Ah, Spring, when a football coach’s fancy turns to practice, and the opportunity to look at some players in new positions. Experimentation of players at different positions is a staple of Alabama spring football practice (and at many other schools), in part to find the best spots for the players and in part to have insurance for what may arise during the Fall season.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban has a history of working men at various positions. Although the experiments are sometimes short-lived, a few become permanent. In any event, if a player has worked at more than one position, it can prove valuable should the need arise for him to make that move at a later date. For one thing, the coaches will know which players might be suited to such a move. For another, if the player does move, it is helpful if he has some history working at the new position.
Saban said, “We do a lot of experimenting in the spring. We want to know who can do what so we know how to put the pieces together in the fall, so we move guys around and play them at different positions, and we'll do a lot of that.”
There have been just two practice days this Spring, but already Saban is looking at Ross Pierschbacher, a starting guard last season, at center, and Rashaan Evans, a pass-rushing specialist at outside linebacker last season, working at inside linebacker.
Alabama lost two All-America players at those positions from last season, Ryan Kelly at center and Reggie Ragland at inside linebacker.
Rashaan Evans, a 6-3, 230-pound junior, was used as an outside pass rusher in Bama’s 2015 national championship season. Of his 10 tackles last year, four were sacks, totaling 28 yards. He also was credited with three quarterback pressures.
Saban said Evans “has done a very good job,” in his few days at inside linebacker. The Tide’s base defense includes two inside linebackers, Will (weakside) and Mike (middle). Reuben Foster was the weakside linebacker last year and returns as an inside starter for 2016.
Saban said Evans was recruited “because he had a great fast twitch ability to rush on the edge, and he did a good job of that last year. We still have every plan to use him at that, but we were looking at where can he best develop as an every-down position player.
“I've been impressed with what he's been able to do so far. He is naturally instinctive at it, so it's just going to be a matter of him learning the position, and him being a linebacker, I don't think that's something that will be overly difficult for him to do."
While Ross Pierschbacher, a 6-4, 304-pound third-year sophomore, is an offensive lineman, center is quite a bit different position than the left guard spot where Pierschbacher started all 15 games last season. He came to Alabama ranked the number four guard prospect in the nation by Scout.com.
Offensive line blocking includes many intricacies regardless of the scheme, and Alabama uses three types – zone, gap, and man.
Saban said, “I think I think the center is an important part of any of those schemes in terms of what he does. What our center does for us that makes him even more important is he's sort of the leader of the front in terms of making the calls, pointing out the Mike (linebacker), which tells everybody who they should block and who they're working to, especially when they're zone blocking.
“We've tried Ross there and he's done a really nice job through two practices.” The coach noted that the team hasn’t been in full gear yet – that happens with Wednesday’s third practice of the spring – “so we can’t really tell much about that.”
The Tide coach called the center position “critical.”
He said, “I think, in terms of handling the ball every snap, and developing confidence with the quarterback that we're not going to have problems when it comes to that part of the game, the exchange and gun snaps and all those things. It's also really important that the guy can reach somebody. If you're going to be a zone blocking team, it's important to play with a certain amount of power so they don’t get a lot of penetration inside. We obviously lost a great player at that position and it's going to be critical for us to be able to develop somebody who can play it in the fall."
Saban pointed out Pierschbacher’s attributes. He said, "I think that experience is always a valuable commodity for any player, but you look at certain types of players in terms of 'What are their assets?' Quickness, moving feet, balance, and body control are really assets of being a good center. Playing with power is somewhere in there.
“So we have several guys on our team that we said 'We're going to look at these guys at center.' And we want to know if we have other people besides J.C. (J.C. Hassenauer, a 6-2, 297-pound junior was Kelly’s back-up last year) who have played center here that could play in the fall, because that will give us the best opportunity to put our best five offensive linemen on the field, whether they're playing tackle, guard or center.
“We feel like Ross has those attributes as a player. So he was a natural to take a look at that position."
Bama defensive lineman Dalvin Tomlinson admitted after Monday’s practice that he needed to take a look at Pierschbacher at center, too.
Tomlinson said, “It was weird to me because I always see him as guard. Every now and again I am supposed to be in the three technique (outside the guard) and he’s the guard.” But when Tomlinson lined up against Pierschbacher Monday, he realized he was head up on the center, accidentally playing nose.”
Tomlinson added that Piershbacher at center “has been doing pretty good.”