1. What was the story of practice in Tuscaloosa this spring? Another title, another NFL class, more newbies working their way in, ho-hum?
On January 9th, the immediate question became, “how heated is the Spring quarterback battle going to be,” followed closely by “when/where will Jalen Hurts transfer.”
Instead, we were treated to one the quietest springs since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. Part of that was due to the injury to Tagovailoa’s throwing hand the very first day of camp. The rest of it was the exceptional message control coming out of the Mal Moore Complex. Minimizing extraneous chatter, keeping everyone on the same page, avoiding the Rat Poison, Alabama just stuck with its regular spring camp.
The real story wound up being an almost-entirely new look coaching staff that is significantly younger and more energetic. Last year, going into the early signing period, Saban noted how flat-footed he was caught by it and what a difficult transition it is was. So, he looked nationally for younger guys with regional diversity who could hit the national trail. Then he paid or promoted those guys and turned them loose: Josh Gattis, Tosh Lupoi, Craig Scott, Coach Kool, etc... At this time last year, Alabama had two commitments and wasn’t sniffing the top of the recruiting rankings. This year, Alabama has almost half its class lined up and is No. 1 with a bullet...again. He will forever get credit for some ballsy plays made in big games, but what he has done this offseason may actually be one of Saban’s better coaching feats.
2. Update us on the quarterback situation. Tua Tagovailoa’s injury status, and whether Jalen Hurts plans on sticking around to the fall?
I think you know what the rest of us do: Tua’s injury wound up being as good as it could be — a simple bone break that healed quickly and cleanly and which required no surgery. He was ready to play by the A-Day game. Saban has made a lot of noise about playing both he and Hurts, even working in a two-quarterback system. And, as loathe as he is to play two guys, that he would make that concession is remarkable and shows that he’s serious about it.
Tua can do a lot of the things Jalen can do, but the inverse is not necessarily true...and I don’t think we want to give the southpaw 120 carries either. But, let’s not forget Mac Jones, the lost man in all of this. I was high on Jones last year, though it was plan the IMG grad/Elite 11 prospect definitely needed a year of seasoning before he would remotely be ready to compete. He wound up having the best spring of all the quarterbacks, while Hurts looked to be stuck in neutral again. There’s no indication that, aside from a preference for playing veterans, Hurts could beat out Jones for the backup role in a blind taste test, so to speak.
So, this has one of two likely endings, albeit with a few foundational probabilities: Tua as starter, with packages for Hurts all year. Jones as the third QB understudy. Hurts graduates in Spring and then 1) changes positions to enhance his pro value and stays at Alabama or 2) transfers to a pass-happy conference, playing against simplified defenses, to try and work on his passing enough to make it as a pro QB. And though he’ll get snaps and plenty of chances for Tua to beat him out in practice, I think it’s pretty clear the competition was basically over on January 8th.
3. New coordinators on both offense and defense — any expected changes?
On defense, there are certain to be changes, though maybe not for the best immediately. You can’t lose the best signal caller Saban’s had and get better. There are apt to be adjustments as Lupoi learns his job as a DC. He’s coached the front seven, and is naturally aggressive, so I would expect to see a lot of pressure: the outside linebacker corps almost dictates that.
But, he’s not left to the tender mercy of the SEC either. Guys with serious experience coaching DBs (Josh Golding, Craig Scott) were brought in to bring him along. And, in the case of Golding, the experience is there as a DC in the 3-4 multiple scheme Saban runs. Call it a behind-closed-doors defensive coordinator by committee while Papa Bear teaches everyone how the moving parts work. Lupoi’s promotion was an investment in the future. And he’s going to have to learn on the job.
Offensively, all we have to go on (aside from some A-Day games) are prior results from Mike Locksley’s tenure with Illinois during the time of Rashard Mendenhall and Juice Williams. I think you will see a generally balanced offense out of the pro-spread, with a bias towards vertical shots, some calculated tempo changes, and enough keepers and read-option plays to keep the linebackers at home. I don’t think we see nearly the number of carries from under center that we have the last two years either. The running back corps is too good and too deep to not put the ball in their hands when it’s time to make hay with the ground game. Alabama’s standard 55:45-percent pass:run ratio seems likely, with the backs getting 90 percent or so of those carries and guys like Josh Jacobs making significant contributions as a swing/screen guy and safety valve target.
4. Any surprises or newcomers to know about?
The entire secondary? No, really. I mean the entire starting secondary is new. So, we’ll talk about that. Gone are corners Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace; safeties Hootie Jones, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Ronnie Harrison; and nickelback/mad man Crazy Tony Brown. There are some new guys to watch, to be sure. I’ve been high on Jared Mayden and he will contribute as an extra corner/safety — anyone that earned a few snaps in Death Valley as a true freshman has potential, no?
The year-old/year-wiser outstanding safety tandem of Xavier McKinney and Daniel Wright will see a ton of time, with McKinney likely earning a start at safety. Saivion Smith (LSU fans will recall him. Heh.) has been outstanding. That corner spot was practically locked down the day he arrived. So, let’s go with the guy that I think is going to be an immediate superstar this year: Deionte Thompson at Free Safety. He’s long, athletic, tall, has great hands, can be a two-way player at receiver, and he’s also got a serious mean streak in him. He’s a lot more physical than his lanky frame suggests. The secondary is full of these positionless defensive backs that Alabama in particular is gravitating towards, and it would be nice to see Shyheim Carter make contributions, as well as Josh Jobe get his eligibility up to snuff — there’s playing time to be had for both.
5. Any real concerns outside of the potential quarterback transfer?
To be honest, I don’t think that there’s a transfer until Spring. Hurts will be eligible for grad transfer then and will not have to sit out a year, as he would if he left in Summer. He’s beloved by fans, coaches, and the team. He’ll get plenty of snaps and stay in the consciousness of potential suitors, even if he’s not the starter: But, yeah “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.”
Now, Special Teams is a possible concern. Alabama’s return game has been abysmal the past two seasons, and I don’t know that it’s gotten any better in the Spring. And, you don’t lose a three-time All-American punter and suddenly become better in the field position game. The kicking game looks to have been upgraded with Temple grad transfer Austin Jones. And, the guy who took a year to get stronger and more accurate, Joseph Bulovas, had a very good spring and a good A-Day game. But, well, we’ve seen that what happens when the game is on the line is a very different critter.