Alabama’s football team had its first day of spring practice March 11, then took time off for The University’s spring break. The Crimson Tide returns to the practice field Monday for its second day of work.
Alabama will practice only three days this week. Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban explained that the one day of work prior to spring break was because of Easter falling during practice time and him wanting to give the players the Saturday off before Easter, which is next Sunday. Thus, Bama practices this week will be Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
The Tide will have 15 total practices in the spring, including scrimmages at Bryant-Denny Stadium on April 2 and April 9. The final practice day will be the one practice open to the public, the A-Day Game at 2 p.m. CDT on Saturday, April 16.
The biggest news from the first day of practice before the break was that a number of players would miss all or part of spring work as they recuperate from injuries and/or post-2015 surgeries. The injured include three returning starters – safety Eddie Jackson, defensive end Jonathan Allen, and offensive tackle Cam Robinson.
The silver lining in the cloud of injuries is that when established players have to miss practice repititions, it gives that practice time to others competing for starting jobs or back-up playing time.
Who, then, benefits from these opportunities?
A case can be made that the safety and defensive line spots are most critical for finding new players because the Tide lost two starters on the defensive front – A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed – and one of the two starting safeties – Geno Matias-Smith.
Let’s look first at safety -- an interesting position at Alabama in any event.
Traditionally, the Tide works with left and right safeties in spring practice and fall camp before determining starters at free safety and strong safety. The advantage is that playing left and right gives safeties experience as both free and strong, meaning they are not strangers to either position in the fall.
Moreover, when Kirby Smart departed Alabama as defensive coordinator for the head job at his alma mater, Georgia, at the end of Bama’s 2015 national championship season, Smart took Tide Assistant Coach Mel Tucker – who had coached the safeties – with him as defensive coordinator for the Bulldogs.
One of Alabama’s three new assistant coaches for the 2016 season is Derrick Ansley, who will work with safeties. Ansley was a graduate assistant at Bama in the 2010 and 2011 seasons and since has coached at Tennessee and Kentucky. (The other new assistants are Jeremy Pruitt, replacing Smart as defensive coordinator and coach of inside linebackers, and Brent Key, coaching centers and guards.)
Jackson was All-Southeastern Conference and second team All-America last year as a junior as he had six interceptions for 230 yards in returns, including two touchdown runbacks. He has what Saban described as a “leg” injury.
Most expect Ronnie Harrison, a 6-3, 218-pound sophomore who had big moments last year, to earn one of the starting jobs, but there will be good competition.
The Alabama football world has been waiting for Laurence “Hootie” Jones, a 6-2, 219-pound junior, to break out, and he may have his best chance this spring.
Deionte Thompson, a 6-2, 183-pound redshirt freshman, is good enough athlete that he has worked both at safety and at wide receiver, but has been designated defense for the start of spring practice.
Also expected to be working at safety is 6-1, 205-pound sophomore Shawn Burgess-Becker.
Other defensive backs may get work at safety, or even at the other defensive back positions, particularly Star (more or less the nickel back, and held down most of last year by Minkah Fitzpatrick, who we have penciled in at the cornerback spot vacated by Cyrus Jones).