After The Spring, How Does It Look?

One of the more interesting things about covering spring practice at Alabama (or any major football power) is trying to figure out what's going on when it comes to position battles. Figuring out starters isn't too hard, other than cases where the coach says the competition is still open. Figuring out backups can be a completely different, and more difficult, animal.

Below are some observations based not just on A-Day (though mostly), but also on short viewing periods allowed before other Alabama spring workouts.

A lot has been made of the position battles at both quarterback and left tackle. After the A-Day scrimmage, there is still no apparent leader at either, though Barrett Jones took all the snaps with the ones Saturday at left tackle. Jones may indeed play there when Alabama opens the season, if transfer Aaron Douglas or senior Alfred McCullough does not win the slot. That's because offensive line coaches tend to put the best five on the field at one time, and it may well be that Jeff Stoutland (and Nick Saban) think right guard Anthony Steen is one of the best five. If that's the case Kent State week, look for Jones at left tackle.

As far as the quarterbacks go, neither A.J. McCarron nor Phillip Sims has the job in hand. That situation is not likely to clear up until after the season starts, and both may play every game, for that matter, regardless of who starts.

"Both guys have leadership qualities, and both guys seem to have the respect of their teammates," said Saban. Saturday, combined stats of the quarterbacks playing for both teams showed Sims going 19-38 for 229 yards with one interception. McCarron was 21-38, one TD, one pick and 222 yards.

For those who exclaim, "Nick Saban is a one-quarterback coach," please refer to LSU, circa 2004. That year, redshirt freshman JaMarcus Russell and senior Marcus Randall both saw meaningful time in every game both were healthy for.

Keeping with the offense, a legitimate question that has not been answered yet: Who is the No. 3 receiver that will join starters Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze in three-wide sets? For now, it appears that senior Brandon Gibson has that job, but red-shirt freshman DeAndrew White and incoming transfer Duron Carter will have something to say about that, too. Also getting looks are Kevin Norwood (three catches, 53 yards) and Kenny Bell (three for 49 yards), but the third man will likely be Gibson, White or Carter. As was the case last year at A-Day, Gibson looked good. He had five catches for 54 yards.

"I've worked really hard on my route-running and my release off the line," said Gibson, who added that receivers coach Al Groh "wants us to be technicians."

Who is the starting H-back? It appears Tuscaloosa senior Brad Smelley has held off fellow three-time letterman Chris Underwood there, but Underwood has come a long way as a receiver and will continue to fight for time.

Defensively, who's the backup Jack linebacker to Courtney Upshaw? Alex Watkins held that job until a knee injury ended his spring prematurely. Since that time, red-shirt freshman Adrian Hubbard has stepped in and stepped up. He and Watkins will have a spirited battle there in August.

A battle continues at the Mike linebacker slot. Nico Johnson appears to have a slight edge, but third-down ace C.J. Mosley is coming on strong and could be the every-down guy by the Kent State game. Saturday, Mosley had nine stops and a quarterback hurry, while Johnson made four tackles, one for a loss.

Turning to special teams, the punting job is not likely to be settled until Kent State week. Neither last year's starter, walk-on Cody Mandell, nor scholarship red-shirt freshman Jay Williams has seized the job. Saturday, Mandell had a 39-yard average on seven punts, while Williams had four for an average of 47. The long for Mandell was 49 yards, while Williams' best effort was 53.

Who will return kicks? On kickoffs, the top two are Trent Richardson and Hanks. Maze is the top punt returner, with true freshman Dee Hart coming on strong. Saban has said he'd like to find someone other than his starting halfback to return kickoffs. Hanks could eventually be joined back there by Maze or Hart, among others.

What's going on at place-kicker? Not much seems to have changed, as Cade Foster is still the kickoff and long field goal man, while Jeremy Shelley still seems to be the extra point/short field goal guy.

A few backups at key positions may have surfaced during the scrimmage. It's not been known for a while who would take over at long-snapper should Carson Tinker be unable to go. Saturday, walk-on Kelly Johnson handled those duties for the White team. At the holder position, McCarron is still the top guy, but his backup appears to be walk-on receiver Hardie Buck of Vestavia. Buck is already a stalwart on most of the Tide's special teams.

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