Tuscaloosa, Ala. — You would expect the winner of back-to-back national championships to draw a big crowd for the spring football game, especially on a perfect 65-degree day without a cloud in the sky.
But it could have been 30 and snowing and Bryant-Denny Stadium would have been packed. That’s how spring football rolls in Alabama. As quarterback A.J. McCarron says in the pre-packaged introduction that airs on the big screen before kickoff, “At some schools they play football. At Alabama, we live it.”
There was no doubting the truth in that statement when the Crimson Team kicked off to the White at 2:05 p.m. ET on Saturday in Tuscaloosa. The place was filled with fans cheering as if the SEC West title was on the line.
The White team won 17-14 after breaking up a goal-line drive by the Crimson in the final 10 seconds. But the score was even more meaningless than the game itself. In case anyone had forgotten that this was a scrimmage, Nick Saban fielded three quarterbacks for the White team and four for the Crimson, and every single player got on the field for at least one snap.
There were some takeaways, however, as the Tide enters the summer with the highest expectations in the nation.
1. Progress up front
All eyes were on the new guys on the offensive line. With four of the five members from the best line in college football, and arguably the best in history vacating Tuscaloosa for next week’s NFL draft, the question of how the replacements will stack up remains open, although Saban seemed pleased with their progress.
“The offensive line has done a really good job all spring,” Saban said. “I think Anthony Steen and Cyrus Kouanjdiou have done a really good job from a leadership standpoint, and Ryan Kelly has played well all spring. Arie [Kouandjio] had a really good spring, and Austin Shepherd did also. Leon Brown is someone with a lot of ability who can give us good depth along with Kellen Williams, who is still in competition for a position.”
In terms of execution, Kelly appeared to be the standout. He showed surprising speed and adapted well in pass blocking and trap situations.
“The more reps you get at offensive line the easier it comes to you,” Kelly said afterward. “We have seen a progression in the entire offensive line from the beginning of the spring until now. We’re getting a lot tighter. Obviously, the more you play together the more you understand tendencies and where you need to be to make better plays.”
2. Backup questions at quarterback
A.J. McCarron was in the Heisman conversation for several weeks last season, and there is no question he will be the team leader this year. But much of Alabama’s offensive production last season was based on wearing opponents down with Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon pounding out yards behind that stellar offensive line.
Those days are gone. The White Team, led by McCarron, ran 59 offensive plays and 36 of them were passes. The Crimson squad put up similar numbers with 34 of their 51 plays coming through the air. These were not screens or play-action dink passes, either. McCarron threw for 223 yards, including a 40-yard strike to Kenny Bell for a touchdown.
The question for Saban is going to be: What do you do if McCarron goes out? Heading into A-Day, Blake Sims seemed to be the leading contender for the backup role, but that might have changed given that he completed just 5 of 10 attempts for 52 yards with two very ugly interceptions.
Alec Moore led the backups, going 10 of 18 for 141 yards, including two 36-yard bullets to DeAndrew White and Chris Black.
“They all need to improve,” Saban said. “Alec played as well as any of them, and Blake, who has had a really good spring and made great progress, sort of went rat trap out there today and aborted his reads and started scrambling early. We need all them to develop.”
3. Even in a scrimmage turnovers drive Saban nuts
Between the two teams there were three lost fumbles and six interceptions. The coach was not pleased.
“The first two scrimmages we didn’t have a lot of sloppy play, and while there were positives that we can take away, when you have a lot of turnovers and you’re playing against yourself, that’s not a good thing,” Saban said. “I thought there were a lot of undisciplined plays out there today.”
Then he got wound up.
“Too many people are too comfortable in their position,” Saban said. “That, to me, does not lend itself to being a great competitor.”
You can expect added emphasis on holding onto the football once summer gets underway.
To no one’s surprise T.J. Yeldon was the rushing star, gaining 69 yards on 15 carries, but his reception numbers were something new. Yeldon grabbed seven passes for 60 yards, making him the leading receiver on the field.
With Amari Cooper and a healthy Kenny Bell stretching the defense, McCarron found Yeldon to be a big, attractive target. That is something that could bode well for the Tide offense in the fall.
If the offensive line was the biggest question coming into the spring, the second biggest was who would emerge as the leader of the defensive secondary. Dee Milliner was the best corner in college football and is expected to be the first defensive back taken in the draft. Replacing him is next to impossible.
But HaHa Clinton Dix has emerged as a leader and an impressive force in the secondary. He had six tackles for the Crimson, broke up numerous pass plays, and returned a fumble 55 yards for a touchdown in the final two minutes of the game.
“We need to improve in the secondary, but we have some players in the secondary that are play-maker types,” Saban said, an unnamed reference to Clinton-Dix.
They all have a lot of work to do — a point Saban made repeatedly — but in a secondary that will be tested, Clinton-Dix appears to be emerging as the one to watch.