TUSCALOOSA — Alabama’s 13th A-Day spring game under head coach Nick Saban will kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday (and be televised on ESPN2) from what is sure to be a packed Bryant-Denny Stadium.
As Saban made clear Thursday evening, the Crimson Tide has had a “good spring.”
“No one ever has a bad recruiting class, no one ever has a bad spring. So, we had a good spring, if that answers anybody’s questions,” Saban told reporters Thursday. “We had a lot of guys get a lot better. A lot of guys got a lot of reps. We were pretty fortunate to get through it with a minimal amount of injuries.”
Last spring Alabama wasn’t nearly as lucky, with then-promising sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa missing much of spring — including the A-Day game — with a broken bone in his throwing hand, putting off the highly-anticipated quarterback competition against former starter Jalen Hurts.
Of course, Hurts is now in Norman, Okla., after joining the Sooners as a graduate transfer this offseason, and Tagovailoa is firmly entrenched as the Crimson Tide starter, where he’ll lead the Crimson (first-team offense) against the White (first-team defense) Saturday.
Of course, minimal means there were some, with at least four players expected to sit out Saturday’s game with various injuries.
Key among them is starting junior right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., who suffered “a pretty good ankle sprain” early in last weekend’s second spring scrimmage. It didn’t require surgery to repair, a positive sign. Also expected to miss the spring game will be senior outside linebacker Terrell Lewis, whose ACL surgery from last summer required some cleaning up this spring that kept him quite limited throughout practice, and junior outside linebacker Ben Davis, whose shin splint surgery this winter forced him into a black, no-contact jersey all spring. Sophomore tight end Major Tennison has been limited the last several weeks while going through the team’s concussion protocol and is “questionable” for Saturday.
Otherwise, Alabama is relatively healthy and returns a significant majority of its first-team offense from a year ago, which has given that side of the ball a slight edge throughout spring practice.
With that said, here are five things to keep an eye on during Saturday’s A-Day spring game:
1. Sark’s offense
This has been the biggest question of spring as Alabama unveils its fourth offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, in the last four seasons — fifth if you count Sarkisian’s one-game run in the 2016 national title game.
Alabama produced eye-popping and program record-breaking passing statistics last season under new Maryland head coach Mike Locksley, whose RPO-heavy system seemed to fit what Tagovailoa does well.
Given that success, Saban made it clear there wouldn’t be any wholesale changes on offense, though Sarkisian will be able to implement some of the quick, up-tempo reads and zone blocking that he’s been known for in previous stops at Southern Cal and Washington.
“Sometimes we make tweaks and adaptations to what we do. But we’re pretty successful on offense, especially last year. So why would we change it a lot?” Saban said. “I think some of the additions that we make are very positive and will be very helpful in helping us feature some of the players that we have.”
And while most players toed the company line this spring, Tagovailoa admitted Sarkisian’s West Coast-based system will allow him to utilize full-field progression reads next season.
“You know with Coach Sark, it’s really full-field progression reads. Last year, we worked more on RPO, and we had that opportunity to perfect it,” Tagovailoa said. “Now we’re trying to protect full-progression reads, so reading the entire field this year. I think implementing pure progression reads (with) RPOs is really going to be big for us this season.”
Alabama fans (and media) will get their first look at what that might look like Saturday, though don’t expect Sarkisian to unveil the full-spectrum of his attack so soon, not with the season opener against Duke still six months away.
2. Dale’s debut
Arguably the most impressive and talked-about player this spring has been 315-pound early enrollee DJ Dale, who has recently been promoted to first-team nose guard, a position held last season by likely Top-5 pick Quinnen Williams.
It’s certainly a position of need and Dale has shown both the maturity and technique of a veteran in his first spring in Tuscaloosa, which has caught plenty of people’s attention.
“For a young guy, he plays like he’s been here for a while,” senior defensive end Raekwon Davis said this week. “He’s great, a great lineman, … (and) he came in good with his technique.”
Still, facing Alabama’s first-team offensive line will be a major challenge for Dale, and how he handles that could be an indicator of what’s to come from him this season.
3. Early enrollees
Freshman receiver John Metchie has proven to be a playmaker early in his Tide career, reportedly shining with multiple touchdown receptions through his first two scrimmage opportunities. He’s even impressed his 67-year-old head coach.
“John Metchie has showed flashes of doing things really, really well,” Saban said.
The 6-footer from Canada by way of Maryland will likely be the White team’s second-best receiving option behind sophomore Jaylen Waddle, who saw plenty of opportunity last season but gets relegated to the second-team offense as the team’s No. 4 receiver.
Meanwhile, freshman quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa — Tua’s younger brother — will likely split White team reps with redshirt sophomore backup Mac Jones, and could certainly make his own case to back up his older brother should he outperform the third-year veteran Saturday.
Although Saban has been critical of his team’s defensive depth beyond the first-team unit this spring, Saturday could be the perfect opportunity for some of the younger prospects to step up, including freshman middle linebacker Shane Lee, and freshman ends Antonio Alfano and Justin Eboigbe.
4. Offensive line
Given the injury to Wills, Alabama already did some shuffling to its previously established first-team unit by moving senior Matt Womack, who had been working as the first-team right guard, back to right tackle in Wills’ place. Womack, of course, started 14 games in 2017 at right tackle only to have Wills supplant him when repeated foot injuries kept him out of practice much of the offseason.
Junior Alex Leatherwood will make his debut as the Tide’s first-team left tackle, a more natural fit after the former five-star prospect started at right guard last season, while redshirt junior Chris Owens steps in as the first-team center after serving as a backup last year.
Redshirt freshman Emil Ekiyor has spent much of spring at left guard but signed with Alabama as a center and has experience there, while redshirt junior Deonte Brown will be the first-team right guard Saturday following Womack’s move to tackle. But with Brown’s four-game suspension to start the regular season, the makeup of the interior line is hardly set in stone, especially if 360-pound five-star early enrollee Evan Neal can open some eyes with the second-team unit Saturday.
“I think we have enough good players in the offensive line,” Saban said. “We’re just going to have to figure out what the best combination of guys will be for us next year.”
5. Kicking competition
Sophomore place kicker Joseph Bulovas was largely inconsistent in 2018, missing an SEC-worst six extra-point tries (75 of 81) and connecting on just 14 of 18 field goals. Meanwhile, sophomore punter Skyler DeLong averaged less than 35 yards per punt before losing his job to walk-on Mike Bernier during the second-half of the season.
Enter freshman early enrollee Will Reichard, the nation’s top-rated kicker coming out of Hoover, who has been working at both place kicker and punter this spring and is an option to potentially handle both duties next season. That said, Reichard reportedly has had mixed results during scrimmages so far this spring leaving the battle wide open at this point.
According to the A-Day rosters released Friday, Bulovas and DeLong are slated to handle kicking duties for the Crimson team, while Bernier and Reichard will be the White team’s specialists Saturday. Of course, with the scrimmage setting, Saban has the authority to move players around however he sees fit and made it clear he intends to split up kicking opportunities fairly evenly.
“I think the goal is to make sure that we have a couple of guys punt, and I think we want to make sure we have a couple of guys get opportunities to kick field goals,” Saban said. “I’m not as concerned about what team they’re on.”