I have seen the Alabama players practice this year. Media has been allowed a brief glimpse each day, sometimes as few as five minutes, sometimes as much as half an hour. That time is limited to periods in which players are doing individual drills. That is, the linebackers are all doing linebacker things together, the quarterbacks are a mile away doing their footwork and passes, etc.
Visitors who have seen team work include high school coaches and prospects, former Alabama football players, big dog donors, and for one scrimmage members of the Red Elephant Club. And I inadvertently saw a few team plays when I was walking into Coleman Coliseum to make my Tide Pride contribution. (Inadvertent until the drill -- one back offense -- moved out of sight.)
So what should you and I look for Saturday?
First of all, we should expect the A-Day Game to be of a vanilla flavor. Don't expect Nick Saban to go to all this trouble to keep 14 practices secret and then give it all away on Saturday.
After what Simeon Castille said following Tuesday's practice, I'll look to make sure I can tell the difference between last year's defensive alignment and this year's. Castille said it will look the same as last year, but that people who really know football will see a huge difference.
I've heard Saban explain it. He has said it is either a 3-4 or a 4-3 and that usually there are five defensive backs with the fifth DB replacing a linebacker. Which sounds a lot like 3-3, which is primarily what Alabama was in last year. But Bama was never in a 3-4 last year, and we know from talking to players that there are four linebackers.
I'll watch the noseguard. From all reports, the top surprise of the spring has been the play of Bryan Motley, a former offensive lineman, at defensive tackle. Almost no football team has enough defensive tackles, but even if you're running a three-man front you've got to have at least one.
I'll watch the former defensive linemen -- Keith Saunders, Brandon Fanney and Ezekial Knight -- at linebacker. I'm pretty sure I can expect Darren Mustin to hold his own at an inside linebacker spot beside Prince Hall. But who is the other outside linebacker? I'm particularly anxious to see Cory Reamer.
Who are the safeties? In the past, Rashad Johnson was the best of those returning. But there has to be at least one more. Marcus Carter was a starter last year. Justin Woodall and Sam Burnthall have shown promise. Is Chris Rogers at safety? Ali Sharrief moved from running back to safety, but we don't know if that is still an experiment or if it's a position change.
We know that Simeon Castille is at right cornerback when he's not at ‘Star,' the nickel back position. Who is the left cornerback? Who is the right corner when Castille is starring? There are a lot of candidates -- Lionel Mitchell, Eric Gray (who has missed work with injury), Marquis Johnson, Kareem Jackson, Tremayne Coger, and Javier Arenas.
I'm like 99.9 per cent of football fans in that I mainly watch the football, meaning the quarterback, running backs, and receivers. But I'll force myself to watch the offensive line. I want to see what's going on at right tackle, where Chris Capps was not a critical success last season and where he is absent because of injury this spring. Michael Johnson, particularly, and Cody Davis have drawn some praise. B.J. Stabler may be at right tackle now, although he has missed some practice time with a sore knee. I want to know what's going on at both guard spots, even though first team players in Justin Britt, and Marlon Davis (and Stabler) are back. Word on the street is that David Ross has been a player at both guard spots. I'll watch center Antoine Caldwell, only because I want to see how Bama noseguards match up against him. I may see Andre Smith just because you can't help but notice him sometimes, but I won't be grading him. I know what Smitty can do.
I'll look to see if Alabama uses a fullback. And, if so, is it Baron Huber?
Watching the quarterbacks will be everyone's wont. What kind of passes and how are they doing with them? I don't expect Jimmy Barnes to play since he's recovering from knee surgery and I wouldn't be surprised to see John Parker Wilson and Greg McElroy both play the entire day since they wear black jerseys, meaning "Do not hit."
By all player accounts, Glen Coffee and Terry Grant have been the top running backs, but Roy Upchurch has had his moments. Jamar Taylor has done well as a newcomer. And we may see where Jimmy Johns is on the Back-in-Favor-with-Saban-Ometer.
Wide receiver is a position that could provide few surprises or produce a surprise Dixie Howell Most Valuable Player Award winner. D.J. Hall is a proven commodity. Keith Brown could be if he could avoid nagging injuries. Nikita Stover probably deserved more playing time last season, and has reportedly had a good spring. Matt Caddell is capable of a big day. Mike McCoy had his season wasted by last year's staff (eight snaps in three games, not counting the snap Tennessee mascot Smokey took out of McCoy's backside during pre-game warmups), but seems to have a bright future.
Regarding special teams, it would not be a surprise to see limitations. There's not much to be gained by having fullspeed kickoffs, and there's plenty to be lost in this hazardous duty. I'd be happy with seeing good placekicking (and reports are that both Jamie Christensen and Leigh Tiffin have been good) and good punting (reports on returning punter P.J. Fitzgerald are sketchy). I know that Arenas can return punt and I'm confident there will be good kickoff return men.
I don't expect to be able to see everything I want to see. That's why I'll record the game, which is being televised by CSS, and watch it again.
Kickoff Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium is at 1 p.m. CDT. Gates open at 11 a.m.