The biggest lessons from Alabama’s spring game: Quarterback depth, freshmen standouts and a shaky secondary

To understand what thousands of message board posts, group texts and barstool discussions sound like when compressed into one singular moment, find a replay of Alabama’s spring game on Saturday and listen to the OOOOOOOOOOOOOH from the Bryant-Denny Stadium crowd as freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa released his first pass. 

The throw was a beauty. The lefty Tagovailoa, who came from the same Hawaiian high school that produced Marcus Mariota, rolled to his right and fired a strike to fellow freshman Jerry Jeudy along the right sideline for a 19-yard gain. The day got even better from there for Tagovailoa, who would wind up completing 18 of 30 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. But while a quarterback controversy at the program that has been college football’s benchmark for this decade would drive some lively off-season discussion, all it takes is one sentence from Alabama coach Nick Saban to squash the notion that starter Jalen Hurts is in any danger of losing the job. “[Tagovailoa] had two series with the ones,” Saban said, “and he went three-and-out in both of them.”

The tricky part about spring games is deciphering their meaning. Coaches looking to boost their starters’ confidence can play the first team against the second. Coaches who want to mix it up will hold a draft and mix first- and second-teamers on both teams. Coaches who want to see what their starters and backups can do against similar competition will pit the first-team offense against the first-team defense and the second-team offense against the second-team defense.

Saban chose that last option, which means Hurts completed 16 of 25 passes for 301 yards with two touchdowns and one interception against Alabama’s best defenders. He also got sacked seven times. Defenders only had to tag the quarterback to record a sack, so it’s tough to tell how many of those would have been sacks and how many would have been 10-yard gains for Hurts. He is, after all, one of the most difficult quarterbacks in the country to bring down.

Still, the air show from the incumbent and the challenger put the lie to the notion that Alabama will slog through games on the ground under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who last served as the tight ends coach for the New England Patriots. (Also, anyone who thought Daboll was bringing a run-first offense obviously hasn’t watched the Patriots lately.) 

The Crimson Tide absolutely will run the ball a lot this fall with Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs and freshman Najee Harris. Hurts will run it, too. But that depth in the backfield and speed at quarterback is going to force teams into eight- and nine-man boxes. So if the Crimson Tide can move the ball through the air adequately, they’ll pile up explosive plays. Daboll and company made sure this spring that Hurts concentrated on staying in the pocket and delivering accurate passes rather than seeking a hole and running. That was fine with Hurts. “I don’t need to run. I know I can do that,” Hurts said when I visited Tuscaloosa earlier this month. “I’m going to stay in the pocket as long as I can and make those throws. I’ll sit in there and do what I need to do. If I need to get loose, I’ll get loose.”

Spring games may not offer a lot of clarity, but Alabama’s did suggest a few things:

– Hurts looks much better in the vertical passing game. His long connections with Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster show that much. Also, his interactions with Daboll indicate a very different QB-OC relationship than the one between Hurts and former Crimson Tide coordinator Lane Kiffin. Kiffin coached at a distance. Daboll appears to be far more hands-on, and Hurts and Tagovailoa look quite comfortable working with him even though it has only been a short time.

– If Hurts gets injured or falters early, the Crimson Tide have a very capable backup in Tagovailoa. 

– Harris will find a way to get carries this season.

– Jeudy will find a way to get catches.

– The losses of Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams would cripple a lot of defenses. Alabama seems ready to roll along with replacements such as former No. 1 overall recruit Da’Shawn Hand at defensive end and Christian Miller as an edge-rushing linebacker. The ability of this group to get pressure against a good Alabama offensive line suggests the Crimson Tide should have an answer for their most pressing offseason question. 

– The great day for the receivers was an awful day for the secondary. We know what Minkah Fitzpatrick and Tony Brown can do, but the rest of that group will have to be better — especially considering the fact that the Crimson Tide face Florida State right out of the gate.

“I don’t think we’re an elite team right now,” Saban told reporters Saturday. “I think we’re kind of an adequate team, but I don’t mean that in a negative way because I think we’ve come out of spring a lot of years where we don’t have an elite team. It’s how the team responds through the summer and through fall camp, because we’re going to play an elite team in the first game.”

Saban favors those one-off, neutral-site season openers against name-brand opponents because they tend to keep his team focused throughout the off-season. Given that last season ended with Clemson holding the national title trophy after a furious late comeback against Alabama, motivation shouldn’t be an issue this summer.

“We have that mentality of revenge and redemption,” said Hurts, who, according to ESPN’s Laura Rutledge, uses a photo of the Tigers hoisting the national title trophy as the wallpaper on his phone. “We want to finish what we started. It’s a new team and all, but when you lose the national championship game—when you go undefeated all year and lose that game—you remember that.”

With all due respect to Saban, Alabama is an elite team. It remains far more complete than most of the programs in its league and looks as polished at this juncture as any of the programs that expect to compete for the national title this season. But Saban has to say that. He can’t let his players believe what we write about them, or they might not develop the edge they’ll need come September.

But make no mistake. Despite another huge exodus to the NFL, Alabama still hasn’t dropped off. Given the quality of the young talent on the field Saturday, it’s tough to imagine how the Crimson Tide could.

I had a little ranker’s block this week, so I asked the people for potential topics. As always, the people came through. 

https://twitter.com/williamFford/status/856332183417507840

So withut further ado, here are the top 10 pizza toppings. (Cheese is assumed, of course.)

1. Pepperoni

2. Black olives

3. Meatball

4. Bacon

5. Sausage

6. Soppressata

7. Mushrooms

8. Ham

9. Fresh basil

10. Garlic

1. You read about new Notre Dame starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush here a few weeks ago. Now watch him in action from Saturday’s Fighting Irish spring game.

2. Just as in Tuscaloosa, there is no quarterback controversy in State College. But like Alabama, Penn State has two quarterbacks who can definitely do the job. Trace McSorley is the entrenched starter, but redshirt sophomore Tommy Stevens put on a show in Saturday’s spring game. 

3. This may be repetitive, but Georgia could be in a situation similar to Alabama and Penn State. True freshman quarterback Jake Fromm looked quite capable with 277 passing yards and two touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ spring game, though sophomore Jacob Eason still likely will wind up the starter. But Georgia coach Kirby Smart sounded confident that Fromm can play if necessary. “He’s made some good throws,” Smart said. “He understands the game. He knows where he wants to go with the ball.”

4. Georgia has released offensive line signee D’Antne Demery from his letter of intent following Demery’s arrest Saturday in Athens. Demery, a 6-7, 310-pound high school senior from Brunswick, Ga., was in town for the spring game. He is accused of grabbing the mother of his one-month-old child by her neck and pushing her against a wall. He faces charges of criminal trespass and simple battery. Georgia released the news that it would not be allowing Demery to join the team shortly after Demery bonded out of jail on Sunday.

5. Meanwhile, in Gainesville, police have charged former Florida defensive lineman Caleb Brantley with battery in connection with an April 14 incident. Brantley is accused of punching a woman and knocking her unconscious. Initially, Brantley told police he only shoved the woman after she had punched him following a crude comment from Brantley. Two witnesses disputed Brantley’s account, and police charged Brantley.

Brantley definitely would have been drafted this week. Now, he may not be. Or, if a team is willing to touch him, it will be much lower than before. 

6. Police in Meridian Township, Mich., posted a Facebook message Sunday saying that former Michigan State defensive end Auston Robertson is in custody. Robertson was charged earlier this week with third-degree criminal sexual conduct in connection with an accusation that Roberston raped a woman at her off-campus apartment on April 8. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio announced Friday that Robertson had been dismissed from the team. That same day, police posted a Facebook message asking for help in locating Robertson. Robertson’s bail has been set at $75,000.

7. With a storm bearing down on Neyland Stadium, Tennessee’s spring game festivities didn’t last long. And while the Volunteers’ quarterback skills competition didn’t offer any more clarity about whether junior Quinten Dormady or redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano will ultimately win the starting job, it was more fun to watch than typical spring game fare.

8. Meanwhile, former Tennessee tailback Jalen Hurd seemed to announce where he’ll be transferring in a Twitter post. According to his t-shirt, it’s Baylor. 

9. After an excellent showing during spring practice, Tulane transfer Tanner Lee has won Nebraska’s starting quarterback job. 

10. An attorney for the former department manager who is a central figure in the NCAA’s investigation into years of bogus classes at North Carolina requested earlier this month that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey recuse himself from serving on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions for North Carolina’s case. In a letter obtained last week by the Associated Press, Sankey said—and I’m paraphrasing here—“Nah.”  

Just once in my life, I’d like to be as good at anything as this 2-year-old is at swinging a baseball bat.

I would have been a terrible 1990s newspaper columnist. First, I can’t spit out blazing 850-word hot takes four times a week because I don’t get that fired up about any topic other than barbecue. Second, I couldn’t write the your-city-stinks column when one of the teams from my town played the team from your town. I don’t think anyone’s city stinks because I can find something great to eat just about anywhere. In college football, Starkville, Miss., might get the biggest bum rap from the your-city-stinks crowd.

I’ve never had a bad time in Starkville. The Blueberry Cobbler coffee from Strange Brew Coffeehouse alone would make each trip a joy. I suppose that Starkville’s size (tiny) and relative isolation (the biggest cities within a two-hour drive are Jackson, Tupelo and Tuscaloosa) might not seem attractive to those who dwell in larger cities, but Starkvegas can be just as much fun as any other southern college town if you know where to look.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m on Team Petty’s over Team Little Dooey when it comes to the battle for Starkville’s barbecue soul, but a new spot that veers more toward barbecue-based sandwich shop than straight barbecue joint has added some intrigue to that competition.

 

Two Brothers Smoked Meats sits in the Cotton District near Mississippi State’s campus, and it’s shocking that there isn’t a constant stream of students seeking out the pork rind nachos at all hours of the day and night. What are pork rind nachos? Replace corn chips with fried-to-order pork skins and then cover them with pulled pork, cheese sauce, sour cream and tomatoes. Unlike nachos, pork rinds don’t get soggy after sitting under that bounty. They retain their crunch, and their thickness makes each bite more satisfying than a wimpy chip ever could. 

On the day I visited Two Brothers, they had smoked some pork belly. That meant I could order pork belly tacos and pork belly mac and cheese. As we discussed several times last year, the only thing better than bacon might be proto-bacon, and the crispy chunks of smoked pork belly that filled those tacos and topped that creamy mac and cheese made a relatively low-priced meal feel quite luxurious. If you prefer straight meat to meat-infused carbohydrate delivery vehicles, order some smoked wings. They’ll pair perfectly with the expertly curated beer selection.

Across University Drive from Two Brothers is Bin 612, a grown-up drinking spot that hasn’t forgotten it lives in a college town. The beer and wine selection is excellent, but the place’s best feature—and the one that draws big lines on weekends—is its extensive selection of cheese fries. Anyone can melt some cheddar over fries and toss in a little bacon. (In fact, Bin 612 does that but also adds jalapeño.) Bin 612 has cheese fries for every occasion. Drinking beer? Get the buffalo chicken tender cheese fries. White wine? Truffle parmesan. Red wine? Shrimp, avocado and Sriracha. When this last one came to the table, it had so many shrimp piled on top that I didn’t realize there were any fries beneath. But they were under there, and the briny shrimp, the salty fries, the creamy avocado and the fiery Sriracha blend together into a beautiful bite. Like the pork rind nachos across the street, once everyone at the table has a taste, it’s a race to see who can grab the most bites before it’s gone.

You’ll sleep heavily after all those cheese fries, but if you wake on a Thursday or a Friday, you can perk up with the aforementioned blueberry cobbler coffee at Strange Brew. And if you do, you’ll never bash Starkville again.

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