Though the weather got a little violent mid-course, the Crimson Tide soldiered forth despite the elements and a 40 minute rain delay for the first scrimmage of 2014 fall camp. While Saban seemed optimistic at times in his post-scrimmage press conference, the news for Tide faithful was not as cheerful as some may have anticipated. If Saban's comments are taken literally, this incarnation of the Tide continues to be an edifice under construction.
As has been the case in the past, scant few statistics were made public following Saturday's scrimmage. In fact, there were no stats released at all regarding any of the hopefuls at quarterback, which has been the case in the past when Saban had a legitimate quarterback competition extending into fall camp.
However, some offensive and defensive statistics were made available following the scrimmage. Junior tailback Kenyan Drake was at the top of the statistical heap on offense, totaling 88 yards on six carries on the ground. As has been previously suspected, Drake also had a larger role in the Tide passing game, as he led all receivers with four receptions for 65 yards. It appears that new OC Lane Kiffin is finding a way to utilize Drake's unique skill set, and we should expect to see a little more of that this season as the offensive package is unwrapped. This can be seen as nothing but good news for a Tide offense that failed to take advantage of the embarrassment of riches in regard to talent on offense, and if Kiffin does nothing but spread the ball around to more play-makers, many Tide faithful will consider it a step forward.
The other tailbacks had less impressive days, statistically speaking. Projected starter at running back, T.J. Yeldon, only carried the ball four times, but he made them count by picking up 35 yards en route to an 8.7 yard-per-carry average. Tyren Jones has apparently made a jump up the depth chart after redshirting last season, as he and Derrick Henry shared the remainder of the carries. Henry had 23 yards on six carries, while Jones rushed 13 times or 30 yards. No stats were reported for sophomore RB Altee Tenpenny.
Saban has appeared pleased with the wide receivers throughout camp, and we now know why. Though Drake was the leading receiver on the day, the versatile and deep Tide WR corps was led in the scrimmage by redshirt freshman Robert Foster, who had two grabs for 57 yards, followed by junior pre-season All-American Amari Cooper, who had 56 yards and a touchdown on four catches. Christion Jones amassed 45 yards on two receptions, while sophomore sensation ArDarius Stewart averaged 11 yards per catch with three catches for 33 yards.
Defensively, Jonathan Allen led with five tackles and two sacks. Dillon Lee had four tackles, as did true freshman Da'Shawn Hand. Hand also had a sack on the afternoon. Reuben Foster saw considerable time at linebacker, and he finished with three tackles and a sack, while linebacker Reggie Ragland added three tackles as well. Go ahead and mark Hand down as a potential SEC Freshman of the Year candidate, as his reputation appears to be accurate. The defensive end has the physical measurable to be a top-flite SEC defender, and the fact that he is mentioned in the stat line in his first scrimmage really does nothing to tarnish the forecasts about his future.
One must wonder if the success the defensive line has had in the spring and now, in this first fall scrimmage, is more a function of the offensive lines continued struggles, or the superiority of the Tide's defensive front. Even without its most dominant player from last year, A'Shawn Robinson, riding the pine with an injury, the defensive line appeared to have had its way with the offensive front. One can't know the answer until the unit is in a live-fire situation, but the early returns on this year's defensive line indicate it could easily be Saban's best overall DL unit in his time at Alabama. This, my friends, can only be placed in the "Encouraging" file.
IT is also nice to see that younger players such as Lee, Foster and Ragland are taking charge at linebacker. This isn't a knock against DE Priest at all, as he is a solid linebacker who should lead admirably this year as one of few seasoned veterans on the unit. But if younger players like Lee, Ragland, Foster, Ryan Anderson can step up, this year's linebacking corps could be explosive
In the post-scrimmage presser, Saban vacillated between seeming satisfaction with the performance, and mild aggravation with some areas of concern that continue to haunt the team. In discussing the continuing quarterback competition, Saban indicated that while he likes what he's seen out of the quarterbacks (one must assume he is speaking primarily about senior Blake Sims and transfer Jacob Coker), he has not yet seen the level of play the Tide expects at the position.
"I think they both (Sims and Coker) did a lot of good things, and I think they both had some things they wish they had back. We're not pleased or satisfied completely with where they are, but we're not disappointed in the progress they're making at the position."
Saban said the defense, which many have projected to be a strength for this Crimson Tide team despite its youth, has a long way to go before it can be compared to the Bama defensive standard. The defensive line collaborated for four sacks, which is encouraging considering the number of defensive players who were unavailable for the scrimmage for one reason or another. Saban said as much, pointing out that the injuries to defensive players across the two-deep (wait...did Saban make a depth chart reference?...holy hell, that's the Seventh Sign of the Apocalypse) were numerous. That said, Our Dark Lord expressed substantial disdain with the defense overall. "This defense has a long way to go," Saban said pointedly. It could be Saban speaking to the players through the media, but it is probably an accurate summation of a defensive effort that saw many young, inexperienced players in action.
Regarding special teams, Saban indicated he is quite pleased with the progress that's been made by sophomore place kicker Adam Griffith. He previously stated that Griffith had been consistent throughout camp and only recently missed his first FG attempt in practice, and Saturday's scrimmage gives more evidence that Griffith is seasoning into his projected role. Saban said Griffith hit four-of-five field goal attempts, and the miss came with the back-up holder in the mix. This is encouraging news for Tide fans, as the kicking game has been a source of consternation in recent years. If Griffith can mature into an ice-cold, Tiffin/ Doyle kicking machine, then many Bama fans will rest a little easier heading into the season.
Regarding Saban's overall impression of the team at this point in The Process, he indicated that the team has made some progress but is still lacking many of the qualities he wants to see them develop.
"We have a long way to do in terms of developing a team," said Saban. "The players have to understand why good teams win." He later added, when asked about the team's identity, that he likes the team but the leadership is a work in progress. According to Saban, the offense is currently a step ahead on the maturity and leadership front, but that can be expected with so many younger players contributing on defense.
As expected, the Tide continues to focus more attention on defending the uptempo offenses that are evolving across the conference and beyond. Saban said the team spent some time working on uptempo drills and scenarios during the scrimmage, with mixed results. He offered the caveat that it is hard to truly replicate what good "race car" teams can do with pace and conditioning, but the need for such preparation is critical.
ODL gave a few "hollas" to several defensive players despite his seeming consternation with the overall performance. DE Jonathan Allen was mentioned, as were DL Josh Frazier, DL D.J. Pettway, and CBs Cyrus Jones and Bradley Sylve. The last two mentions should be especially reassuring for the Bama faithful, as the secondary (particularly the corner position) has been an area of concern throughout the off-season. Barring injury, with the addition of Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey and the improvement of Sylve and Jones, the Tide CB corps could become an area of strength for this year's edition of the Tide.
As previously mentioned, injuries are beginning to mount for the Tide, particularly along the defensive side of the ball. Already short DE Tim Williams due to suspension, Saban mentioned that Darren Lake didn't scrimmage because of an injury sustained in practice at the end of the week. Apparently, Lake's foot was stepped on, so he was held out of action to prevent further injury. Lake has had an injury-plagued career since signing with the Tide, so let's hope the injury is a mild one and the recovery time is short.
Other new injuries mentioned by Saban included TE Kurt Freitag (turf toe), Geno Smith (sprained knee) and Dominick Jackson (ankle sprain). While Saban didn't offer a time table for return on any of the above injuries, he did say that Jackson will likely be out for several weeks due to his injury. The Geno Smith injury is especially troubling, though information was not released regarding the severity of the injury. Smith is one of three players expected to contribute for the Tide at free safety, and if his injury makes him unavailable for long, the Tide could struggle with depth at the position. Let's hope this "knee sprain" is of the minor variety, and Smith can return to action as soon as possible.
Also of note, CB Eddie Jackson was held out of the scrimmage out of caution. While reports have been positive regarding Jackson's level of participation in camp thus far, considering the nature of his knee injury and recovery, the wise approach is to keep him on the shelf until no doubt remains about his recuperation and rehab.
Saban offered a word of praise for the projected starter at left tackle, true freshman Cameron Robinson. He said that he's had a great camp, and continues to make progress as he learns the role. Robinson certainly looks the part of an SEC left tackle, and the hope is that he will be able to hold the rope with the departure of NFL tackle Cyrus Kouandjio. Saban also mentioned that previously injured RG Leon Brown would be adding to his workload this week as he recovers from injury.
True freshman Ross Pierschbacher also drew unexpected praise from Saban for his work ethic and progress throughout camp. Saban said "He's someone who could contribute on the two-deep." (I'll be damned, another depth chart reference...someone had an extra Debbie cake this morning!) The performance of the young talent in camp re-emphasizes the advantage Saban and the staff have created through recruiting success over the last several years, as offensive line was a clear area of need for the previous recruiting cycle. Nice to see some of the young guns are already getting the hang of things.
The Tide will enjoy "Squad Sunday" before returning to the two-a-day grind on Monday, August 11.