Alabama completed its fifth day of practice Tuesday, its first in full gear. On Wednesday the Tide will begin its brief period of going twice a day every other day. At some point the emphasis of practice will shift to the game plan for The Opening game on September 1 against Michigan in the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas. Meanwhile, Bama is trying to build a team for the season.
A part of that is the difficult decision coaches have to make to determine which of the 105 players in fall camp will get the work needed to prepare them for Michigan and beyond.
Right now it is all of them.
“I think the biggest thing we're trying to do right now is work all of our players in the fundamentals of what they need to do to be good players,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said Tuesday evening. “We're coaching every guy on the team. We practice ones and threes, and twos and fours every day and split the coaching staff up so everybody is getting repetitions, everybody is getting coached, everybody has an opportunity.”
Eventually, though, personnel decisions have to be made.
“I don’t think it’s ever an easy decision,” Saban said. He said that Bama looks at the situation somewhat the way an NFL team does when it makes cuts. “Do you keep this veteran player because he knows what to do and is a really good player, or do you keep this young guy who can potentially by the eighth game of the season be a better player than the old veteran?” he said. “Which guy do you keep?
“Here it’s which guys do you choose to continue to coach and develop and try to get ready for halfway through the season knowing that he’ll be a better player, have a role, and make a contribution.
“Those decisions are always difficult. I think the maturity of players has a tremendous amount to do with how they develop. They focus better, they improve more, they’re more consistent in their mental intensity and effort.”
The coach said, “You’re not always right. Sometimes you choose to play a guy and then he doesn’t come along so then he doesn’t have a role so you kind of wasted his year. Other times you hold a guy out and by the sixth game of the year, he can’t block a guy on the scout team. So, we’ve all done that. But personnel is not an exact science. Recruiting is not an exact science.”
To date, Saban said, “I'm really kind of pleased with the work and the progress that our team has made to this point. I didn't say satisfied, I just said pleased. I think the players are working hard. They're trying to pay attention to detail. They're trying to work through it.”
The emphasis has been on teaching. Those who can focus and show consistency will move up.
Saban said, “When you have a young team, it takes a little while for some guys to sort of figure that out. It's amazing to me that the younger guys, we want them to give effort and play with toughness and let it go, and if they don't know what to do, they're really not going to play very fast. It's going to take them awhile to get confidence in what they do so they can pull the pin and go out there and play the kind of football they need to play.”
In citing players who have shown improvement, he named quarterback A.J. McCarron, offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, and true freshman wide receiver Amari Cooper.
“There are a lot of guys out there doing a really good job every day, showing consistency in performance, which I think is really important to being successful,” Saban said. “Hopefully, we’ll get more and more guys that are able to do that as they gain more knowledge and experience of what is expected of them.”
Saban has given players a blueprint on how to be on the right side of coaching decisions.
“We try to sell our guys on how important it is to play on special teams,” Saban said. “There’s not a player that’s not a starter on an NFL team that doesn’t have to be a good special teams player to make the team.”
Most of those who come to Alabama to play football were high school stars and did not have to play on special teams. Saban urges them to learn to play on special teams “right now. You’ll learn that’s an important place, and your effort and your toughness and your ability to execute and do your job on special teams is just as important as it is to be a running back, a receiver, a defensive back, a linebacker, or whatever position it might be. So, they’ve got to want to do it.
“I see a lot in our special teams so far. It's always great when you have four or five guys that are borderline players and they see that as their role on the team and they're just about on every team, kind of like how Vinnie Sunseri and Trey DePriest were last year and they do a great job on those teams. Four or five guys can have a tremendous impact.
“But if they're going to give effort and play with toughness, then they have to be responsible to do their job and do it with discipline so we're not getting penalties or making poor judgments and decisions. So, it's not just about effort, it's about channeling that effort into productive performance that's going to play winning football for you on the special teams.
“Hopefully we'll have some young guys that do that. There have been some guys that have showed that they really want to do that and that's important to them. And that will be beneficial to us. Because the more you have to play starters on special teams, I think that affects you long-term in terms of the wear and tear that you have on guys and how they get worn down in games. We need more players to have a role. I think it's great for team chemistry that more players have a role.”
On the injury front from Sunday’s practice, Saban said, “Chris Black (freshman wide receiver) had a shoulder injury. He's going to be re-evaluated by a doctor tonight. We're not sure about what his status is. It's very, very questionable.
“Wilson Love (defensive lineman) is fine. He twisted his ankle, but he practiced today and he's fine.”
Saban also said, “We have nothing new on Brandon Hill. We're expecting something to happen probably sometime today so we know where we're heading with him, in terms of what he needs to do to get eligible to be here with us.” Hill is a true freshman offensive lineman who has not yet been ruled academically eligible.