually spent practice yesterday playing at left guard. It's still a close race, I imagine, but I still tend to think that Fluker will be the starting right tackle when Penn State comes to town this September.

The other position battle on the offensive line is at left guard, as Joe Pendry and company try to fill the rather big shoes of All-American Mike Johnson. Up to this point, the battle has been between rising junior John Michael Boswell and rising sophomore Chance Warmack. From all apparent signs it is a very close battle to this point, and one that could go either way. The important thing to take away is that both Boswell and Warmack look to be high quality players, and regardless of who ultimately wins the battle, the starting left guard in 2010 ought to be a pretty productive player.

On the defensive line, much of the developments have come as no real surprise. The starting three has featured Josh Chapman anchoring the nose with Marcell Dareus and Luther Davis at end, but those three will rotate so frequently with the back-ups that (with the exception of Dareus) the distinction between starter and top back-up will be blurred almost to the point of erasure. As for those back-ups, Kerry Murphy will play as much at nose guard as Chapman will, and Damion Square has returned well from his season-ending knee injury in 2009. In that regard, there have been no real surprises.

The lone surprise on the defensive line has been Undra Billingsley. Most (myself included) assumed that his moving back to defensive end was probably a very bad sign for his development and his future in Tuscaloosa, but much to the surprise of most Billingsley has apparently thrived in his return to the defensive side of the ball. He saw plenty of snaps in the first scrimmage, and as of now he is seemingly in line to be one of the back-up defensive ends who rotates frequently into the game. If there has been a surprise of the spring that has flown under the radar, it has undoubtedly been Billingsley.

The linebacker corps, however, has seen a bit of a shake-up. Don'ta Hightower has moved over to fill the Mike linebacker spot opened by the departure of Rolando McClain, and Courtney Upshaw looks to have a tight hold on the Jack linebacker position. At Will and Sam, however, things have been a bit surprising. Jerrell Harris is finally starting to showcase why he was such a highly-touted prospect on the recruiting trails, but he is seemingly taking over the Will linebacker position that Nico Johnson played last year after Hightower's knee injury against Arkansas. Meanwhile, Chris Jordan, who was groomed in his first two years in Tuscaloosa at the Mike position behind the aforementioned McClain, has spent quite a bit of time at Sam linebacker. And Nico Johnson, who many assumed would be a definite starter in 2010, suddenly finds himself in limbo. He has spent some time at Sam linebacker as well, and for right now it certainly seems like if he is going to be a starter in 2010, he will have to do so by beating out Chris Jordan at the Sam position.

And speaking of Nico Johnson, he sustained a sprained MCL in the first scrimmage, and if his rehab goes anything like what we saw out of Terrance Cody in 2008 or Colin Peek in 2009, the odds are that he probably won't return again this spring (and if he does it will likely be in a very limited capacity). I'm sure he will be 100% before the 2010 season, but for someone who has suddenly found himself fighting for playing time, the injury clearly came at a very poor time. Johnson has apparently looked good this spring so it isn't as if he has done something wrong, but the rise of a few other players and some bad injury luck has made this a bit of a bad spring for the Andalusia native.

In the defensive backfield, the cornerback position, in many ways, is very simple... we are going to sink or swim with Dre Kirkpatrick, Burton Scott, and Phelon Jones. End of story. For now it seems that Burton Scott is having a good spring -- thankfully, for both him and us -- and that he and Dre Kirkpatrick are likely the top two cornerbacks. Phelon Jones, meanwhile, looks to be the third cornerback to come onto the field. But the real question is simple: are these guys really any good at this point? Hopefully so, but frankly there is really no way to know for certain right now, and admittedly the fact that McElroy and McCarron averaged 9.0+ yards per attempt in the first scrimmage with zero turnovers does not exactly assuage fears. Admittedly, though, you never get the complete context of the scrimmage statistics and thus that is not necessarily a bad thing, but at this point we can only hope for the best.

The safety position is another ball of wax, and frankly the situation there is of even greater concern. Mark Barron will be very good, of course, but I see no objective reason to believe that Robby Green will see the field in 2010, and it does not seem like either Robert Lester or Wesley Neighbors are making a serious run at a starting job. Rod Woodson is, seemingly, the starter almost by default, and whether or not that is a good thing remains to be seen. Both Brandon Gibson and Kendall Kelly have seen time at safety this spring, and in particular I somewhat tend to think that Gibson will see some time there in the 2010 season. Unfortunately, though, aside from Barron we just have a lot of uncertainty at the safety position, and while that may ultimately not be an issue as we move forward, I'm afraid to say that at this point all we can do is just hope for the best.