The good, the bad and the ugly...such it is with Alabama's A-Day 2015. As in any competition which features one half of the team against the other, every positive is a negative, and every negative a positive. Coach Nick Saban belabored this point in his post-A-Day press conference.
But for the optimistic, the Crimson Tide showed progress. While not nearly an SEC-ready squad at the moment, the Tide personnel showed flashes of what they can become if the current trajectory is sustained throughout the summer and into fall camp.
After all, last year's SEC Championship team was very much a work in progress at the time of the 2014 A-Day game, a tattered and scattered assemblage of second-stringers and fill-ins who scared the living daylights out of the Tide faithful. If last year's A-Day-to-success ratio is any indicator, the Crimson Tide will be just fine when the first game with Wisconsin kicks off on September 5.
For now, let us mull over the scraps of A-Day a little longer, as they represent the last football we'll see for the next three and a half months. Prior to the scrimmage, we pondered six points of interest heading into the game. Now, let's take a look at what (if anything) we learned.
Who will man the trenches?
The good news? The starting five offensive linemen (Ryan Kelly, Cam Robinson, Ross Pierchbacher, Bradley Bozeman and Dominick Jackson) appear to be greatly improved in the realm of run blocking. It's not that the 2014 unit was unable to road-grade, but they didn't possess the type of powerful style that could dominate opposing defensive lines. Considering the opposition the unit faced on A-Day (namely, Alabama's top defensive linemen and linebackers), Saturday's results were encouraging in that regard.
Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin seemed eager to keep the ball on the ground, bucking his previous preference for the passing game. As Saban mentioned in the post-game presser, the run-pass balance for the first team was excellent. While the running backs didn't necessarily light it up statistically, that is to be expected for a unit that represents the walking wounded outside of starter Derrick Henry. Kenyan Drake was limited due to the black jersey, and several of his runs would have gone further had it not been for the "touch" policy implemented against the recovering tailback. Despite the lack of statistical fireworks, the first-team OL did an impressive job of opening holes and sealing lanes for the Tide's healthy running backs. That is a definite positive.
On the contrary, pass blocking seems to have taken a step back for the OL. What was a strength of the team last years appeared to be an area of struggle in the A-Day game. Granted, the defensive pass rush was incredibly nasty, particular the edge rush coming from linebackers. So either the defensive line is incredibly good, of the pass blocking is not quite what it was last year. Tackles struggled with sealing the edge, and even Robinson was beaten for a sack around the left end. Will the Tide offensive line struggle with small, speedy pass rushers this season? There's a possibility that is the case, if Saturday's performance is any indicator.
Regarding the second team, Saban expressed his displeasure with the way the unit played. Multiple sacks were given up, and the running game sputtered. Granted, DeSherrius Flowers and Ronnie Clark are not Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, but both phases of the offensive line struggled with the second stringers on the field. While this isn't much a real world concern, it does speak to the drop-off in depth from the first unit to the second, which if past seasons are any indication, will come into play if the injury bug bites the big men up front.
What will the 2015 secondary look like?
There was lots of good in the A-Day performance of both units of the Alabama secondary. Even with presumed starting corner Cyrus Jones out with injury, his back-ups displayed great improvement from the previous year. Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey got a good bit of the work at corner, and both were impressive. Both made errors, to be sure, but their play was physical and instinctive, which bodes well for the Tide's defensive backfield come September.
Humphrey had a particularly strong day, darting around the field and giving the Tide a physical presence it's lacked since the departure of former corner Dee Milliner. Humphrey led the secondary with eight tackles, one tackle for loss and an interception. He was disruptive in the passing game, and all appearances indicate that the son of Tide great Bobby Humphrey will be as advertised in the years to come.
While the corner position looks to be on the way to being sorted out, safety is still a bit of a concern. While veterans Jabriel Washington and Geno Smith are expected to play a role, former corner Eddie Jackson and newcomers Ronnie Harrison and Hootie Jones are expected to contribute as well. The Jackson-to-safety conversion seems to be working, as Jackson seemed to slide into the new responsibility well, making six tackles with a tfl in action Saturday. But the depth at safety is untested, and that is a cause for concern. The Tide defense is predicated on stellar safety play, and fortunately, Alabama has had the likes of Mark Barron, Landon Collins and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix to cement the position in previous years. There is no All-American at safety this year, and that is a nerve-racking proposition.
Maurice Smith saw considerable time at the Star position in nickel defense, and while he played well and made a good break on a second half interception, he was also drawn in and victimized by receivers Robert Foster and Ar'Darius Stewart more than one would like to see. Smith has to improve in terms of consistency if he is to be counted on by the Tide coaching staff.
Given that Bama's Achilles' heel the last two year has been the susceptibility to the deep pass, particularly on third and fourth downs, Saturday was not incredibly encouraging from a secondary perspective. The first-team defense was burned several times by the Tide receivers, which again, is troubling.
Is Coker really the Tide's next QB?
A-Day's quarterbacking performances made clear that the battle for the starting role will continue. On the bright side, Jacob Coker showed glimpses of brilliance in the game, despite a bit of a slow start. Early on, Coker displayed the inconsistency Tide fans have heard much about throughout the spring, as he had several overthrows and missed reads. However, as the senior settled in, he gained traction with receivers Foster and Stewart, and the passing game began to operate more smoothly.
Coker's numbers weren't eye-popping, but they were workable for an offense that was near 50-50 in the run-pass balance. Coker finished 14 of 28 for 183 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Of particular note was the way Coker has improved as a quarterback. He's always had a cannon arm and textbook delivery, there's no doubt about that. But Coker displayed a command of the offense Saturday that has yet been unseen in his game. He didn't lock onto a single receiver, but rather, went through his progressions, hitting the third and fourth options on several plays. That is encouraging, as for all of his physical arm talent, his inability to play the role of field general has been the biggest knock against him. His performance was not without errors, as he threw a nasty second half interception that was ill-advised at best, but Tide fans are beginning to see Coker round into shape as a quarterback.
Coker's chief competitor for the starting role, David Cornwell, also had a great day for a redshirt freshman. Cornwell will be quite the quarterback as he develops, as he has a large frame and fantastic mechanics. Whether he wins the starting role this season or not, he is likely the QB of the future at the Capstone. Cornwell put up a 12 of 24 passing performance with a touchdown and two interceptions. He showed good leadership in moving the Tide offense down the field in the second half, and is quite heady for such a young player.
Saban made it clear that Saturday's performance meant little in regard to who will start under center in the fall. If one considers the disparity in talent from the first to second teams, both quarterbacks performed quite well. Coker appeared to be slightly more in rhythm, but again, the competition for the spot will not come down to the handful of plays that transpired Saturday, but rather a body of work stretching from January to the fall. Money is on Coker or Cornwell taking the reins this fall, but based on what was displayed Saturday, there's an equal chance that either could wind up getting the nod.
Henry, Drake and...?
It is clear that Bama's running attack will be led by Henry and Drake, both of whom looked impressive under the circumstances on Saturday. Particularly telling was Henry's dump-trucking of a strapping Dillon Lee in physical fashion, as it is a reminder of what a fully functional Derrick Henry can impose upon his opponent when properly motivated. Drake was limited by his black jersey status, but it was clear he was ready to rip and roar through the holes the first-team offensive line was opening.
Behind the starting tandem, there wasn't much to be learned about the remainder of the backfield. DeSherrius Flowers and Ronnie Clark are physical specimens to be sure, and both ran hard on limited carries. However, there's little real information to be divined regarding their ability to fill in the third string role if Bo Scarbrough does not return from knee surgery in time for the season. The second team offensive line is a work in progress at best, and the unit struggled to give Clark, Flowers and Lawrence Erekosima much room to run.
The three backs all have their strong points, as Flowers and Clark are the type of banging, physical runners who remind Tide fans of Glen Coffee and Roy Upchurch. Erekosima draws comparisons to NFL star Darren Sproles due to his size and skittering running style, though the smallish back wasn't able to display his scooting abilities due to a lack of dominant run-blocking.
Given the fact that the top two backs generally get 85-90% of the carries during the season, the third strong options could be written off as inconsequential. However, Drake has proven injury-prone in previous seasons, so the Tide could be on injury away from finding itself dependent upon one of these three backs to spell Derrick Henry.
Will the next Amari Cooper please stand up?
There is no replacing Amari Cooper. But receivers Robert Foster and Ar'Darius Stewart did their best to make Bama fans shed fewer tears over the departed Biletnikoff winner. The tandem of receivers was nothing short of explosive as part of Bama's first team offense, showing good chemistry with Coker and maturation from the previous season. The two were co-MVPs after a performance that saw them combine for over 200 yards receiving against Bama's first team defense.
Stewart showed his explosiveness, catching eight passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns. He displayed the athleticism for which he is known, and has become a better route-runner and technician. His first move is generally deceptively quick, and often times, he is merely running away from the defender by the time he reaches the top of his routes. If there's a candidate to replace Cooper's former status as Bama's scariest big play threat, it's Stewart.
Foster showed his skill set as well, reeling in six catches for 125 yards, including a 40 yard pass from Coker early in the first half. Foster has great size and is very smooth and fluid as a receiver, bringing back memories of former Tide receiver Kevin Norwood. He has the size to play physically against aggressive defensive backs, but the finesse to find creases in opponent secondaries and exploit them.
Other than the performances of Stewart and Foster, probably the most important development in the receiving game as displayed Saturday was the use of the tight end. While O.J. Howard was utilized more last season by Kiffin than by his predecessor Doug Nussmeier, many still hoped to see the tight end used even more as a receiver to exploit opposing defenses.
If Saturday's game plan was any indication, that faction of Tide fans will get what they want in 2015. Without Howard catching a single pass, Kiffin demonstrated a desire to involve the tight end as a passing threat, with Ty Flournoy-Smith and Dakota Ball combining for eight receptions. They were targeted on other occasions but the ball was not caught. In the post-game press conference, Saban indicated that tight end has been a point of emphasis in the spring, since Alabama has a horde of smaller, receiver-type tight ends who need to be utilized in the passing game. He went on to say that because Alabama's offense no longer utilizes the "thumper" type tight end as often, it important that the quarterbacks target the tight ends for the mismatches they can create in the passing game.
So while it appears Foster and Stewart may be part of the equation for replacing Amari Cooper's production, a renewed emphasis on the tight end as receiver could also factor in. That is an interesting development, indeed.
Reggie Ragland and ....?
If anything was obvious following the A-Day game, it was that Alabama has an embarrassment of riches at the linebacker position. Whether in the middle of the field or in the outside positions, Alabama has the talent to, along with the defensive line, have the best front seven in the country defensively.
Reggie Ragland continues to impress after a stellar junior campaign, as he accounted for seven tackles and half a tackle for loss. Alongside Ragland in the middle, both Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton were impressive. Saban said Foster will get the start when the Tide lines up in the nickel defense, with Hamilton getting the nod in the "regular" defense. Both are thumpers who demonstrate a command of the defense and were not often out of position often (if at all) in the spring game. The future bodes well for both players.
At outside linebacker, the Tide is blessed with talent. Newcomers Keith Holcombe (eight tackles, one sack, one tfl) and Christian Miller (three tackles, two sacks) showed their aggressiveness and pass-rushing prowess. Dillon Lee played well and had an interception, and sophomore Rashaan Evans showed his pass rushing talent with a sack around end. Probably the most explosive outside linebacker performance of the day was posted by Tim Williams, who amassed five tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Williams even beat Cam Robinson several times around the left side, proving that he can perform well against high-level SEC tackles. If Williams can replicate his A-Day performance during the season, he will become a household name by the middle of the 2015 campaign. He has an extremely high ceiling, to be sure.
As Saban said, every big play by the offense on A-Day is a knock against the defense, and vice-versa. However, Tide fans must be somewhat optimistic (despite the rash of interceptions) as both the offense and defense looked further along than expected given the number of players each had to replace. While many post-A-Day questions linger, Tide fans will have plenty of time to mull over what they saw Saturday. After all, the season opener is 139 days away...