The obvious question for the offense is whether Jalen Hurts’ intermediate and deep passing game are up to championship snuff; whether he he has improved in making his reads, going through progressions, and not simply chucking the ball out of bounds if the primary receiver isn’t there. That risk aversion, more than anything, is likely what won him the starting job -- he protected the ball. Still, the overzealous desire to avoid making the big mistake, and the coaching staff’s insistence on protecting him even in contests where he should have be taking his lumps, very much stunted his growth down the stretch. Without making those mistakes and overcoming them, it’s very hard to gain the confidence that you can make the next play. Still, this is a question that we’ve covered ad nausea the past seven months.
But, the simple fact is that there is more to that growth than simple reps, recognition, and confidence: Hurts also has to have the confidence that he has time to make those reads, that he will be able to step up in the pocket and into the throw. And that begins with the line.
A kid from another website asked a question we’ve had here for several years, and was actually a question most people had: What to do about right guard? Now, to be sure, you don’t phrase it as he did twice - an implicit criticism of the coaching staff’s ability to recruit and/or develop two functional guards in the same season at the same time. But it is wasn’t a dumb question either: We know the three iron clad starters, and we can gather that Matt Womack has almost certainly played his way into some position on the right side. But, who is that fourth player?
Nick Saban said that there are four or five guys that can play winning football along the line, but he’s seeing something we’ve not and is not naming the competitors in any event. The most obvious solution would be for Lester Cotton to finally take that next step in his development and claim either the tackle or guard spot. But, if he doesn’t, the other commodities are unproven and/or potentially unpalatable. It would be a pity to see what could be the most dangerous offense in America sputter because of inconsistency on the right side...again.
A related issue is whether Brent Key coaching the entire offensive line will bring a return to a more physical interior line. The past few seasons Alabama has worked much more east-west than I think this staff is comfortable with. Some of it is scheming, to be sure. But, as Coach Saban has also stated, that horizontal scheme is what the offensive line did the best. We know Mario Cristobal is an ace recruiter, and his loss will be felt in South Beach. But, the final product of his position coaching didn’t nearly live up to the talent level available to him. Maybe Coach Key finally having control of the entire line will show an improvement or at least more aggression at the point of attack.
Is there an answer at placekicker? Blueshirt, swampshirt, walk-on with bagman, whatever -- Joseph Bulovas had best provide it, because the A-Day game engendered little confidence in the Tide kicking game. It would not be out of the realm of possibility to see J.K. Scott pull double-duty if Andy Pappanastos and Bulovas strike out. Is that probable? No. But the fact it’s not implausible speaks volumes.
Not as pressing a concern but still an open question is will the Tide find that breakout return man? Alabama has always been at its best when it has had dangerous return men: Just in the Saban era, think Javier Arenas, Christon Jones, Cyrus Jones, Kenyan Drake, Eddie Jackson. Is Trevon Diggs the answer at punt returner? Where did Xavian Marks go? Is B.J. Emmons an answer on kick returns? Will Alabama look to the defensive backfield for its next great punt returner? If so, who? Are there incoming freshmen who can win a spot?
Again, this is not as pressing a concern, but it would be nice to see a more dynamic kick return game and a dangerous-but-smart punt return unit.
There is understandable concern about the loss of proven playmakers and pass rushers in the front seven. We think of the productivity that Alabama lost in the 2017 NFL draft, where it sent four of those starters to the pros. But last year was in some ways more damaging: In addition to losing D.J. Pettway, A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, and Reggie Ragland to the NFL in 2016, the Tide also graduated its depth with the departure of Dakota Ball (2017,) Dillon Lee, Denzell Devall, and Darren Lake -- that’s 14 players lost in two years, an entire 2-deep along the front, with 10 of them drawing NFL paychecks. Most programs could not survive that hit.
So, yes, it’s understandable that many are antsy about the development and depth up front. However, related to that concern, is the issue of the secondary. Coach Saban remarked at SEC Media Days that he was able to play a lot of two-high split safeties in 2016, protecting the secondary, because of the pressure the defensive line put on opposing quarterbacks. This year it’s not just a matter of whether the front seven can step in and affect the passer even close to that extent, but whether or not the secondary can hold up if the defensive front isn’t as effective.
The A-Day game is not the best venue to determine what this secondary is capable of. Blitzing was limited-to-nonexistent. Coverages were vanilla. Still, the combined secondaries gave up well over 500 yards through the air. There were no caveats for a unit that, as Hootie Jones said, got their butts whipped. And this says nothing of the loss of Marlon Humphrey and Eddie Jackson. On paper, the Tide should be okay depth-wise and has a putative Top Four ready to go, but getting younger players like Jared Mayden, Nigel Knott, etc. ready for Game One is a tall task that has been made taller.
We’ll know in just about six weeks.
Feel free to take a stab at answering these, engaging in wild speculation or posing your own questions below.