It has long been settled that a spring football game has numerous limitations when it comes to making a true assessment of a football team. In some cases, though, those limitations – providing the players for both teams, two-hand touch on the quarterbacks, offense familiar with the defense and defense familiar with the offense, everything vanilla to protect against scouting, etc. – can’t hide overall judgment.
Getting to the bottom line, Alabama is going to have a very good football team in 2017. There are many keys to that general conclusion. For instance, if the biggest concern is field goal kicking, even after Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban has said he expects that issue to be resolved when the full team reports in August, then there’s not much to worry about.
Saturday’s A-Day Game was the conclusion of one part of the process of being ready for Florida State on Sept. 2 in Atlanta. This team started preparation shortly after the end of last season with the off-season program, will continue with the summer conditioning and pass skel drills, and then have a fall camp.
Saban could not have made this point more forcefully (nor should he have had to) in his post-game remarks. Although everyone seems to be amused by Saban’s insistence that there is no depth chart (he calls it a “rep chart,” but if it walks like a duck…). Those of us who use a depth chart (even our own) to better organize our thoughts (which is different than being obsessed with knowing the real depth chart) understand Saban’s point of keeping the competition going.
Our only conclusion today, though, is how crowded the depth chart is at so many position. And that is a very, very good thing.
We have some takeaways from the A-Day Game in which the No. 1 offense was pitted against the No. 1 defense and twos against the twos, and we think it makes the point that Bama is looaaaddded.
Takeaway No. 1 – We have never believed that last year’s Southeastern Conference Offensive Player of the Year, Jalen Hurts, was in danger of losing his job to Tua Tagovailoa this spring. Hurts won the job last year, took Alabama to the brink of the national championship, and has the extraordinary advantage of a year’s experience in college football at the highest level.
The performance by Hurts in the A-Day Game was very solid. There was one throw that is almost unexplainable, his lone interception which came at the goalline. Overall, though, he completed 16-25 for 301 yards and 2 touchdowns. He had completions of 65, 60, and 50 yards. And this was done without benefit of really being able to use his considerable running skills owing to the aforementioned limitations.
And the performance by Hurts is only part of Takeaway No. 1. True freshman Tua Tagovailoa came in with great expectations, and he hasn’t disappointed. It’s not just that he has a Joe Namth-type quick release and that he throws lasers on target, though those traits are obviously important. The most impressive thing about Tua (which will be our common use of his name in writing and speaking) is his confidence and composure. He looked veteran-like as he completed 17-29 passes for 313 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Rather than a quarterback controversy, Alabama has quarterback comfort, a level of security that was missing last season.
Takeaway No. 2 – The last thing Saban and company worry about is having too many tailbacks.
Alabama’s top two running backs from last year’s 14-1 Crimson Tide, Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, were held out of the A-Day Game as they recuperate from injuries, as was B.J. Emmons. That left only Josh Jacobs from the primary contributors last season.
No problem. First of all, Jacobs reminded us of why he can be a solid part of the running back rotation with his tough inside work. He also caught four passes.
Brian Robinson, a true freshman from Tuscaloosa, got the nod to play with the first team offense.
But the runner everyone wanted to see was Najee Harris, the nation’s No. 1 prospect in the 2017 signing class. He didn’t disappoint. Najee has that knack of turning what looks like a one-yard run into four or five yards. In addition to that toughness, he showed speed and the ability to make quick cuts. Harris also caught three passes for 37 yards.
No wonder people were wondering how he would do on pass protection. There wasn’t anything else to be concerned about.
Takeaway No. 3 – It’s good to have Calvin Ridley back in the wide receiving corps, but what about losses – ArDarius Stewart leaving early for hopes of an NFL career and Gehrig Dieter finished after his graduate transfer season in the slot?
How about Ridley 2.0? Jerry Jeudy comes from the same neck of the Florida woods as Ridley and the true freshman hardly could look more like the original on the football field.
Ridley was very good Saturday with four catches for 102 yards, but that was no surprise. The surprise was the quality depth from newcomers Jeudy (5 catches, 134 yards, 2 touchdowns) and redshirt freshman T.J. Simmons (6 catches, 82 yards, 1 TD).
And it was very pleasing to see the return of Robert Foster. Foster was widely rumored to be planning to graduate this spring and then move to another school. For whatever reason, the move of former Wide Receivers Coach Billy Napier to Arizona State as offensive coordinator and the elevation of Mike Locksley from offensive analyst to coaching the wide receivers made a difference to Foster. He caught only two passes, but those were excellent examples of his speed and ability, receptions of 65 and 50 yards.
Somewhat like running back, there is satisfying depth at wide receiver. It was a bit of a surprise that we didn’t see true freshman Tyrell Shavers, the 6-6, 209-pound wideout from Texas.
Incidentally, Jeudy was winner of the Dixie Howell Memorial Award as the most outstanding player in the game, and he received our vote.
Takeaway No. 4 – There’s another receiver missing from the Alabama lineup this year. O.J. Howard has taken his considerable talent (perhaps underused at Bama) to the NFL. There is also a new offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll, who coached tight ends for the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, and a new tight ends coach in Joe Pannunzio.
We didn’t expect the tight ends to take over the A-Day scrimmage, but we did want to see how they might be utilized. As with most everything about the public game, there wasn’t a great revelation, but we couldn’t help but notice the somewhat forgotten candidate at tight end – Irv Smith, Jr. The 6-4, 243-pound redshirt freshman was very solid as a receiver with 3 receptions for 37 yards. Traditional tight end Hale Hentges had 1 catch for 5 yards and Miller Forristall, who has been used primarily as the H (slot) tight end, had 1 for 21 (and also took a game-ending hit).
Ronnie Clark has made the move from the crowded tailback position to that H back and also had a catch. Major Tennison didn’t show up in the A-Day Game, but observers of Bama spring practices are high on the 6-5, 244-pound true freshman.
Takeaway No. 5 – Not to overlook the defense, but because there were good things, and really no concerns, and because we’re just like everyone else and mostly watch the ball, most of our takeaways were on offense. But here is one for the defense.
We didn’t have a problem with defensive end/nose tackle (he played both) Raekwon Davis being selected winner of the Dwight Stephenson Award as the most outstanding lineman in the A-Day Game, but our vote went to linebacker Keith Holcombe.
Alabama has a base defense with four linebackers. The Tide had none of those who started in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game win over Florida in the A-Day Game.
Shaun Dion Hamilton will be back in the fall after recuperating from knee surgery after his injury in that SEC title game. Gone are Reuben Foster, Tim Williams, and Ryan Anderson.
Rashaan Evans was practically a starter last year, and he was a starter in the final two games after the injury to Hamilton and expected to be a starter this year, either at inside or outside.
Otherwise, everyone expects the likes of Christian Miller, Anfernee Jennings, Mack Wilson, Terrell Hall, Mekhi Brown, Ben Davis, and so on to be the stud linebackers. So do we, but who couldn’t be impressed with Holcombe. He is playing baseball as well as practicing football in the spring, he needs surgery on his shoulder (he doesn’t even know when he hurt it), and he went out and had 3 primary tackles, 2 sacks for 12 yards in losses, and 7 assists.
Takeaway No. 6 – One more for the defense. Although there may have been some concerns about the lone new starter in the secondary, Trevon Diggs, we attributed his plays when beaten by the receivers to be more a compliment to the offense than a complaint about his defense.
That’s the problem with playing against yourself: both the offense and the defense can’t look good on most plays.
We were generally satisfied with the play of those expected to be No. 1 in the secondary – Diggs at left cornerback, Anthony Averett at right cornerback, Ronnie Harrison at safety (despite his dumb targeting penalty that helped the Crimson win the game), Minkah Fitzpatrick at strong safety, and Tony Brown at Star (nickel).
But the man that caught our eye was one-time walk-on Levi Wallace, the 6-0, 181-pound senior cornerback. Wallace had an interception and broke up two passes and was in on four tackles in his role as a backup.
And now, we wait for fall camp and greater anticipation of the 2017 campaign.