Through one week of Alabama Crimson Tide preseason camp, Nick Saban says he is pleased with the team’s attitude, togetherness and sense of commitment — but there’s an area of improvement that he’s continuing to preach.
“We have to increase the level of attention to detail (and) focus on every play,” Saban said. “So that we can play and not have penalties and missed assignments. Communication goes with that, I don’t care whether you’re playing the offensive line and have to make line calls or you’re playing secondary and make a coverage call so everybody’s on the same page. You can anticipate things, play better and you can play faster. But I think sometimes when things get a little bit difficult, we lose our focus a little bit.”
The goal is to be able to maintain focus for long periods of time. Saban noted that the Tennessee and LSU games last season lasted nearly four hours and were losses in which the Tide made critical mistakes such as penalties and miscommunications at the end. Camp is a good time to test that mental resolve by practicing for long periods outside, which the team did in full pads for the first time Wednesday.
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The Tide scrimmage for the first time Saturday, the biggest opportunity yet for players to separate at their respective positions. Saban’s expectations are simple but direct.
“We want to evaluate whether guys can block, tackle, execute what they’re supposed to do,” Saban said. “Not so much try to game plan and experiment with things but just see how guys can play winning football, whatever position.”
As Saturday looms, here’s an update on where each position group stands and which players are rising:
The messaging from Saban and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has been consistent: When a QB is in, he’s the guy and it’s up to him to own that moment. Last Saturday’s open practice provided a glimpse of how the quarterbacks are operating. The top three are repping with the top group of players on one half of the field, and freshmen Eli Holstein and Dylan Lonergan are repping with players lower on the depth chart on the other side.
In positional drills, the quarterbacks went as follows: Jalen Milroe first, followed by Ty Simpson, Tyler Buchner, Lonergan and Holstein. That’s not too surprising as Milroe is the most experienced but does indicate a pecking order of sorts. The top three vying for the starting role rotated with the first team in seven-on-seven and 11-on-11, with Milroe and Simpson getting the bulk of the first-team work.
“(Milroe and Simpson) improved greatly from the spring,” Rees said. “There’s been more buy-in since spring ball ended and just doing more, doing extra to get themselves prepared. I think it shows, first of all, a great amount of character, a great amount of competitiveness for those two guys (who each stayed following Buchner’s transfer in from Notre Dame). But it also shows a love for their teammates and a love for being here.”
In addition to confidence, Saban and Rees are looking for consistency; which is the biggest reason a No. 1 QB hasn’t become clear. Milroe and Simpson each made nice throws but also had turnovers. Milroe’s came on a high pass to Ja’Corey Brooks, with the ball deflecting off Brooks’ hands and intercepted by Malachi Moore. Simspon threw a high, wobbly pass that was picked by Trey Amos. Buchner didn’t commit a turnover but left a few passes short of the intended receivers.
Saturday’s scrimmage will allow for each to get extended time in a game-like situation. Saban referenced “drive-killing” plays Wednesday, and limiting costly mistakes will be a top priority for the quarterbacks.
If a “best position” through one week superlative existed, it’d be hard to top the running backs. No one is shying from praising the group’s performance and depth. And this is without sophomore Jamarion Miller. It’s unknown if he’ll participate in the scrimmage.
“We have a great group,” Rees said. “We have a really healthy blend of some veteran guys, obviously we have a couple of young players in the room. (Position coach Robert Gillespie) does an unbelievable job. … Really never any issues. They know their assignment. They play hard, they play physical and we have a great blend of guys that can do kind of a little bit of different things. So we’re a little bit spoiled in that position if we’re being honest.”
On the field, veterans Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams saw the bulk of the first-team workload last Saturday, with freshmen Justice Haynes and Richard Young working with the twos. It’s a big opportunity for Young, who Saban noted is a bit behind the top four running backs as a summer enrollee. Saban opened camp by highlighting the top four (McClellan, Williams, Haynes and Miller) as players Alabama is comfortable with. Young is hoping to enter that group with more reps.
The receiving corps appears to be a mixed bag through the first week.
“They’re all working hard, but I do think attention to detail is probably one of the biggest things,” Saban said. “Route running, timing in the passing game (is what) they all need to focus on. As a whole group, nobody’s disappointed. I think we have guys that have talent there, and if we can get them to play to that level, I think we’ll have a chance to have some guys who can make plays.”
The grouping of Brooks, Jermaine Burton and Isaiah Bond saw the majority of the first-team reps last Saturday. Bond had a sequence that reflects what Saban’s referring to. He caught a pass from Simpson in the middle of the field and turned upfield for a touchdown, but he also dropped a long, would-be touchdown pass from Milroe in the end zone. Outside of the top three mentioned, Kendrick Law also saw extended time with the first group.
With how the coaching staff is rotating players, every receiver is getting a chance to work with the top three quarterbacks. Malik Benson, Emmanuel Henderson Jr., Kobe Prentice and Shazz Preston are a part of the top two-deep rotation as well. There will be a chance for several players to make a move.
Transfer CJ Dippre, junior Robbie Ouzts and second years Amari Niblack and Danny Lewis Jr. all saw first-team reps Saturday. With how much Alabama is expected to run the ball this season, Ouzts can carve a nice role for himself as a blocking tight end and pass option if needed.
Niblack has been one of the biggest stock risers early. Saban described him as a “mismatch option,” and he’s been used in a variety of ways, from in-line to H-back to split out wide. The size and athleticism are there, and if he continues to hone his skill, expect Rees to use him in a utility role this fall.
“Everybody has different strengths and things that they do really well,” Rees said. “Our job, as a staff, is to make sure we can personnel things the right way to get the right people in the right spots.”
The offensive line’s priority is setting the tone.
“We want to make people quit this year,” sophomore Tyler Booker said. “There’s no better way to do that than running the ball. We’re going to run the ball this year. We’re going to pass the ball as well, because we have a lot of talented guys at receiver. We have a lot of talented guys who can throw the ball well. But having that run-first mentality, that gets us going, because we want to make people quit.”
The right side of the offensive line appears set with Booker and JC Latham at guard and tackle, and Saban noted that center Seth McLaughlin has also taken a step forward. The competition along the line is happening on the left side. Redshirt sophomore Terrence Ferguson has taken a huge leap forward in the guard battle, and Saban sees him as a starter.
“He’s gotten bigger and stronger,” Saban said. “He’s also been very explosive and had explosive power and body quickness. He’s very confident in what he’s doing. We’re playing him at center some too, which he’s done a good job of. He’s showing a lot of maturity, and I look at him as a starter on our team. I think we have six or seven guys who may be starters. So we’re seeing what the best combination is.”
Including Booker, Ferguson, Latham and McLaughlin, it appears that the other starters Saban is referring to are veteran guard Darrian Dalcourt and redshirt freshman Elijah Pritchett and/or true freshman Kaydn Proctor at tackle. All seven were a part of the first-team rotation last Saturday, with the second team featuring James Brockermeyer at center, Jaeden Roberts and Olaus Alinen at guard and Wilkin Formby at tackle. Proctor and Dalcourt also saw second-team reps.
If there’s a concern, it’s depth at tackle. Pritchett left Saturday practice dinged up, and true freshman Miles McVay is out with a leg injury. Overall, the starting options appear strong, but the left side is something to watch, particularly left tackle where there’s the least amount of experience.
Like the offensive line, there’s optimism about the starters in Justin Eboigbe, Jaheim Oatis and Tim Smith, but depth is a question mark. The defensive line dominated last Saturday. The top rotation behind the starters included Jah-Marien Latham, Tim Keenan III, Damon Payne Jr., Jordan Renaud and James Smith. Isaiah Hastings also had a nice tackle for loss near the end of practice. This second group features talented but inexperienced options. Eboigbe has emerged as a leader in their development.
“I feel like once you learn the plays, you have a chance to play fast — that’s the biggest thing,” Eboigbe said.
The most encouraging news is that Dallas Turner and Deontae Lawson, the top two players who missed spring practice, are fully healthy and taking big leadership roles.
The players who will assume bigger roles next to them are starting to take shape. Senior outside linebacker Chris Braswell has impressed coaches. Fellow senior Quandarrius Robinson and redshirt sophomore Keanu Koht are repping with the second team. Alabama brought in a slew of talented freshmen at the position who look good physically but are behind the veterans early on.
“Chris Braswell has made an impact when he’s had the opportunity to play,” Saban said. “Now he’s got the opportunity to be a full-time starter. He’s a mature player, he’s gotten bigger and stronger. He’s a good pass rusher. So, we expect him to do well this season and have a great year. We want to do everything we can to help him do that.”
At inside linebacker, sophomore Jihaad Campbell is another player who’s taken a step forward. He was repping alongside Lawson with the first-team defense last Saturday and played well. There’s still competition, and based on Saturday’s rotations, senior transfer Trezmen Marshall and redshirt freshman Shawn Murphy are in the mix.
In regards to figuring out the starting secondary, there’s one clear area the Crimson Tide aren’t lacking, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said.
“We’re Alabama, we have talent,” Steele said. “We have some who have played a lot and some who have not played so much. But it’s starting to fit together in terms of who, where, what and what their strengths are and how we utilize them.”
One of the biggest developments of camp is the ascension of junior safety DeVonta Smith, who’s taking first-team reps at safety. He’s been a special teams contributor but conceptually has a better understanding of the defense and isn’t making as many mental errors. If this continues, there’s a good chance he’s a week one starter.
“I would say (DeVonta’s) biggest thing was just learning the plays,” defensive back Malachi Moore said. “He’s done a great job of coming in and learning the adjustments and thinking forward to when the offense is motioning and being ahead of all the tasks and ahead of all the calls, and communicating with the corners, the stars, even the linebackers. I like the way he’s progressing.”
His emergence has given Moore the chance to work back at star, where he’s played the past few years. Saturday’s open practice saw a starting group of Smith and Caleb Downs at safety, Moore at star and Kool-Aid McKinstry and Terrion Arnold at cornerback. The second-team lineup featured Trey Amos, Antonio Kite and Dezz Ricks at corner, Earl Little at star and Jake Pope and Kristian Story working at safety. Jaylen Key worked at safety and star.
There’s an opportunity for several players to rotate playing time. Saban and Steele will watch this group closely on Saturday, particularly who communicates best and doesn’t allow explosive plays.
Alabama returns several veteran starters on special teams: Will Reichard (kicker), James Burnip (punter) and McKinstry at punt returner. On Wednesday, Saban provided a progress check on his specialists.
“They’ve done really, really well,” Saban said. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in both guys. James has gotten a little better each year in terms of his consistency. He’s got a really strong leg, but he’s gotten a little more consistent, so his bad kicks aren’t as bad and his good kicks are even better. But he’s more consistent all the way around. And Will’s been as good a college kicker over the last two-three years as anybody could ever ask for.
“You’ve gotta have great special teams, and sometimes people just look at the specialist and they evaluate the special teams. So our specialists should be really, really good, so we’ve gotta build really, really good special teams around them so that that can be a real asset for us this season.”
(Photo of Jalen Milroe courtesy of Alabama athletics)