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Jumbo Package: LaBryan Ray Returns as Tide Begin Prep for Clemson

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The talented freshman will add some much needed depth to the Alabama front.

Tennessee v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Happy Friday, everyone. Today will be Alabama’s final practice before taking a break for Christmas. Yesterday’s workout brought some great news:

-- Defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick continued to wear a hamstring-support strip on his left leg. He also guarded a scout-team player mimicking Clemson slot receiver Hunter Renfrow when the team was working in its dime package.

-- Deionte Thompson was alongside Ronnie Harrison at safety in the team's dime package. Mack Wilson was the lone linebacker in that package with Keith Holcombe shadowing him.

The “emerging DL” in the headline is LaBryan Ray, who was working in a black non-contact jersey. Saban said that he had a broken foot that required a pin, essentially the same injury suffered by Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson. The fact that he was able to practice on it ten days before the game portends very well for his availability, barring any unforeseen setbacks. Oh, and rumors that Saban has the entire front seven practicing in Timberlands at this point have not been confirmed.

The secondary rotation is what we’d expect with Fitzpatrick drawing Renfrow duty, and it’s notable that Wilson is working at the Mack linebacker (I mean, how could he not?) in dime. This frees up a much healthier Rashaan Evans to be the holy terror that he is coming off the edge. A finally-full-speed-again grouping of Evans and Terrell Lewis or Christian Miller is vastly different from the pass rush that we have seen. Da’Shawn Hand should be motivated not only to win a title, but also because the playoffs are his final audition for NFL scouts. He’ll be faster with the extra rest afforded his injured knee, and Ray has shown some pass rushing chops as well. There are a bunch of proud, elite football players on the defense who are enjoying their final shot on the biggest stage. Look for them to come out in full destruction mode.

A year ago, Alabama's generational defense through 12 games had just four missed starts from the preseason depth chart. All four belonged to safety Eddie Jackson who broke his leg in October. Of course, Hamilton was then lost for the rest of the season with a torn ACL in the SEC title game win over Florida.

Even so, the health issues of 2016 would blush at the 2017 situation.

Only three defensive players started every game this season when seven did so in the regular season a year ago.-- Deionte Thompson was alongside Ronnie Harrison at safety in the team's dime package. Mack Wilson was the lone linebacker in that package with Keith Holcombe shadowing him.-- Defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick continued to wear a hamstring-support strip on his left leg. He also guarded a scout-team player mimicking Clemson slot receiver Hunter Renfrow when the team was working in its dime package.

Who goes 11-1 and makes the playoff despite 35 missed starts on defense?

Clemson has two other receivers with 500-plus yards this season. Speedy junior Deon Cain, who had 5 catches for 94 yards in last season’s meeting, has 52 receptions for 659 yards. Ray-Ray McCloud, who doubles as a dangerous punt returner, has 46 catches for 502 yards.

In terms of touchdowns, Cain has 6 and Renfrow 3.

Cain had a 43-yard tunnel screen last season to boost those numbers. Mike Williams, the #7 overall choice in the NFL Draft who came into the title game with more yards than than Cain and McCloud have combined for this season, drew much of the Tide’s attention along with fellow draftee Jordan Leggett. To be frank, this veteran Alabama secondary should be a mismatch for a rather nondescript group of WRs, particularly with a downgraded passer behind center. Expect Jeremy Pruitt to be comfortable putting his outside guys on an island while keeping a “rat in the hole” to spy Kelly Bryant and help redirect the crossing stuff.

The Las Vegas betting line for Alabama’s Sugar Bowl matchup against Clemson opened with the Crimson Tide favored by 1.5 points. It’s now at three points.

Still, Alabama players they feel like underdogs entering their semifinal matchup in the College Football Playoff. In fact, they’re embracing the idea.

“We’re still the underdog,” Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “We still understand a lot of people feel like Alabama is going to win, which is fine because they deserve to be here. They’ve got the crown. They’ve got the belt. And if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”

“YOU’RE the favorite!”

“No, YOU’RE the favorite!”

“I know you are, but what am I?”

“I’m rubber, you’re glue...”

So, the criticism the quarterback’s received is difficult to hear and/or read.

“It’s hard to see, especially because you’ve gone through so much with your brother,” Hurts said. “That’s my brother. He’s done a great job leading us, and we try to just stay off social media and don’t pay attention to that because everything that matters is what’s in our locker room in between us and the coaches. But we’re focused on getting better every day.

“Things that have happened in the past don’t matter to us. We’re looking forward to the new opportunity and new challenge that we have. We’re behind him 100 percent.”

This is great to hear and all, but it’s not like he was going to say, “I really hope Coach comes to his senses and puts him on the bench.” There have been flashes this season. It wasn’t all that long ago that a young Alabama QB who had been rather timid over the course of the season went down to New Orleans and had his watershed moment. Let us pray.

Wide receivers coach Mike Locksley continues his hot streak on the recruiting trail after landing both five-star edge rusher Eyabi Anoma and four-star defensive tackle Christian Barmore in the 2018 class on Wednesday.

At 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, Gant is rated the No. 8 safety and the No. 122 overall player in the country, per the industry-generated 247Sports Composite.

Roll Mike, Roll. Hopefully the fact that Alabama has the #3 class thus far in the 2019 cycle will assuage some fears for folks. As silly as recruiting has gotten it means almost nothing at this stage, as this season’s crop has shown.

Last but not least, Alabama has a big hoops game tonight in Birmingham.

Bamba, who stands at 6-foot-11, 225 pounds, was the nation’s No. 3 overall prospect in 2017, according to the 247Sports Composite. That’s two spots ahead of Sexton (No. 5 overall).

The freshman center is averaging 10.3 points per game for the Longhorns to go along with a team-leading 9.7 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per game, which ranks second in the nation.

“He’s a rim protector, he’s very long and skilled, a skilled post player,” guard Dazon Ingram said. “He’s going to run the lane, run the court and is going to block a lot of shots -- he’s like (second) in the country. We’ve just got to do what’s necessary to finish around the rim.”

“This was the first game where we have had everyone back,” Johnson said. “Remember, Riley (Norris) was injured and Braxton has been injured. So I think we actually have a pretty good grasp of who is our first five and who is our second five —Riley, Herbert (Jones), (Avery Johnson) Junior, Daniel Giddens and (Alex) Reese. But what I think we saw was that we won’t necessarily have that five all in the game at the same time. We’ll keep some of the first group in and maybe work one or two of the second group in with them.”

With Bamba down low, this would be a fine night to have a bounceback effort from three-point range. Regression to the mean suggests that they are due for a 50-60% night, and it would be a welcome sight with a Dwight Howard clone roaming the paint. Bamba will present a great litmus test for Donta Hall as well. Hall has been something of a revelation.

Good to see that Avery has settled on a starting five of Sexton, Petty, Ingram, Key, and Hall. A big group they are not, but there is athleticism to spare with ample depth on the roster to allow them to play fast. A pick-and-roll with Sexton and Hall, allowing Ingram and Petty to spot up and Key to roam, has a lot of potential. As usual, we will have full coverage of the game later on.

That’s about it for today. Have a great weekend.

Roll Tide.