Alabama came up just short in the national title game against Clemson in January. It was a difficult loss for the Tide faithful to swallow, but it’s time to move on.
The annual A-Day game will take place Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium, and there will not be a shortage of storylines. Here are five things that I would like to see from the Crimson Tide this weekend.
1. Jalen Hurts push the ball downfield
Hurts’ biggest struggle from the 2016 season is pretty well-known. He lacked the ability to stretch defenses vertically on a consistent basis.
His statistics from the national championship game were a fairly accurate representation of his freshman season as a whole. Hurts finished the game with almost as many rushing yards (63) as passing yards (68). It’s clear that Hurts was a lot more comfortable running the football in his first year as the starter, but the two areas could be more balanced in 2017.
So far this spring, Hurts has shown tremendous improvement on threatening the defense down the field. He hasn’t been perfect, but the improvement with his biggest weakness has been a welcomed sight. One thing that Hurts needs to do is show that he can do it consistently.
It’ll be interesting to see how often new OC Brian Daboll tests the Alabama defense deep on Saturday. Unlike Auburn’s A-Day game that usually has the first teams going against the backups, Alabama’s spring game has always featured a “best-on-best” structure under Nick Saban. While depth could end up being an issue at safety, the secondary is probably the strongest returning unit on Alabama’s defense.
How often will Alabama’s starting offense test that impressive secondary? Coaches — as well as fans — would love to see a couple of deep completions from Hurts.
2. Someone to emerge as a major pass-rushing threat
Alabama’s ability to replace the pass rush production left behind by the trio of Jonathan Allen (10.5 sacks), Tim Williams (9.0) and Ryan Anderson (9.0) will be crucial in determining the success of their season.
Alabama checked in at No. 3 for team sacks in 2016 with 54. Of those, 37 were by players who won’t return in 2017. It’s always difficult to find a productive, consistent pass-rusher, but Alabama is going to need to have at least two guys emerge.
The most logical choice to be one of those guys is Christian Miller. The redshirt junior from Columbia, S.C., recorded only two sacks in 2016, but he’s an explosive edge defender with the ability to bend and create pressure on the quarterback. His role will almost certainly increase, and it’ll be interesting to see what he can do with a larger workload on Saturday.
Some other players to keep an eye out for will be former 5-star recruit Da’Shawn Hand, sophomore Terrell Hall and redshirt sophomore Anfernee Jennings.
3. A successful transition to left tackle for Jonah Williams
Jonah Williams had one of the best freshman seasons for an offensive linemen in Alabama history. The former 5-star prospect out of California was effective as both a run blocker and pass protector on the right side. Now, he will look to make the same type of impact at left tackle.
Cam Robinson has moved on to the NFL, and it’ll be Williams’s job to step up and be a suitable replacement to protect Jalen Hurts’ blindside. He seems up for the challenge.
“I enjoy playing left tackle, it’s what I’ve wanted to play for a long time,” Williams said. “I’m comfortable there.”
Williams won’t have Allen, Tim Williams or Anderson causing him problems on Saturday, but that could end up creating pressure on him. He should play a pretty flawless game, but don’t be surprised to see some bumps along the way as he adjusts to the new position.
4. Trevon Diggs to show why he belongs in the mix at cornerback
Diggs has already proven that he is an exceptional athlete. He showed glimpses as a wide receiver in 2016, and he also made an impact as a returner. Now, he’ll try his hand on defense.
Now playing cornerback, Diggs has emerged as a potential candidate to replace former All-America cornerback Marlon Humphrey. The results since the switch have been encouraging to say the least.
“He’s much more natural playing at corner than when we tried to play him at safety,” Saban said. “He’s a good tackler. Plays the ball well in the deep part of the field and he’s done a good job of playing man-to-man.”
There’s no guarantee that Diggs will be able to earn the starting role opposite Anthony Averett, but the development has at least added quality depth to the position.
Diggs has a chance to show on Saturday that he can be a major contributor on more than just special teams this season.
5. A positive impact from some of the early-enrollees
Alabama had a whopping 16 players enroll early to take part in spring drills. Of those 16 players, there are several who have a chance to earn playing time early in their careers.
The most impressive of the group could be JUCO transfer Isaiah Buggs. He’s been an effective player this spring stopping the run and providing somewhat of a pass rush. The former 4-star has the size — 6’5, 292 pounds — and strength to hold up in Alabama’s 3-4 defense. Look for him to make an impact almost immediately.
Another player who has impressed is RB Najee Harris. Injuries to Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and B.J. Emmons have opened the door for Najee to show what type of impact that he can have in the offense. He’s taken full advantage of that opportunity.
He’s made plays as a runner and as a receiver out of the backfield. The comparisons to Adrian Peterson aren’t completely accurate, but Harris could end up giving the Alabama run game the same type of impact that Le’Veon Bell gives the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bell is so effective because of his ability to provide a threat out of the backfield in addition to being an effective runner between the tackles.
These aren’t the only two guys to look out for during the A-Day game, however. There are several more freshmen who have a chance to shine on Saturday and prove that they can contribute this season.