5 thoughts from A-Day: Alabama reloads with 'The Replacements'
Before Alabama celebrated its 18th national championship, the Crimson Tide put a bow on spring football in 2021 with the A-Day game Saturday on a sun-splashed afternoon in Tuscaloosa.
Donning a flashy pink sportscoat and an occasional smile, you could tell Nick Saban enjoyed the opportunity to play in front of fans again, with Bryant-Denny at 50% capacity Saturday. He also seemed to enjoy — for the most part, at least — the way his 2021 team competed. Despite missing multiple key pieces, the A-Day game featured a number of outstanding individual performances on offense and defense, with fans getting their first look at life after DeVonta, Mac, Najee, Jaylen Waddle and so many other vital pieces of Alabama’s magnificent 2020 national champions.
With so much turnover, it’s easy to dub this team “The Replacements,” as the Crimson Tide spent a good portion of the searching for a new team leadership core and beginning the process of sorting out depth chart battles that will carry over into the fall. As a start, spring football — and the spring game — yielded positive results.
Here are five things that stood out from the Alabama spring game.
Bryce Young showed some good and some bad — and that’s OK
Due to the ongoing pandemic, the media — and as a result fans — have been unable to see the progress of Bryce Young in spring practice. That’s unusual, especially at a place like Alabama, where anytime there is a new quarterback, that tends to be a highlight of spring football media stories and social media accounts alike.
There’s been palpable buzz around Young since he signed with Alabama in 2020. Immediately presumed a potential heir to Tua Tagovailoa, Young wasn’t afforded a spring in 2020, but he steadily improved and learned sitting behind Heisman finalist Mac Jones a season ago. The word out of Alabama’s camp was that Young had been good most the spring, but Saban, who rarely wastes time naming a starter at quarterback, was less definitive in the way he discussed Young ahead of A-Day.
“(Young) is the quarterback for right now, so he will operate the first team,” Saban told the media on Zoom this week. “But there’s competition at the position, and guys will get a lot of reps and for that to happen, the next guy has to play with the next guy.”
That’s an endorsement — but a classically cautious one from Saban.
In many ways, Young strengthened his case Saturday.
He showed great awareness despite a ferocious pass rush:
Alabama QB Bryce Young with some good movement before throwing a dart into the end zone to Traeshon Holden. Just couldn't hang on unfortunately. pic.twitter.com/ElCR26stcq
— Patrick Greenfield (@PCGreenfield) April 17, 2021
He also showed great awareness when the pocket was clean, like on this touchdown to tight end Cameron Latu. Throws like that were the key to a terrific first half that saw Young complete 16-of-26 passes for 256 yards and the Latu touchdown pass.
Bryce Young and Cameron Latu have now hooked up for touchdowns in each of Alabama’s three spring scrimmages. Connected for two in the first scrimmage, then one last week and now one already today. pic.twitter.com/yiQ1Q6iLT0
— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) April 17, 2021
Of course, he wasn’t perfect. He held the ball too long for a mic’d up Saban on a handful of throws and badly underthrew others. On one, like this big-gainer to Roydell Williams, a poor throw didn’t matter, due to a coverage bust.
Nice stuff by Bryce Young to find Roydell Williams on the backside pic.twitter.com/HV9mw39nlq
— Billy M (@BillyM_91) April 17, 2021
Other times, such as multiple 3rd-down passes intended for Traeshon Holden, he was just a tad off- missing throws in tight coverage windows that forced Alabama to settle for field goal attempts or turn the ball over the other offense. Due to his lack of elite size, Young also has to move around a good deal — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but is something that is hard to gauge in a spring game when the defense can’t hit the quarterback. How he will respond to his first live game action next year will better evaluate that situation. The good news? He won’t face competition any better than what he sees in practice.
The offensive line looked like a work in progress
Last season’s offensive line profiles as one of the best in program history, led by future pros Alex Leatherwood, Deonte Brown and center Landon Dickerson. That trio is gone and the Tide saw a number of linemen injured during spring practice, leaving Saturday’s unit a patchwork group of sidelined projected contributors and available bodies. The Tide have a really good group of freshmen on campus, led by the Brockermeyers, but it’s unusual to see a Tide line so reliant on freshmen early in the season.
The spring game result? Not much push in the run game and a satisfactory, but not great, performance in pass blocking. The good news? Young has tremendous pocket presence and quickness — he won’t require the type of clean pockets Jones feasted on in 2020. But backups Paul Tyson and Braxton Barker will require cleaner pockets if called upon — as this quail from Barker, which almost resulted in Saban being pummeled — demonstrates:
Watch Nick Saban juke his way out of getting ran over after a Braxton Barker interception 😂 pic.twitter.com/8D1MRvHV44
— Touchdown Alabama (@TDAlabamaMag) April 17, 2021
DBU? The secondary sure looks like it
Look, it helped that pass interference didn’t exist Saturday, but y’all heard DeVonta Smith — “that’s every day under Nick Saban.” Playing within those rules, the Crimson Tide secondary was stout Saturday.
Malachi Moore missed the spring game with a lingering injury, but the Tide still looked ready to replace the likes of Patrick Surtain II with any number of pieces, from Jordan Battle, who had a splendid spring, Josh Jobe, Brian Branch, Jalyn Armour-Davis and talented freshman Ga’Quincy McKinstry.
Armour-Davis, starting at corner opposite Jobe, was especially good, blanketing multiple wide receivers all afternoon. Armour-Davis has great recovery speed, which means that like Jobe, he can close and break on the ball even when he loses a step in the route-running process. It helped him post 3 passes defended on the afternoon, 2 of which came on 3rd-down pass attempts (one to Javon Baker and another on Traeshon Holden).
Despite Alabama’s immense talent, there will be roster battles across multiple positions to find answers in the fall. Saban said as much this week, when he said that for the first time in a while, the Tide “will sort out a depth chart in fall camp, thanks to a number of new players at new positions.”
That won’t be the case in the secondary, where Alabama is chock full of answers, and it showed Saturday.
No DeVonta Smith? No Jaylen Waddle? No problem? Not quite, but there are options
It’s always tough to replace a program legend, even at a place like Alabama.
The Crimson Tide will miss the explosiveness of Jaylen Waddle and they’ll miss DeVonta Smith, the first wide receiver this century to win the Heisman Trophy.
The good news? Replacing Waddle and Smith from a leadership standpoint will be tougher than a production standpoint. That’s not a hot take — and it’s not a suggestion that the Tide will have a single receiver replicate the production of Smith in 2021.
But if we’ve learned anything in the analytics-driven world of college football in the last 10 years, we’ve learned that you can replace production by committee.
Saturday, Alabama showcased a wide receiver room that is one of the deepest in America, and they did that despite playing without John Metchie, the presumed top option for Young in 2021.
Freshman Agiye Hall looks like a future star. The Florida product has a tremendous frame and outstanding athleticism and won a number of epic one on one battles against some of the best defensive backs in the country. He also had a 28-yard explosive play called back due to an illegal formation penalty, which drew the ire of Saban but was not Hall’s fault.
Bolden looks like a 50/50 ball “problem” — and he was the guy targeted more than any other receiver on 3rd down Saturday. That shows trust — and with Metchie sitting down — is a great sign for Alabama.
Jacorey Brooks, the latest South Florida product to shun the Gators and Hurricanes for the Crimson Tide, looked faster and more smooth than anyone with a 6-2, 200 pound frame should be at 18 years old. He’s electric with the ball in his hands, and while he needs to improve as a route runner, he looked like a kid that will be difficult to tackle Saturday — and that’s before we see his elusive, YouTube famous moments in the return game.
Slade Bolden played well — even if he should never throw a pass again. He provides leadership and showed all spring he’s ready to be the type of possession receiver new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien values.
This group, along with future slot star Christian Leary, make the Tide a scary team at receiver, even as legends head to the NFL to make their money.
Alabama kickers are, um, back?
Last season was weird — and no, I’m not talking about the 10 game SEC-only schedule, social distanced stadiums or any of that stuff. I’m talking about field-goal kickers, and the fact that Alabama, the school most affected by the “college kickers” curse since 1990s FSU, didn’t miss a field goal in 2020. That was just bizarre.
The (is good the right word here?) news? The Tide’s kickers were abysmal Saturday, missing long kicks and short kicks alike, with only a walk-on kicker earning Saban’s praise.
Alabama kickers are missing field goals and nature is healing https://t.co/mQcmfr9eDW
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) April 17, 2021
Does that mean Alabama will have a field-goal kicker problem in 2021? Probably not. Will Reichard’s 2020 season wasn’t a fluke. But with an offense that will, with a new quarterback, likely need a kick or two, especially early in the season, Saturday made you grimace.
Then again, there are worse problems to have.