TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If A-Day was a midterm exam, as Alabama coach Nick Saban put it, linebacker Reggie Ragland would give his team a C-plus.
“We have a long way to go, offense and defense,” the senior explained.
Truth be told, both sides of the ball had their moments during Saturday’s scrimmage in Bryant-Denny Stadium, which the White Team won, beating the Crimson Team, 27-14. The passing game hit a few big plays, but the defense snatched six interceptions. In examining the fate of Alabama’s title hopes in 2015, there were too many points and counterpoints to consider.
“There can be no great conclusions drawn about what happened today, other than we were pleased in what we saw in some of the guys” Saban said.
With great conclusions out, we’re left with small ones. Here are five observations from the scrimmage:
1. No separation at QB: It should come as no surprise that Jake Coker fared the best of all the quarterbacks on the roster, completing 14 of 28 passes for 183 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The fifth-year senior had the advantage of working with the first-team offense, after all. Saban himself admitted that, “If I had to play on those two teams, I would’ve played better on the White Team.” So don’t count out the second-team QB, David Cornwell, who went against the first-team defense with backup receivers. The strong-armed redshirt freshman threw two interceptions, but he isn’t out of the race. Neither is Cooper Bateman, Alec Morris or Blake Barnett, who were varying degrees of average. None of the QBs were spectacular, but that’s no different than this time a year ago when Blake Sims looked like he threw away the starting job with two interceptions at A-Day. All Sims eventually did was win the job late in the fall and set the school record for passing yards in a single season.
2. Wide receivers emerge: With no Amari Cooper, the search for a new threat in the passing game was on. In fact, a few wideouts needed to step up, seeing as both of Cooper’s fellow starters from last year, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones, are no longer on campus. Enter ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster, who stole the show on Saturday. Stewart, who showed glimpses of being a playmaker as a backup last year, led all receivers with eight receptions, 118 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Foster, the former No. 2 receiver in the 2013 class, had six catches for 125 yards. “They both made plays,” Saban said of the duo. “They both played with confidence.” With those two stretching the field deep and tight end O.J. Howard working the middle of the defense, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has weapons he can work with.
3. Secondary shows improvement: While Saban would have loved to have seen better play from his quarterbacks, he had to be pleased with the improvement of his secondary. The same unit that was exposed by Auburn and Ohio State late last season appears to have turned a corner this spring, snatching five interceptions during the A-Day scrimmage. Maurice Smith, who made the transition from corner to safety, had a pick. So did cornerback Marlon Humphrey, a former five-star prospect who spent his first year at Alabama on the bench. True freshman Ronnie Harrison, who has drawn rave reviews from teammates since enrolling in January, had an interception of his own. With the exception of a few busts downfield, the secondary held up well, limiting Alabama’s quarterbacks to 46 of 83 passing and three touchdowns.
4. Glimpse of the running game: Coming back from a season-ending leg injury, Kenyan Drake was essentially made to play two-hand touch. Wearing a black no-contact jersey, the usually explosive running back had what looked like a long touchdown run called back when a defender tapped his shoulder near the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Reggie Ragland joked that Drake was “crying” because he couldn’t do what he wanted. But even with Drake limited, Alabama fans got a look at what could be a dynamic backfield, pairing Drake’s speed with Derrick Henry’s power. Henry, the presumptive No. 1 tailback, had no limitations. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound junior carried the ball 15 times for 53 yards and a touchdown.
5. Front seven solidifies high standing: The secondary is improving. The O-line is coming along. The quarterbacks will eventually get there. But of all the areas Alabama fans worry about, the front seven of the defense is not one of them, and with good reason. Even without two of its best linemen, A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen, the defense won the battle at the line of scrimmage on Saturday. All told, there were eight sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Seven times they registered a QB hurry. Linemen Dalvin Tomlinson, Joshua Frazier and Jarran Reed all batted down passes. So did linebackers Ragland and Dillon Lee. Given the secondary’s limited experience, the front seven’s play was a good sign of things to come for Alabama’s defense.