With kick-off in the BCS National Championship Game a mere two days away, the official game preview will follow on Monday morning, but for the time being a quick primer on where we currently stand on several fronts:
From the outset, Alabama had a significant break following the SEC Championship Game, spending the better part of the next three weeks working on conditioning and only returning to the practice field on December 19th. Notre Dame, meanwhile, began bowl practice almost two weeks earlier, on December 7th. At the end of the day the overall amount of practice time remains the same -- the NCAA allows fifteen (15) practice sessions in preparation for a bowl game -- but the fact that Alabama waited so long to take the field was more of a necessity than anything else, given the beaten and battered state of the roster following the slugfest in Atlanta against Georgia.
The most concerning injury for the Crimson Tide is without question the so-called sprained foot suffered by Barrett Jones in the SEC Championship Game. Despite being adamant all along that he would play in Miami, Jones spent the better part of four weeks on crutches with his foot in a hard cast, and it is obvious to all that the term "sprained foot" is a significant understatement of his actual affliction. More likely, Jones has a serious foot injury that will require an extended recovery time, perhaps even surgery, but he will nevertheless fight through it and play in his career finale at Alabama. The question is not whether Jones will play, which is a certainty, but rather how effective he will be against Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III, in what will perhaps be the single most important match-up on the field come Monday night.
With Jones being held out of contact the first two weeks of practice, back-up center Ryan Kelly, a 6'5, 288 pound redshirt freshman out of Ohio, took all of the reps with the first-team,offense, and according to most accounts seemed comfortable in the role. To be sure, Kelly has the publicly expressed confidence of his teammates, and he should be a fine player in time in his own right, but having a de faco career debut in the BCS National Championship Game against one of the top interior defensive linemen in the country is far from ideal. Alabama needs Jones to stay healthy and play effectively on Monday night in Miami, or its path to the crystal trophy will become far more difficult.
Wide receiver Kenny Bell, meanwhile, has surprised many observers with his rapid return to health following the broken leg he sustained against Auburn. While most anticipated that Bell would have no meaningful chance to play in this game, he has since returned to practice in recent days and has moved much better than expected. Bell, however, did not participate in any contact drills, and in all likelihood he will have to actually beat the Fighting Irish secondary with his speed before the Notre Dame defensive coaching staff gives him any real respect in terms of a defensive response. Nevertheless, the odds seem at least relatively high that Bell will play on Monday night, so he will likely get his opportunity to make an impact on the national championship game.
Denzel Devall sustained a knee injury during bowl practices, but despite rumors to the contrary he avoided serious injury, and after missing a handful of practice sessions he has generally returned to good health. Devall has been sporting a large knee brace in recent days, which will likely also be the case on Monday night, but he has participated fully in drill work, and has also seen reps on the punt coverage team, which is not something that would happen with a player who was of questionable health. The true freshman from Louisiana has seen increasing playing time as the season went on, and he is one of the Crimson TIde's best pass rushers, so do not be surprised if he has a key role on Monday night.
Ha'Sean Clinton-DIx has been taking reps in recent days with the first-team unit in the base 3-4 defense, opposite senior safety Robert Lester, and it seems apparent that he has supplanted Nick Perry and Vinny Sunseri in that role. Clinton-Dix was commended by the coaching staff for his play in the SEC Championship Game, and it seems that the staff is now placing greater responsibility on his shoulders. Expect him to be an every-down player come Monday night.
One of the biggest challenges for the Alabama defense on Monday night will be finding a way to effectively cover star Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, the 6'6, 251 pound senior who leads the Fighting Irish in receptions and receiving yards. While we won't know the exact strategy until the game unfolds, Vinny Sunseri said today during the media session that he would likely cover Eifert when his hand is on the ground -- though I imagine he will have some help in that event -- and that DeMarcus Milliner would cover Eifert when he splits out wide. The fact that Alabama apparently intends to utilize its top cover corner against Eifert only underscores how dangerous the Tide coaching staff views the Notre Dame standout, and it will come as no surprise if Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix also shares in the responsibility of limiting Eifert in the passing game. Either way, much like Jones v. Nix, expect this to be one of the key match-ups of the game.
In less encouraging news, true freshmen Ryan Anderson and Dillon Lee were suspended following practice yesterday afternoon and were sent back to Tuscaloosa. It was later confirmed by Nick Saban that both players missed curfew on Thursday night, which led to their suspensions. Neither Anderson or Lee were expected to play on Monday night -- both will likely receive redshirts -- but nevertheless this is never the type of news that is welcomed regardless of who it involves. Hopefully the transgressions of Anderson and Lee do not indicate a larger team issue with focus, but only time will tell on that front.
In other quick hitters, several Alabama players will have the opportunity to declare for the NFL Draft, including Eddie Lacy, DeMarcus Milliner, and D.J. Fluker, but all of those players have said publicly that no decisions have been made as of yet; expect news to come on the NFL Draft declarations in the days following the national championship game. A PAC-12 crew will officiate the game on Monday night; for what it's worth, a PAC-12 group also officiated the controversial Notre Dame v. Stanford game earlier in the year, but no word yet on whether or not it will be the same crew on Monday night. Nose guard Jessie Williams, who seemingly suffered a serious knee injury in the SEC Championship Game, has been participating fully in bowl practices and will play on Monday night. Reggie Ragland has been playing on the scout team as Manti Te'o. Blake Sims has played Notre Dame quarterback Everret Golson on the scout team. Jarrick Williams, who tore his ACL in fall camp, has been cleared for contact, but is considered unlikely to play. True freshman wide receiver Chris Black has been taking reps as the third-team punt returner, but he too is unlikely to play, barring injuries. Based upon the recent comments of Nick Saban and the return to health of Denzel Devall, we can anticipate that the playing time of D.J. Pettway will be limited on Monday night. The Alabama team has been staying in Miami at the overly-opulent Fountainbleau Hotel, though it should be noted that hotel assignment is a decision made by the Bowl Committee, not the coaching staff.