The spring is important. Although Alabama has won back-to-back national championships and three of the last four titles, Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban reminded that “Every year you’ve got to reinvent your team.”
He said, “There was a lot of good carryover with a lot of players. We have a lot of players that are young players that have an opportunity created by the guys who left.”
Saban said, “The main objective to me of spring practice is to focus on player improvement, whether it's what a player needs to be able to do, the technique of how he should do it and have an understanding conceptually of why it's important to do it that way.
“In the spring, you don't have gameplan, you don't have to change what you're doing.
It's an opportunity for everybody to know our offense, our defense our special teams and understand what's expected of them. I think it's also a time when a player needs to learn how to practice, which means to give effort, play with a certain amount of toughness, relative to what's defined in that particular drill.
“Everybody's got to be able to perform. You've got to show that you're dependable and you can go out there and perform. That's the part of mental toughness and focus that every player has to sort of prove that he can do.
“And each player should evaluate that for themselves every day. What kind of effort did I give today? And evaluate myself. How dependable was I today? Was I responsible to do my job? How many mental errors did I make? Was I able to play with the right technique? Was I able to succeed in my responsibility for what I was supposed to do? And if I didn't do it, be able to look at the film and learn from it so that you can progress and improve.
“Who are going to be the leaders? Who are going to be the guys that set an example? Who steps forward as young players who show that they have the responsibility to do a job and be dependable in doing that job so we that have a chance to play winning football with them?”
Saban has pointed out the in the past that the team that wins a national championship one year is not the same team next year, and that the new team has to guard against “entitlement.” There may have been a bit of that, but the off-season work – Saban’s famous “Fourth Quarter Program – had been helpful in getting Bama grounded.
“I would say that the offseason program was good,” Saban said. “Until we got into the offseason program and sort of got a handle on things, we did not respond as well as we'd like with this group. But I think they've made a tremendous amount of improvement. I think we had more guys miss class, more issues, the first behavioral issues we've had with the guys who got in trouble that we've had in five and a half years. A lot of little loose-ended things.
“When guys have entitlement, you see a little slippage.
“Once we got into the offseason program where we were seeing the players just about four out of five days, and the coaches were around them more, I think we got them recentered and refocused and we've improved in all those areas. We've had the best academic week that we've had all semester, and guys are making progress. We really had a good offseason program and the attitude was good today at practice. We are making progress.”
The practice in helmets and shoulder pads was the first of 15 in the spring. Bama will work three days next week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) and then reassemble after The University’s spring break on April 1. The A-Day Game on April 20 will conclude spring drills.
The Tide coach noted that two players would likely not participate in spring work because they have had surgeries on their toes. But he said wide receiver Kevin Norwood and cornerback Jonathan Fulton both should be ready for the summer off-season work and fall camp.
He also discussed some experiments, which are normal in the spring, and emphasized that they are just experiments, not permanent changes. The involve offensive players – wide receivers Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones and tailback Dee Hart – working in the secondary. Alabama has many safeties, but is a little short on cornerbacks. He noted, particularly, that Christion Jones has been a productive player on offense.
“There's two things that you need from experimenting with a player,” Saban said. “whether a guy can do something if you need him in the fall and if something bad happens at a position in the fall, you have some basic knowledge of what he would have to do to be able to fill in for you if you need for him to.”
The spring experiments are a staple of Saban having an “insurance policy” of sorts.
Christion Jones worked with both offense and defense while Cyrus Jones and Hart were with the defense on the first day.
Saban said, “I don't even know that we're looking to make permanent changes. We're looking to see if any of those guys can help us, and if this would be a better circumstance for how much they would be able to contribute to our team. The first thing you've got to do to determine that is, 'Can the guy do it? Does he have the physical attributes to be able to do it, and help you in some role.'
“I've been encouraged by all those guys. They're all really athletic. They've all played defensive back before, so it's not like they're lost. And I don't think there's any way that all those guys are going to end up on defense. Maybe one. Maybe two, if they both have roles.”
Saban’s example of the procedure dates from his days as head coach at LSU when he put wide receiver Michael Clayton through some defensive work in the spring. The next fall, Saban said, “Lo and behold near the end of the season we got a couple guys hurt, and he played some safety. But it was easy for him to do because he'd already learned how to do it. It gives you a little bit of an insurance policy when a guy can make that transition because he's learned it at some point in time before. That's part of what we're trying to do as well.”
Speaking of the secondary, Alabama has an interesting walk-on, 28-year-old Jai Miller. Miller, a top prospect a decade ago who signed with Stanford and then played professional baseball instead (including brief time with three major league teams), is new with Bama this year. The Selma native, a prep quarterback, is 6-3, 210.
Saban said, “I think anytime you're off for a while, it takes a little bit of time to transition back into it. But I've been encouraged by his athleticism and his size. He's a bright guy. He does learn. I saw him make a tremendous amount of improvement on the field today. Everything it new to him, every technique is new to him. I'm sure things are running a little bit together for him on the first day but I'm encouraged by how he might be able to help us.”