Alabama Football: A-Day Observations

The Alabama Crimson Tide football team concluded spring practice on Saturday with the annual A-Day game in front of an announced crowd of 92,380. The Tide continues to draw ridiculous numbers to their spring game every year since Nick Saban took over as head coach in 2007.

Directly following the alumni flag football game, fans in the stadium were treated to watching the unveiling of the Nick Saban Statue in the Walk of Champions with former players and coaches turning out for the event.

The QB competition remains unsolved following the A-Day game.

But, the main focus was on the football field as we got to see what this Crimson Tide team brings to the table following the departure of a few key parts from last season’s 10-win team.

I was in attendance for the game, and I’m going to give you a rundown of each position and the outlook of it as of the end of spring.

Quarterback

All 92,380 sets of eyes in Bryant-Denny Stadium and everyone else watching around the globe were on the QB battle between sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. Both QB’s took reps with the first and second team offenses. McCarron worked with the first team offense in the first half, and Phillip Sims worked with the first team in the second half.

Sims led the White team in the first half to a 10-7 lead, but that was thanks to a 96-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Mark Barron. Sims quarterbacked the Crimson team to the win in the second half with a long touchdown drive that was capped off by a touchdown run from freshman Dee Hart. The Crimson team ended up winning the game 14-10.

The two QB’s vying for the starting job put up nearly identical numbers in yesterday’s scrimmage. The numbers:

McCarron: 21/38 222 Yards 1 TD 1 INT

Sims: 19/38 229 Yards 0 TD 1 INT

The numbers are eerily similar with McCarron completing two more passes than Sims, and Phillip throwing for seven more yards. Both QB’s threw an interception with AJ McCarron also fumbling a snap from center William Vlachos.

Neither QB really took advantage of the opportunity in front of the fans and significantly outplayed the other. The battle between the two will continue throughout the summer and preseason practices before anything is decided.

I wouldn’t completely rule out a two-QB system, although I don’t want to want to see it. From where I was sitting in Bryant-Denny, I thought Sims slightly played better than McCarron with Sims being victimized by a few dropped passes and Marquis Maze stopping on a go-route that looked to be thrown perfectly to him.

Sims looked very good in getting out of the pocket and throwing the ball on the run.

Blake Sims also played well in the time that he saw at QB in the A-Day game and Nick Saban said that he brings another dimension to the offense that the other two can’t with his ability to run the ball. I could see Saban putting Blake in as the QB in the Wildcat formation to keep defenders from swarming toward the run with his ability to throw the football downfield.

Regardless of who is the starting QB for the Crimson Tide in 2011, they should be in pretty good hands and I have complete faith in Saban and this coaching staff to put the best guy out there.

Running Back

This is a deep position for the Crimson Tide. We all know how good Trent Richardson is, and he looked even better than ever in yesterday’s scrimmage. With the Tide ushering in a new QB, Richardson should be a workhorse for the Tide running the ball, but he also should be a huge factor in the receiving game.

Richardson looks to be ready to make his own run toward the Heisman Trophy this season.

Trent Richardson was the MVP of the game.

While Richardson should get the bulk of the carries this season, Eddie Lacy is a very solid backup running back and he will see an increased role in 2011. He’s quicker, bigger, and stronger than he was last season. He had a couple impressive runs during the A-Day game where he simply would not go down.

He seems to be taking care of the ball better, which was the #1 thing he had to work on from last season.

True freshman Dee Hart seems to have supplanted Demetrius Goode as the team’s 3rd running back. Hart saw more carries and was on the field a lot longer than Goode was yesterday. For Goode, it seems like he’ll never get a meaningful carry with the Tide.

Hart looks like a smaller version of Trent Richardson. He needs to bulk up some to be a more effective player on this level, but he is a very instinctive runner. He struggled at times running the ball, but he did break a 17-yard touchdown run in the second half that proved to the game winner for the Crimson squad.

Hart will see early playing time in the backfield and is a capable receiver out of the backfield and should also be a factor in the return game.

Receiving

The absence of Julio Jones continues to be a glaring hole in the Alabama receiving game. I said after he declared for the draft that he was not a player that could be replaced and it was obvious during the spring game. Alabama’s receiving looks shaky at best at the conclusion of the spring.

Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze are the top two receivers, but neither of them are true #1’s and neither seems to be ready to step into that role. Behind those two, it’s a mad scramble for the #3 receiver slot. Senior Brandon Gibson looks to be the most capable of stepping in and seeing significant playing time this season.

Alabama looks to be pretty solid with three capable tight ends in Michael Williams, Brad Smelley, and Brian Vogler.

Of course, while this unit does look pretty shaky, transfer Duron Carter will arrive in the summer and should provide some much needed help for the Crimson Tide in the receiving game. He has the look for a #1 WR and it wouldn’t surprise me a single bit if he ended up being the leading receiver for Alabama in 2011.

Offensive Line

The Barrett Jones to LT experiment during spring practice seems to be a permanent move for the Tide’s top lineman. Jones played right guard last season, but he has made a smooth transition over to left tackle and he played at the position during the entire scrimmage for the Crimson team.

It was expected that junior college transfer Aaron Douglas and Alfred McCullough would battle to start at left tackle, but both of those guys worked with the second unit yesterday as Douglas scrimmaged at left tackle, and McCullough played his more natural position of left guard.

The move by Jones to left tackle shows for one that Douglas and McCullough weren’t performing up to par with the standard that has been set on the offensive line. It also shows the improvement made by Anthony Steen from last season as he worked with the 1’s at right guard.

After the conclusion of the game, Steen was one of four recipients of the Bart Starr most improved player award. Steen has come a long way from being Jones’ backup last season, and he looked pretty solid yesterday.

William Vlachos is getting back to his 2009 form and he finished off a great spring with a good performance in the scrimmage. He was awarded the Paul Crane offensive lineman award.

Chance Warmack remains the starting left guard, and DJ Fluker is still the starting right tackle. Alabama has pretty solid depth with capable backups on the offensive line with the likes of Aaron Douglas, Alfred McCullough, and Arie Kouandjio among others. The Tide will add some depth in the summer with the addition of five-star offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio into the mix.

Defensive Line

I was a little surprised to see junior college nose guard Jesse Williams working entirely with the second unit yesterday, as well as Quinton Dial, but their lack of time working with the defensive line could be the reason why.

Josh Chapman may handle the nose for the Tide in 2011.

Josh Chapman has taken a significant step forward at the nose, and that could be another reason for Williams not starting. Damion Square and Ed Stinson joined Chapman on the line as the starting defensive ends.

Darrington Sentimore also rotated in as a defensive end. Stinson has taken a tremendous step forward and his work was acknowledged after the game with the Billy Neighbors defensive lineman award.

Regardless of who ends up starting on the defensive line, Alabama has pretty good depth along the line with Williams and Dial currently serving as backups and Nick Gentry being capable as well.

Linebackers

The deepest position on the team for the Tide is at linebacker. Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw lead the stout unit. Hightower is in much better shape than he was last season. He looks bigger and quicker than he was last season, and big things should be expected from one of the captains.

Courtney Upshaw was largely held in check yesterday afternoon by Barrett Jones, but he did blow past Jones once to record a sack. Hopefully, Upshaw will continue the momentum he gained late last season into a big senior season.

Accompanying Hightower and Upshaw at linebacker are CJ Mosley and Nico Johnson/Jerrell Harris. Mosley was great last season as a true freshman, and has improved going into his sophomore season. Mosley received the Woodrow Lowe linebacker award for his efforts this spring.

Jerrell Harris has the inside track at starting at the other outside linebacker spot with Nico Johnson being more of an inside guy. Harris has improved a lot this spring and was recognized for it with the Bart Star most improved player award.

After the starters, Alabama has a bevy of talented linebackers highlighted by Nico Johnson, who will see a lot of playing time. Chris Jordan, Adrian Hubbard, Alex Watkins, Tana Patrick, and freshman Trey DePriest are all capable backup linebackers.

DePriest should see early playing time thanks to having the college size. He’s raw, but he should turn out to be a really good player for the Crimson Tide.

Defensive Backs

This was an area of weakness for the Crimson Tide last season, but it has quickly turned into an area of strength with the young guys from last season turning into some seasoned veterans. Saban has spoke highly of Dre Kirkpatrick, Dee Milliner, and DeQuan Menzie at cornerback, saying that all three should be starting.

The defense looked strong, highlighted by Barron's 96-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

Menzie has improved a lot and was awarded the Bobby Johns defensive back award after the game. Alabama has three strong corners, and solid depth behind the big three. Phelon Jones was particularly impressive yesterday and he should be a factor in dime packages for the Crimson Tide.

Even with a black non-contact jersey on, Mark Barron participated in the A-Day game, and had a big impact highlighted by his 96-yard fumble return for a touchdown. He and Robert Lester return as starters from last season.

All in all, Alabama has a lot of talent in the defensive backfield, and they won’t have to endure growing pains again in 2011.

Special Teams

Cade Foster is still not accurate enough to hold down the starting kicking job himself. Jeremy Shelley should continue to be used for shorter kicks and extra points. Foster will handle the longer kicks and kicking off.

Cody Mandell was the starting punter last season, but he may have been supplanted by Jay Williams. Williams punted better than Mandell last season, and the punting as a whole was a lot better than it was during last year’s A-Day abomination.

Trent Richardson will continue to be used on kick returns as he was joined by Darius Hanks as the first team kick returners. Marquis Maze didn’t work with the first team punt return, as Keiwone Malone did instead. Maze should still be a factor in both return games.

I could also see Dee Hart and DeAndrew White being factors in the return game moving forward. I’d prefer not having Richardson back there returning kicks, with the added possibility of him getting injured.

This A-Day game should be thought of as a success, even though we saw some things that need to be fixed before the opening kickoff in September. But, the good news is that there were no added injuries in yesterday’s scrimmage.

I was very impressed with the way the defense played yesterday, and the offense looked good at times. There is still a long way to go before the Tide opens up the season against Kent State and a few talented players will be added to the roster before the open of the season.

The real question is how in the world can I last five more months without football? Football season can’t get here soon enough.