Alabama’s spring game has come and gone, and as usual the entertainment value was low outside of the fact that it’s a needed fix for football starved fans. We got that, but thanks in part to sloppy field conditions owing to some recent rain, the game itself was rather lackluster. As Saban said after the scrimmage, the playcalling was intentionally vanilla on both sides to allow everyone a chance to play, and that always makes it tough to glean much from the festivities.
The most surprising part of the afternoon was the performance of the first team defense against the first team offense. With so much star power returning on the offensive side of the ball, the assumption was that we’d see fireworks when the starters were on the field. Instead, we saw a glimpse of what appears to be a vastly improved pass rush and secondary, which is encouraging.
The breakout star of the defense was Josh Jobe. His work with Scott Cochran was evident as his physique jumped off the screen, and he showed off some outstanding tackling in the open field. In fact, he drew an early personal foul with a suplex of Devonta Smith that frankly shouldn’t be a penalty with the possible exception of a QB in the pocket. In any event, he and Trevon Diggs, who picked Tua off late, started outside and acquitted themselves very well, dredging up a bit of “what might have been” among the Tide faithful. Patrick Surtain II played star most of the day and was also very good. He did get burned for a late TD by Biletnikoff winner Jerry Jeudy, but that’s forgivable.
The front seven showed plenty of promise as well. Perhaps the biggest individual mismatch on the field was Jack LB Anfernee Jennings against RT Matt Womack. Jennings seems motivated to improve his draft stock and show that he’s now fully recovered from the gruesome knee injury suffered in the 2017 semifinal against Clemson. He blew past Womack time after time early to the point that they had to start helping on that side. Eyabi Anoma was also active, a welcome sight after his struggles to get on the field as a freshman and flirtation with the transfer portal. Adding Terrell Lewis to that edge group should make for a ferocious pass rush in the fall.
The front seven did an excellent job stuffing the run as well, to the point that Saban complained about the offense’s inability to move it on the ground. People said that DJ Dale looked like Da’Ron Payne and man, were they right. He wears the same number and is almost identical in size and stature. He was routinely able to get a stalemate with C Chris Owens, and Dylan Moses played faster than I’ve ever seen him play. He may well be a better fit at Mike where he can run to the ball and not have quite as much responsibility in pass coverage. Joshua McMillon impressed in that area, but he will likely be pushed by freshman Shane Lee, who picked off Mac Jones early and looks like the future star that he has been billed. Other young standouts on the defense included Christian Barmore, who looks poised for a big role in rotation this season, and Antonio Alfano whose first step was as explosive as we’ve heard. He recorded a late sack. LB Jaylen Moody had a pick six as well.
Inside linebacker was a major concern coming in, and I think those questions were answered. At the very least there are four guys who are capable of contributing in Moses, McMillon, Lee, and Moody. Markail Benton didn’t really stand out anywhere, but sometimes that can be a good thing. Ale Kaho seemed to read well, but he either needs to do some serious work with Cochran or look at a possible move to safety. Still, this group seems to have more depth than last season, and it’s a welcome sight.
Of course playing against yourself is always a good news/bad news proposition. The first team offense was lackluster for much of the afternoon, with one early TD following Lee’s interception of Mac Jones and then a long drought before Jeudy’s big play late. The pass rush got to Tua a few too many times as he still showed a bit of a tendency to lock onto the home run ball. He looked a bit tentative at times with his back leg as well, which is something to watch going forward.
The biggest problem in the passing game, however, was dropped passes. I don’t know if the ball was slick due to the field conditions, but far too many catchable balls hit the turf. Even Jeudy had a couple of uncharacteristic drops. There were some standout performances, however. Jeudy did his thing with 5 catches for 104 yards and a TD and Devonta Smith got his with 6/95. Miller Forristall looked the part as the primary tight end, making a couple of contested grabs, but Kedrick James got loose for a touchdown as well. Those two should make a formiadable pair once James returns from his four-game suspension.
After the early interception, Mac Jones settled in and led the way for a second team offense that fared much better than the first team, albeit against very young competition. Jones was accurate all afternoon as the stat line reflects, but there was a tendency to hold the ball a bit and, of course, the pick. Taulia Tagovailoa didn’t put up huge numbers but he showed some serious flashes, including the pass of the day to Jaylen Waddle as Lia rolled to his left and fired a rope to the pylon. While Jones emerged as the clear leader for the #2 job at this stage, Lia showed enough promise to make it a competition this fall. Paul Tyson looked a bit more like a freshman out there and seems ticketed for a redshirt.
True freshman WR John Metchie was named game MVP following his 133 yard performance, and he stood out to the point that Saban was begging reporters not to pump him full of rat poison. Xavier Wiliams also found the end zone. This receiving corps is loaded, folks. All of the running backs looked good too, even if holes were somewhat scarce. Jerome Ford looked strong for the second unit and poised to carve out a role with Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, though Trey Sanders and Keilan Robinson will offer more competition this fall.
Joseph Bulovas was only 1-3 on field goal attempts and banged another extra point off the upright. Freshman Will Reichard looked more steady while making all five of his kicks, and even punted it well. He has to be the leader for the job at this point. Skyler DeLong was much more confident and showed off the leg that made him the #1 punter in the nation out of high school.
As usual, the game wasn’t terribly pretty and there was very little coaching strategy involved. The coaches will harp on the offensive line for allowing too much pressure and not being able to run the ball enough, the quarterbacks for the turnovers and holding the ball too long, and the receivers for too many drops. Deep down, Saban is smiling, though. This defense looks fast and physical, and has a chance to rival some of his best, with even more reinforcements coming in the fall. Add in the extra motivation to wash the bad taste of the last game from their mouths, and this group has a chance to be special.
Only three-and-a-half months until fall camp, folks.