1. Alabama lost its last game, saw some staff turmoil and lost a number of stud talents. How'd that affect spring practice?
Would you believe that it barely created a ripple, at least structurally: The Fourth Quarter program continued; recruiting was again stellar; early enrollees made their way to campus; assistants got raises; Spring Camp began.
Every year at Alabama there are new faces at new positions on the staff and on the roster. Last season it was the defensive coaching staff being entirely retooled. This season, it just happened to be the offense. And, with new coaches, there are obviously new drills, new ways of learning assignments, but the Alabama framework is still there.
I don't like drudging up a man who's been dead for almost 35 years, but I've heard that the comparison to Paul Bryant is apt in that respect: Saban is the hub upon which the spokes attach. As long as he's in town, there won't be that a drastic a change to the program, especially not in response to a one-point loss. It is, as you may have heard a time or three, a Process so to speak.
2. What, if any, changes could be coming to the offense with new coordinator Brian Daboll replacing Lane Kiffin?
I'd like to be able to honestly tell you. We do know Daboll arrived in town with some tricks he picked up from a career in the pros, particularly in the passing game and how the Sunday guys establish a balance of run-pass depending on down, distance, and situation.
Daboll has already established some nice rapport with the offense and is learning the read-zone option spread that has slowly infiltrated the playbook the last three years. So, the learning is a two-way street.
If the A-Day game was any indication, the offense will be far more aggressive in vertical passing this year and will reincorporate the backs into the passing game. Daboll and Co-OC Mike Locksley both called a very aggressive A-Day game when pitted against the other. It is certainly less risk-averse than the West Coast concepts Kiffin introduced, integrating a lot of seam routes and intermediate options to exploit the three-deep shell that has become the base defense for most SEC teams facing the Tide.
3. There was a lot of talk about Jalen Hurts holding on to his job with freshman Tua Tagovailoa on hand. Any real chance that happens?
That was largely offseason controversy given Hurts struggle with the deep and intermediate passing the last third of the season. There is no chance, if healthy, Jalen Hurts loses his starting job. Tua was brought in to compete immediately, and he has. He has probably already locked in the backup spot. He has the best pure arm and is the best pure quarterback of the bunch, and it showed. He looked like a polished all-world player against the second team playing vanilla packages. But, when facing the first team, with Pruitt's aggressive blitzing scheme, he looked like a Freshman playing against an Alabama defense for the first time: Three three-and-outs and a pick-six. He did rebound as the game wore on, and you will see him a lot this season in mop-up and body bag games. But, Hurts is still the best option to win games, and that will not change given his demeanor, athleticism, risk aversion, experience, and improved deep and intermediate passing. There's also the simple matter that he is the team leader, and it shows. This is Jalen Hurts' Alabama team.
4. Who are the new names to know on defense for Bama?
Who's not new on defense is probably the better question. Seven starters off of last year's unit are now drawing NFL paychecks (the other four get their chance next April.) The secondary returns mostly intact, with the addition of some young guys that have real potential: Shyheim Carter and Jared Mayden. They both have game experience — both even played in Baton Rouge this year, both are aggressive, learning their roles more, and have the potential to shine this season. At linebacker, Mack Wilson is another devastating athletic hitter in the mold of Reuben Foster. Christian Miller and Terrell Hall finally get their chance on the outside at Jack. Terrell Hall is obscenely athletic — his pick-six against Tagovailoa showed his power, length, and flat-line speed. On the line none of these names will be new, but expect to see them really come into their own: Da'Shawn Hand can explode this year as a pass rushing phenom. Daron Payne will be drawing first round money next April. He is the most consistent nose of the Saban era, and certainly the strongest. Also not new to LSU fans is JUCO Isaiah Buggs; expect to see him rotate in a lot. He still needs to work on playing within the defense on running plays and maintaining gap discipline, but his motor is without question. If anything, the defense may not be as good against the run as we've seen in the past two years, and the sack numbers will likely drop, but it is a more athletic overall defense. That said, the secondary has the potential to be lit up in the vertical passing game...or have a chance to be among the best in the country. This unit needs consistency.
5. Any major questions or concerns coming out of the spring?
There are a few questions, of course (besides the secondary's consistency.) The right side looks to be shoring up somewhat at tackle, but guard is still a wide-open competition, with three players looking for playing time. I don't think that is a position battle that will be won until the heart of the SEC schedule begins. Kicking is a concern too. Alabama is pinning a lot of hopes on incoming US Army All-American Joseph Bulovas to replace the competent, but unexciting Adam Griffith. I doubt Andy Pappanastos will be able to hold Bulovas off; he did not look very good in the spring game. (No pressure, kid!) Then there's the simple matter of identifying leaders in the front seven. Shaun Dion Hamilton will likely earn the yeoman's share of work there, with Minkah Fitzpatrick quarterbacking the secondary. But, for the first time in a few years, there's not a linebacker you can look to and say "that guy leads the front." We suspect it will be SDH, but who really knows? It could just as easily be first-time starter Rashaan Evans...or no one.
My personal question is how the Co-OCs will split their duties and who will call the games. From an X&O perspective, I thought Mike Locksley probably called the better game and had a better handle on the game flow. And, of course, I wonder about Daboll’s recruiting chops, which is the lifeblood of the program. But, irrespective of recruiting and split duties, you get the feeling this will be a far more aggressive offensive team than we've seen at Alabama under Nick Saban. Having left a lot of points on the field January 9th, I don't think we see that in 2017 out of this hungry, wounded team looking for redemption (and, given the secondary's on-again, off-again play last month they may need the points against elite competition. So, take the over, is what I'm saying.