Second Alabama Scrimmage Is Intriguing

Although Saturday’s Alabama scrimmage at Bryant-Denny Stadium is “closed,” that applies to the general public and – particularly – to reporters. There will be several hundred observers, including former players and financial donors, among others.

Many, many years ago when I was an everyday practice observer I learned that just because one is watching doesn’t mean that one knows what to look for. Once I thought that something looked unusual and realized that Alabama was practicing with 12 men on offense and 12 men on defense. After the practice I asked one of the assistant coaches about that.

He said that Coach Paul Bryant thought there might have been a spy in the apartments across from the practice field. So the formations included and extra man on both offense and defense, and only the coaches knew which ones were not part of the scheme.

Sylvester Croom was coaching defensive ends at Alabama. During a television broadcast of a Bama game, the “expert” analyst pointed out a mistake by a Crimson Tide defensive end. Asked about it later, Croom said that the player didn’t make a mistake. He said that he had made a mistake in calling for a stunt that didn’t work against the called play. And he added valuable advice:

“If you don’t know what has been called, you don’t know if a player did the right thing or the wrong thing.”

That may be worth remembering if you happen to be among the privileged watching an Alabama practice. If you see the quarterback overthrow the receiver, it could be that the receiver made a mistake in his route. Or maybe an offensive lineman missed an assignment and forced a hurried pass. Or maybe one of several other things.

The coaches have a big advantage in knowing what was supposed to happen. They also have sophisticated videotape to watch following the scrimmage. And more than any other observers, they just know more about football.

Saturday’s scrimmage will be the second and final scrimmage of the preseason. A guess can be made about some of the things Coach Nick Saban and his staff will be looking for.

In general, the coaches will be looking to see who performs best in the pressure of this scrimmage – “when the bullets are flying,” as Saban puts it. Players have to made decisions on the field as they would in a game, because unlike most practice sessions there are no coaches behind them providing instructions.

Obviously, the ongoing and most consuming question of the preseason continues: Does any of the five quarterback candidates have what it takes to step up as the leader of this football team? There will be a starting quarterback in the first game and Saban certainly would like to know who that man is after this scrimmage.

In the past, the Crimson Tide’s two preseason scrimmages have included a passing scrimmage (which was the case last Saturday) and a run scrimmage. That observation, though, is based on statistics provided by the athletics department and may not paint an exact picture. Saban said that Saturday’s scrimmage would be “more balanced.”

There is a perception that a run scrimmage means, among other things, that action in the trenches between offensive and defensive linemen is tougher -- more intense – than it is in a passing scrimmage.

One possibility is that there will be more passing Saturday is that quarterback isn’t the only position where there could still be questions. Bama is in the process of replacing three starting wide receivers from last year. There’s also the matter of tight end, where O.J. Howard is a different type of player than most of the block-first tight ends have been under Saban.

Working the passing game also works the pass defense game, and that’s an area of interest among Tide fans, certainly.

Also to be considered is that Alabama is somewhat depth poor in running backs, and as Saban said following last week’s scrimmage, he didn’t need to see Derrick Henry running; he knows what Henry can do.

The scrimmage will come two weeks before Alabama opens the season against Wisconsin at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

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