13 April 2012
The University of Alabama football team has concluded its regular practices for the 2012 spring session. Thursday's practice was held in shorts and helmets and was the final practice before Saturday's A-Day.
Here's what you need to know:
While several players are dealing with nagging injuries, only Eddie Lacy (toe), Arie Kouandjio (knee), and Blake Sims (hip) have been ruled out for A-Day. When you get to this point in the spring without a major injury popping up, you count yourself lucky. I, for one, will spend most of A-Day holding my breath.
Coach Saban announced in his post practice media conference that rather than divide the teams evenly, the teams will be 1st team offense and 2nd team defense vs. 2nd team offense and 1st team defense. This is how Coach Saban has done things in his previous five A-Days, so this is no shock.
It looks like Alphonse Taylor (guard) and Brent Calloway (H-Back) will participate in A-Day at the positions that they switched to during the middle of the spring. I still think Taylor's move is due to a lack of bodies in the middle, and that he will eventually end up back at nose guard. Calloway is a great athlete who simply doesn't have a position right now. Hopefully he won't end up like B.J. Scott, who transferred because he simply couldn't find a position that offered him any real opportunity to play at Alabama.
The early enrollee who will likely get the most playing time on Saturday is linebacker Dillon Lee. The staff moved him from mike, to will, and eventually to sam during the course of the spring. Right now he is still at the sam, and I am guessing he will be the "starter" for the second team defense. The staff has been extremely pleased with his execution and ability to grasp the defense, and it's likely that the only thing that could keep him off of the field this season is Bama's insane depth at linebacker.
When you head to the stadium on Saturday, keep in mind that some guys will be with the second group simply because there has to be a second unit. A guy like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will be a starter in the fall in Bama's nickel and dime packages, but he might have to be with the second unit on Saturday just to give that team a safety. That would mean that a guy who would normally be second team at that position will get to play with the first unit once it goes to nickel.
In other words, take A-Day for it truly is - a scrimmage that is open to the public.
The one truly interesting thing to watch for me will be whether Phillip Sims or Phillip Ely takes the majority of the reps with the second team offense. Sims was still limited on Thursday due to some shoulder tightness.
Otherwise, the last regular practice of the spring went pretty much how they all went... quietly. And when you are the reigning National Champions, that's exactly how you want things.
We left off our rankings with #20, so here's the next group:
19. Cody Mandell. What? A kicker in the top 20? You bet. When Bama has a great defense, the punter is important. When the Tide has a rebuilding defense, the punter becomes massively important. I think the Tide defense is going to be just fine, but if Cody can continue to post the 42+ yard averages that he has posted so far this spring, opponents will have that much more yardage to have to carry. He is nowhere close to as talented as the previous 15 guys on this list, but the drop off from him to his backup is greater than at any other position – especially since right now he has no actual backup. Wilson Whorton is the only other punter listed on the official roster. So Cody has to stay healthy. Period. He followed P.J. Fitzgerald at the position at Bama and it looks like his career could follow the similar pattern of consistent improvement from each year to the next. He has flourished under the watch of kicking consultant Greg Zauner. Now he needs to take that into game action.
18. Jeremy Shelley. Five field goals in the BCS Championship game not withstanding, the leading scorer on almost every football team is its place kicker. Anyone who watched Bama’s November 5th loss to LSU knows how important a kicker can be. With kickoffs having been moved up to the 35 yard line, Shelley might be the kickoff guy now. That means that the only time we would see Cade Foster is if a field goal of greater than 50 yards was being attempted. He will have competition in the fall from Adam Griffith, but until that kid gets on campus and starts making kicks, it’s Jeremy’s job. And like Mandell, there is a huge gap between him and the guy behind him. On sheer talent he would be in the bottom half. Factor in importance and he soars into the top 20.
17. Kenny Bell. He came on strong late in the season, and gives Bama huge downfield threat. He showed his explosiveness in the BCS Championship Game when he took a screen pass 30 yards to set up a Bama field goal, and he has consistently been praised by the coaching staff. Teams are going to force Bama to beat them with the pass, and he is likely to be the #2 receiver on the team. This is one where I am ranking a guy higher based on what I think we will see from him in the coming season. A re-ranking done half way through the season could see him in the bottom half if he fails to establish himself. I don’t see that happening. I see a season with 30+ catches.
16. Kevin Norwood. He had a great game in the BCS Championship Game and made Tyrann Mathieu look like the average cover corner that he really is. A.J. McCarron and Jim McElwain showed a ton of confidence in him when Marquis Maze when down with a hamstring injury during that game, and I think he parlays that into being the primary receiving target to start the season. He isn’t blazingly fast or eye-popping large, but seems to know how to get separation from defensive backs. He also has great hands. This could be a case of “what have you done for me lately” and I expected equally great things from DeAndrew White last year. This is a similar situation to Kenny Bell’s in that he could be re-ranked in the bottom half if he doesn’t play as he is capable of playing. I think he will lead the Tide in catches.
15. Jalston Fowler. He is way better than most people give him credit for. He is also way closed to Eddie Lacy than most people think. His size gives people the impression that he is a short yardage back. He is deceptively fast, though, and has two long touchdown runs in his career. He had a 68 yard run in Bama’s second scrimmage this spring. He’s also quite good out of the backfield. Where he still needs a lot of work is in pass protection, and that’s the thing that separates him the most from Lacy. I don’t think we’ll see one running back carry nearly as high a load as Trent Richardson did last year, so there should be plenty of carries for the guys behind Lacy. Fowler still has to hold off Dee Hart and T.J. Yeldon, but right now he is way ahead of both of those guys. He will be an absolute nightmare for tired defenses in the fourth quarter of games. But he will get carries long before we get to the fourth quarter.
14. Cyrus Kouandjio. While he is the presumptive starter at left tackle, and that is a vitally important position, Barrett Jones is capable of playing the spot of Cyrus fails to lock it down. We also haven’t seen that much of him in game action, so I have a hard time ranking him ahead of the three returning starters on the line. He has had an inconsistent spring, but has been tested daily by the best defensive front in college football. He will make more mistakes than Jones made en route to winning the Outland Trophy in 2011, but he will more than hold his own. The Bama line is better all around if Jones is able to stay at center, and the development of Kouandjio at left tackle is the key to that. Coach Saban and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland think very highly of his ability, and they are riding him hard this spring to get him prepared for the fall. He is considered by a lot of scouts to be the prototype left tackle. He just needs to take that to the field now.
13. Anthony Steen. He split time at right guard with Alfred McCullough in 2011, but the job is all his in 2012. In all likelihood he will fall behind Cyrus Kouandjio if he locks down left tackle, but for now, a guy with 11 career starts comes in ahead of a guy with zero. While he is still developing as a pass blocker, he is a road-grader in run blocking. Put him next to D.J. Fluker, and you’ve got Bama’s strong side in the running game. He isn’t on Chance Warmack’s level from a pulling standpoint, so I think we’ll see Bama be right heavy in its run calls in order to allow for Warmack and/or Barrett Jones to pull. That means Steen will be closest lineman between the interior of the defense and the handoff. So his importance can not be over stated. He isn’t blessed with a lot of athleticism, but his strength and his mean streak give him the edge over all of the guys in the second unit. If he can develop his pass blocking, he likely has an NFL career ahead of him.
12. Michael Williams. He is still developing as a pass catcher, but has the role of “sixth lineman” down pat. Bama didn’t need him in that role much last season, but with Cyrus Kouandjio likely taking over at left tackle, expect to see him used a lot early in the season to help the youngster settle in to his position. If Cyrus establishes himself early in the season, then Williams can become a huge threat for A.J. McCarron. His size, 6’6 and 269 lbs., makes him impossible to match up with. He needs to develop more toughness against the smaller defensive backs and linebackers that are trying to cover him, but that message is being delivered heavily by the staff this spring. He has a chance to put up the type of numbers that could move in to the second or third round of the NFL Draft next April. A lot of that will depend on Kouandjio’s development, but a lot will also depend on how aggressive he is. If he can learn to go get the ball at its highest point and then attack the defender that he is considerably larger than, he becomes the type of threat the NFL teams love to have. Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots has the success that he has because he absolutely punishes anyone who tries to tackle him. Michael needs to play with that type of attitude.
11. Eddie Lacy. The fact that Bama’s starting running back is outside of the top 10 is just ridiculous. That says a lot about the guys ahead of him, but it also says a lot about the other running backs on the team. If Lacy were to miss time there would be a drop off, though not a huge one. Bama is simply loaded at running back – at least when everyone is healthy. He is the guy on top right now, and his ability to pick up a blitzing linebacker is probably the #1 reason. He is coming off of surgery to fix a toe ligament issue, so he has been withheld from contact all spring. Health is the biggest issue for him, and holding on to the ball is second. He seemed to have solved his fumbling issue last season, though any guy who spins as much as he does is always going to have a bit of an issue there. He will be following two of the greatest running backs in Tide history in Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and despite his huge internet following, there will be a big drop off. The good news is that Bama’s offense won’t be as reliant upon him as it was on Ingram and Richardson. I expect that we’ll see him top 1,000 yards rushing, though he might not get enough carries to go much higher. He’ll have the opportunity to help the offense as a pass catcher, as well. If Bama were thin at running back, he would be in the top 10 with ease.
We'll end things there with only 9 revealed today. That will give us the chance to roll out the top 10 as one group. I expect that I am likely the only person who ranks the two primary kickers this high, and also the only person to rank Lacy outside the top ten.
Saturday is A-Day, and we'll have up some type of report. Most of you will have had the chance to watch the game/practice, so a bare bones post would serve little purpose. With that in mind, we'll try to give you something a little more.