On a beautiful day in Tuscaloosa for spring football, white edged crimson 24-15 in front of an officially announced crowd in excess of 78,000 fans, and most importantly the Tide avoided any significant, long-term injuries both yesterday and throughout the spring. With that in mind, a few initial impressions from the aftermath of the 2012 A-Day game:
True freshman T.J. Yeldon largely stole the show yesterday afternoon, gaining 179 all-purpose yards as a runner and a receiver while adding a touchdown for the second-team offense, despite frequently playing behind a struggling offensive line. Now, before we crown Yeldon, it should be noted that he has some improvement to make in several different areas -- he needs to run with a lower pad level, improve in pass protection, and bulk up just a bit -- but even so his physical tools as a runner and his soft hands out of backfield as a receiver make it obvious that only an injury could cause him to redshirt, and if he can stay healthy he will receive a significant amount of meaningful playing time as a true freshman. As we wrote here on RBR at the beginning of spring practice, Yeldon just simply oozes star tailback based upon even a cursory glance, and frankly it is hard to overstate at this point just how big of a recruiting coup it was last December when 'Bama flipped the Daphne product away from Auburn.
Rising junior Jalston Fowler never really got going yesterday, picking up only 22 yards on eight carries, but no one should sell him short at this point. He had a very strong spring, received much of the work load in the two scrimmages, and was praised numerous times by Nick Saban. Pedestrian showing yesterday notwithstanding, Fowler figures to be a key cog this fall. Dee Hart, on the other hand, had his best showing of the spring yesterday, providing strong production nearly every time he touched the football as a runner, receiver, and returner. Many were very concerned about his future when he blew out a knee last summer, but by all accounts Hart appears to be recovering quite well with little, if any, negative impact on his overall athletic ability.
On the whole, Alabama came into the spring needing to develop quality depth at the tailback position, and with spring football having come to a close it seems apparent that the Tide has done just that. No one knows how Eddie Lacy will recover from foot surgery and no one knows if he can be a workhorse back this fall, and to complement him it seems clear now that Alabama has three other viable options at tailback when Lacy has to come out of the game. While none of the three tailbacks put any real distance between themselves, this spring nevertheless has to be considered a big success at tailback. Simply put, 'Bama has a legitimate four-deep rotation at the tailback position as we move into summer workouts, which is something even most top programs can only envy.
Rising redshirt junior AJ McCarron had a bit of an up and down day. He completed a high percentage of his passes for a lot of yards with several big plays mixed in, but on the downside he also threw three interceptions and was sacked twice, so the strong showing was balanced somewhat by numerous big, negative plays. In the grand scheme, though, McCarron's performance was more than sufficient and it remains clear that only injuries or off-field problems could cost him the starting job. Simply put, this is his offense at this point.
The surprise at quarterback, however, was Phillip Sims, who went 9-12 for 135 yards and two touchdowns on a day when most did not expect him to meaningfully participate due to bursitis in his throwing shoulder. His impressive performance in the face of injury largely just underscores how special of a player he could be in his own right, and how it has been bad circumstances, and not a lack of ability, that have kept him on the bench. On just about any other Alabama team of the post-Bryant era, Sims would be the unquestioned starter under center, but the rise of McCarron has simply removed that as a possibility.
Phillip Ely, on the other hand, left a good bit to be desired. He was a long-term developmental project when he arrived last year, and one year later that description still fits. His shortcoming yesterday was not the big mistake, but instead the lack of anything meaningfully positive, as when taken into account yardage lost due to sacks he generated a mere 73 yards of total offense on twenty passing plays. It's the death-by-a-thousand-cuts theory to the quarterback position, where one dies the painfully slow death littered with numerous three-and-outs with a lifeless passing game, and unfortunately it seems clear that if Sims transfers this offseason and McCarron misses any meaningful time, 'Bama figures to find itself in a world of hurt against quality competition.
The first team offensive line played at a high level throughout the afternoon, with D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kouandjio having strong days at tackle, while Chance Warmack continues to state his claim for being the best offensive guard in the country. Barrett Jones had some problems early in the spring when lined up opposite nose guards playing zero technique, but as expected he quickly came around and even by this early state he looks like a standout player at yet another line position. The "weakness" of the offensive line, in relative terms, remains at right guard with Anthony Steen, but any criticism of him is really more of a testament of a prowess of the rest of the line simply because there is not another team in the conference that Steen would not win a starting job. Depth is a bit of a concern, but as we move into fall camp the first-team offensive line looks to be the strongest unit in the SEC.
And speaking of depth, the second team offensive line remains a work in progress. Run blocking was adequate yesterday, though T.J. Yeldon certainly helped matters, but pass blocking left much to be desired. Neither Ryan Kelly or Chad Lindsey could make any meaningful separation at center, the guards clearly have some development ahead of them, and Kellen Williams struggled at left tackle against Adrian Hubbard and others. Austin Shepherd had a solid showing at right tackle, but on the whole Jeff Stoutland has a project on his hands with the second team line.
The tight end and H-back positions are largely in the same situation. Michael Williams will be a strong player at tight end, but finding other players to complement him has been a struggle. Brian Vogler looked good yesterday as a receiver, and to be sure his 6'7 frame is enticing as both a physical target in the passing game and as a bookend to the aforementioned Williams, but he struggled as a run blocker and was badly abused on at least one occasion by Hubbard in pass protection. Meanwhile, Harrison Jones and Brent Calloway could also be assets as receivers, but can either be adequate as a blocker? Malcolm Faciane looked better as a run blocker, but he looks to be more of a true tight end as opposed to an H-back. To be clear, Vogler is likely the leader at the H-back position as we move into summer, but unless he can become more of a complete player by this fall, he'll learn the hard way that blocking is mandatory while playing time is optional. The lack of blocking ability largely kept Brad Smelley off the field for the better part of three years, and unless we can find someone who can be a multidimensional asset at the H-back position, the odds are good that we will de-emphasize the position come early September.
Kenny Bell led the wide receivers yesterday with five catches for 86 yards and a touchdown, and as has been expected all spring he along with Christion Jones, Kevin Norwood and DeAndrew White figure to be the top of the rotation for the time being. Saban had high praise of Amari Cooper all spring, and he and Chris Black will likely see the field this fall, but even so depth here is largely up in the air. 'Bama needs either Marvin Shinn or Danny Woodson, Jr. to step up, but unfortunately neither appears to have stood out this spring.
On the defensive side of the ball, the rotation at defensive end was as strong as expected, holding up well at the point of attack and disrupting numerous plays against quality competition. Jesse Williams was very impressive at nose guard, but here too depth remains a legitimate question. Brandon Ivory looks to be taking a step in the right direction, as does Jeoffrey Pagan, but whether either of them could be called upon to anchor the line against top-flight SEC competition is unknown. Both need more time in the strength and conditioning program and better hand work.
The standout on defense yesterday was unquestionably Sam linebacker Adrian Hubbard, who may have had the best spring of any player on the roster. He was a consistently dominant force yesterday and could possibly be considered one of the defensive stars at this point. By putting him at Sam linebacker with Xzavier Dickson at Jack, Nick Saban and company effectively have two Jacks on the field, which largely makes for a true 5-2 base defense and provides countless alignment possibilities. With the strength and depth at inside linebacker -- C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson, and Trey Depriest all played at a very high level yesterday -- complemented by dueling Jacks and a standout defensive line, the defensive front seven looks to be a very effective unit despite the losses of Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw. If this group can stay healthy this fall, it figures to take an impressive offense to legitimately challenge it.
The defensive backfield, too, figures to avoid the harsh growing pains that the group experienced in 2010. John Fulton likely had the best spring of any defender outside of Hubbard, and he seems to have a strong hold on a starting job as we enter the summer. DeMarcus Milliner also figures to be an every-down player, as he has been the past two seasons, and incoming JUCO transfer Deion Belue had another strong showing yesterday. Together those three look to be the front-line at cornerback this fall, with Travell Dixon, Bradley Sylve, and Jabriel Washington behind them.
Safety was expected to be a strength anyway, and nothing yesterday questioned that general assumption. Robert Lester grabbed an interception on the first play from scrimmage and he seemingly just gets better and better. Vinnie Sunseri continues to impress, as he looks to start opposite Lester, and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix looks to see significant playing time in the dime package. Again, 2010 this is not, and this unit figures to weather the loss of Mark Barron quite well.
On special teams, the standout was Cody Mandell, who averaged more than 44 yards per boot over sixteen punts. Consistency has always been the rising junior's Achilles heel, but with year three on the horizon he looks to be turning into an asset in the kicking game. In terms of placekicking, neither Cade Foster or Jeremy Shelley got many opportunities yesterday, but throughout the spring neither really did anything to indicate that the problems of the kicking game would suddenly be rectified. For better or for worse, we are still waiting on Adam Griffith to report later this summer. Christion Jones continues to be the likely punt returner.
In other quick hitters, Jonathon Atchison made it through the spring healthy, but for now the back-up at Sam linebacker looks to be true freshman Dillon Lee. Anthony Orr and Chris Bonds also received some snaps at Sam, which only underscores how 'Bama figures to use dueling Jacks this fall. The moves by Brent Calloway and Alphonse Taylor to the offensive side of the ball apparently look to stick. Bradley Sylve could be ahead of Travell Dixon right now for the fourth corner spot, but given Dixon's size and athleticism I imagine that will change by the end of fall camp. Tana Patrick is playing his best football to date, and will see some meaningful time this season. Deion Belue looks like he could become a star player on short notice. Barrett Jones remains the de facto back-up at left tackle, though the strong showing by Austin Shepherd could lock down the back-up job behind D.J. Fluker.