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Spring Check-In: Alabama

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Our annual peek at springtime for Hitler in Tuscaloosa with Roll Bama Roll’s Brent C. Taylor.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

1. Overall, how would you say spring practices went for the Crimson Tide?

Generally, I’ve come away with a pretty good feeling about the way things have been progressing. There’s been no stupid arrests or unexpected injuries/transfers — knock on wood — so the offseason hasn’t quite hit in full force like it does most years yet. As for the team, the coaches seem to already be keying in on the next starting five on the offensive line, which should help with them being able to get chemistry together early on, rather than the starting five being decided as the season is starting. But, we’ll get into that in one of your later questions.

Most importantly, Nick Saban has been quite ornery about most everything all spring, which is always a good sign for the upcoming year.

2. Tua Tagovailoa’s health was a big question mark down the stretch and through the playoffs last year. How’s he looking?

He looks fine. He says he’s fine. Nick Saban says he’s fine (though he did admit that the media is quite obviously better doctors than the ones in Tuscaloosa, since they knew so much about Tua’s health). To my eye, he looks totally back to normal. The announcers on ESPN during the A-Day were trying to attribute every single errant throw to “tentative footwork” and speculating about the injury, but honestly he just had some throws he missed because he had pressure in his face and was falling backwards. Until I see anything different, I’m pretty sure he’s fine.

3. Bama returns a loaded arsenal of skill talent, but what is the offensive line looking like after a few notable losses?

Honestly, I really like where the O-line is right now. Jedrick Wills, Jr. resumes his role of trying to eviscerate souls from his right tackle spot, and his fellow five-star junior classmate, Alex Leatherwood, is finally moving from right guard to his natural position of left tackle since Jonah Williams is gone. Leatherwood played left tackle when Jonah got injured in the championship game against Georgia and performed admirably before becoming a solid starter at guard all last season.

At center, losing Ross Pierschbacher is losing a lot of experience, but not much athleticism. 4th year junior Chris Owens looks to have locked up that job and should be a more than adequate replacement if not a direct upgrade. Owens was an exceptional pass blocker at both tackle and guard in high school, then moved to guard/center at Alabama and added 20 pounds to be able to hold up against nose tackles in the center. He’s been a top reserve on the cusp of being a starter for years, and now’s his shot.

The more interesting part will be the two guard spots. Fifth-year senior Matt Womack (from Louisiana... I just had to get that jab in there) [Ed. Note: Womack is actually from Mississippi] is a monstrous 6-7 330-pound man with a mean streak who started at right tackle for the Tide for a year before he got replaced by Jedrick Wills last year. Womack struggled to keep up with fast pass rushers on the edge, but has since moved to guard where he can do more damage just pancaking folks. Then there’s Emil Ekiyor, the 340 pound redshirt freshman and one of the strongest players on the team, who got the start at left guard during the spring game. Ekiyor is both strong and explosive, though still a bit of an unknown to us outside of the program.

The wildcard, though, is Deonte Brown. “Cornbread,” the 340-pound redshirt junior arrived at Alabama at well over 360 pounds and had to drop a lot of weight to ever even get a shot. About halfway through the 2018 season, he had performed so well in practice that the coaches benched senior Lester Cotton to let Brown do his thing. In those few games, the Tide’s interior rushing game jumped up to nearly unstoppable. Then he got hurt and was limited through the final stretch of the season. He was expected to be one starter next year, but then got suspended before the championship game for weed, and will miss the first four games of 2019. The question will be if he’s good enough to unseat either Womack or Ekiyor after having to sit out the first third of the season.

All in all, it’s a highly talented line, and nearly all of the “new names” actually have a lot of experience already, aside from Ekiyor. I’d expect a similar, if not better, performance compared to last year.

4. What’s the status of the defense? Some big names are back, but this unit left a bad taste in some folks’ mouths last year.

Two major areas last year derailed the Tide’s defense: the linebackers and injuries at cornerback. The duo of Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses really struggled with being out of position across the middle last year, allowing teams to extend drives over and over with short crossing routes and being too slow to recognize screens. Wilson left for the pros, and is likely to be replaced by the much less athletically talented but very bright senior, Josh McMillon. Whether or not McMillon is up to the task remains to be seen, but he should, at the very least, be much more reliable.

At corner, Saivion Smith (you guys know him) has moved on from the program, so the Tide’s secondary should have a significant boost. Pretty much every huge passing play in 2018 came against his coverage — most glaringly the “injury” after Justyn Ross destroyed him on a release in the national championship. And every time he got benched for poor performance, the starter ahead of him would get hurt. Now, everyone is back, and the Tide has two proven and talented outside corners in Trevon Diggs and Patrick Surtain II, a reliable senior and multi-year starter in the slot in Shyheim Carter, and a guy who got thrown into the national championship game as a true freshman and performed admirably in Josh Jobe. Jobe has since put on some more muscle and worked his way onto the starting defense during the A-Day, and will be tough to keep off the field.

The biggest question going forward is how the Tide will generate a pass rush. The edge rushers last year were often ineffective for long stretches of time, but that was covered up by the transcendent play of Quinnen Williams in the interior (again, until the final game.... Funny how that keeps coming up). Anfernee Jennings returns for what feels like his 8th season. The senior is a solid run stopper on the edge and occasionally blows up an unsuspecting tackle to get a sack, but isn’t fast or explosive enough to really be a difference-maker. Across from him should be Terrell Lewis. The redshirt junior is a massive player with crazy speed and strength who’s been slated to be the starter every season since the start of 2017, but keeps tearing ligaments just before the season starts. He managed to make it back for just the championship game against Georgia two seasons ago and had two sacks (including the one in overtime)-- tantalizing us fans with his potential. So far, though, he’s been on of those guys that’s just been too big and too fast for his joints and ligaments to handle.

There’s also sophomore Eyabi Anoma. He was considered the No. 1 recruit in the nation in the 2018 cycle by one recruiting service (and top five for all the others) and, like Lewis, is a 6-6, 245-pound specimen with blazing speed around the edge. He didn’t quite make the immediate impact we hoped in 2018, and often looked unsure and hesitant anytime he was in the game. He’s been pretty up front with the media that he struggled mightily with ADHD and homesickness his freshman season, and he entered the transfer portal in January. However, he stepped back out a few days later, and was the starter across from Jennings in the spring game while Lewis is still rehabbing his ACL. He played with a lot more confidence and fire, showing us flashes all game of why he was the top recruit just one year ago.

So there’s potential there, but basically no proven production for the Tide in regards to a pass rush. And it doesn’t matter how good a secondary is at covering if a QB has all day to throw the ball.

5. Any newcomers we should know about, or surprises?

I already mentioned both Josh Jobe and Emil Ekiyor-- two 2nd year players who barely contributed last year to suddenly finding themselves working with the first team. There’s also true freshman DJ Dale, a massive nose tackle who enrolled early and leapfrogged all of the returning guys vying to replace Quinnen Williams. It may not stick, but Dale made waves all spring and drew a lot of comparisons to previous Alabama nose tackle, Da’Ron Payne. Then there is linebacker Shane Lee. The true freshman from Maryland is about as jacked as you’ll find, and looks like a small boulder flying around the field. He’ll push McMillon to be the other starting linebacker.

There’s also Ishmael Sopsher (again, I’m sure you guys are quite familiar with his recruitment) enrolling this summer. He’s extremely talented, and will be coming in to compete for a position that’s wide open right now (and is already being led by another true freshman).