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Initial Impressions from the Middle Tennessee State game

Alabama looked good, but injuries are worrisome.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Alabama Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Saban has said many times through the years that the annual turnover of college football personnel requires every team to create its own identity. We’ve only seen a single game, and it came against outmanned competition, but it’s clear that this team will have a very different philosophy than some recent iterations of Alabama football. And that starts from the top.

We’ve written in these spaces about Saban’s shift toward lighter, quicker players up front in recent years, to be able to run a fast paced spread offense and attempt to stop the same on defense. This created much more of a finesse approach and subsequent identity to some recent teams. To wit, Alabama’s starting offensive line in last year’s season opener averaged 308 lbs. and featured two starters who were under 300. This year’s line averages nearly 340 and features three players over 350, which SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic states he’s never seen before.

On defense, Alabama shifted Jaheim Oatis out to DE and started big Tim Keenan in the middle. Oatis has lost substantial weight but is still listed at 348, which is huge for that position. There was substantial rotation up front throughout the game, and that will likely be the strategy to keep legs fresh. I also wonder if the new clock rules aimed at reducing the number of snaps per game make Nick feel a little better about getting back to his roots. Odds are slim that this defense will ever have to play 99 snaps in four quarters like that 2016 unit did vs. Clemson.

My main impression was that Saban’s solution for the performance anxiety issues he spoke about last year was to simplify things substantially on both sides in effort to play physical, fast and loose football. For one night, that was accomplished with the obvious caveat that the competition will be much tougher as the season goes along, starting next Saturday.

Some initial impressions:

Jalen Milroe had himself a night

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that a big part of this philosophical shift on offense is driven by the starting QB. Bryce Young has incredible football IQ and accuracy on most every kind of throw, but he is tiny. Milroe is not and likely never will be as polished a passer as Young, but when a QB has the ability to put his head down and run through defenders, that tends to change the attitude of the whole offense. We saw that with Jake Coker back in 2015, but Milroe also has the ability to outrun the defense.

Milroe doesn’t have to be an elite passer to be a Heisman contender. The question is whether he can get to above average, and in his season debut he was certainly that. Yes, there were a couple of very inaccurate balls and we will probably see that throughout the season. Still, he showed off his plus arm strength and good enough accuracy on the three deep ball TDs. If he can hit a decent percentage of those throws and execute RPOs, that may well be all of the passing game that Alabama needs with his running ability. If he comes out and puts five more touchdowns on the board next week, people will start asking about Heisman contention.

That’s far from guaranteed to happen, of course. Next week is going to be much tougher sledding against a pretty salty Texas defense. It’s tough not to be encouraged though.

The offensive line was good overall, but looked better in pass pro than on the ground

If there was a disappointment in last night’s contest, it was the success that MTSU’s front seven had shooting gaps on early downs. Part of it is just their attacking philosophy. They take a lot of risks and that creates boom and bust, but with all of the talk about the offensive line throughout camp, not to mention the weight advantage, it just felt like more should have been accomplished on the ground. There were some explosive runs on the edges aided by strong down blocks from the tight end group, which Saban called out in his press conference. Odds are that we see more of that going forward. The pass protection was very good for most of the night, and that’s going to be key if Milroe is to continue stressing the back end of the defense.

Amari Niblack is a problem for defenses

The tight ends didn’t just block. Amari Niblack burned MTSU for a 30 yard touchdown on a deep corner route. All told, three of Alabama’s 17 completions went to tight ends. Niblack in particular looks like he has the athleticism to get into the seams.

The tackling was much improved

With so much personnel turnover on defense, you never know how the tackling will shake out to open the season. In this game, it was generally very strong. Caleb Downs played as advertised and indeed looks like a Minkah Fitzpatrick clone. On one of the first plays of the game, he came downhill and laid the wood to shut down a run play on the edge, and that kind of set the tone for the night. If Alabama is able to tackle the same way all season, offenses will have their work cut out for them.

Deontae Lawson is a superstar

Lawson has always been a high potential player, flashing immediately in his first spring game as an early enrollee. Now in year three and charged with calling the defense, he seems to have come into his own. Lawson was like a heat seeking missile all night, whether chasing down edge runs, dropping into coverage or rushing the passer. His play was very reminscent of CJ Mosley, and that would be a very good thing.

Alabama played with discipline

It was very refreshing to see Alabama play a clean game. There were only two penalties, no dropped passes, and as mentioned above the missed tackles were kept to a minimum. The key, of course, will be sustaining that level of focus.

The secondary looked amazing, but injuries are worrisome

Again, we need to see them against better competition before truly evaluating them as a group, but the secondary looked awfully good last night. Besides the tackling, Terrion Arnold looked quite sticky in that outside corner spot opposite Kool Aid, who was stellar in his own right. Downs jumped off the screen and Jaylen Key grabbed an interception in his first Alabama contest.

Unfortunately, Key and fellow starter Malachi Moore both left with injuries that Saban said will be evaluated today. If you have followed Saban at all, you know that he is quick to point out when an injury isn’t a concern in the postgame press conference. These two are concerning, and that is the last thing that you want to see in these types of games. Kristian Story came in for Key and seemed to do fine, and Trey Amos was the next man up at corner. He came in at the outside spot and Arnold moved to Star. If Moore is unable to go, we’ll see if that will be the gameplan or if Earl Little Jr. will get his shot.

Final takeaway

In general, it’s tough not to be encouraged by what we saw tonight. This is a brand of football that seems to fit the personnel, and thanks to simplicity it should be sustainable. Next up are the Texas Longhorns, and we’ll know quite a bit more about this Alabama squad after that one.

Roll Tide.