Spring football is a different animal in my eyes. It is a time for individuals to break through the clutter and define what their “job” in the fall will be.
During the first week of spring practice before talking about building team unity or togetherness Mike Shula said one of his main goals was “to identify some playmakers.”
There has been some fighting and scuffling at spring football practice – a seeming spring tradition of players showing a bit more selfishness than you’d ever see in the fall. Mike Shula deemed the fighting counterproductive, but it seemed to be a minor irritant and not a major concern.
At Alabama there are several spring awards given that promote more individualism than would ever be seen in the fall. Contrary to popular belief they were not implemented to stir controversy.
Rising soph Zeke Knight is one who has taken full advantage of the spring. Some have nicknamed him “T.O.” because his size (around 6-5, 220 pounds), speed and agility have drawn the comparisons to Standout Philadelphia receiver Terrell Owens. I can assure you it’s not because the two players are similar in personality – whether it’s media interviews or touchdown celebrations – there’s no comparing the two in that realm, and that’s good for Alabama.
Oddly, Shula compared Knight to the diminutive Tyrone Prothro, who was most dangerous once the ball got in his hands in 2004. Shula said, “He looks more fluid in what he’s doing and he understands more. We didn’t give him much last year because he got in late.”
In Knight’s case, he’s gone from a role player to a featured player over the course of a few weeks – at least that will be the expectation of him in August. For others it is a chance to earn the coaches trust to enter a game in back-up duty.
There have been other players trying to emerge in the spring. For them one of the most important parts of their football day occurs after they go home. It’s called, “showing up on film.”
When the coaches retire to evaluate the practice film they can pause, rewind and watch again a player who wasn’t previously on his radar screen. Showing up on film leads to more opportunities to show up on film and a building of that trust a coach must have to put a player into a game.
DB Eric Gray has had that opportunity in the fall and has been recognized. So has defensive lineman JP Adams. When I asked Shula how JP (Wilson) did after an early practice the response was a surprise. “JP Adams?” the coach asked. “He’s done well. He had a good practice today.” I was glad to hear it, but had to re-word my question.
Matt Collins is another who has drawn one or two mentions from defensive coordinator Joe Kines, but seldom a word from the media. Collins showed up at the scrimmage last Saturday when he filled a gap up the middle and stuffed running back Aaron Johns on two consecutive plays at the goal line. Collins was a second-teamer going against the first string offensive unit.
Greg McLain is trying to show up on film after a limited beginning. Two months ago McLain again had surgery on his elbow that has finally made him feel truly healed. A starter at fullback as a freshman, McLain is now trying to “show up on film,” he told me Tuesday.
Another is walk-on running back Theo Townsend. What could Townsend have expected of his football playing career this time seven months ago when the Tide had a full stable of ball carriers?
“I didn’t really expect anything. My motto was just to work hard and pretty soon you will show up on film. That’s what I go out there every day to do. I know some running backs are coming in but I’m here now. I have to do all I can do right now,” he said.
He might have earned enough trust for spot duty (or more) in the fall and he might not have, but you have to admire the man’s attitude.
Kines summed up spring work when he said, “It’s pretty simple and monotonous, but when you don’t do it - that is when it bites you.”
Grayshirt freshman quarterback John Parker Wilson has the chance to obtain a back-up role. It’s certainly true that Brodie Croyle had to be competent (or at least able) in the non-team drills he has been a part of to remain entrenched at number one, and he has been.
Wilson is still the odds-on favorite to win the back-up job over Marc Guillon, but Guillon proved he is not out of the fight by putting up better numbers in the first all-out scrimmage of spring even if it was against the second-string defense.
Wilson is the favorite in my eyes because this spring is his first extended training at Alabama, while it’s Guillon’s second spring. Combined with Guillon’s injury it appears that Wilson is the player with the most room for improvement.
“For John Parker Wilson this time will be invaluable,” offensive coordinator Dave Rader said after the first days of practice. “It’s just like with a math student – the more practice problems you work the better you get at them. John Parker is a smart individual. His negatives are correctable and by the end of spring practice we think he will be more smooth and polished.”
Wilson’s scrimmage on Saturday will be all-important in showing off a touch of polish. His biggest drawback has been holding on to the ball too long. During the first scrimmage he was sacked numerous times. While quarterbacks aren’t “live” and they only have to be tagged by a defender to draw a whistle, it was obvious Wilson wouldn’t last long in the SEC without getting the ball away quicker.
Mike Shula warned as much, saying, “When the quarterbacks aren’t getting hit it’s easy to hold on to the ball and wait for a guy to come open but it doesn’t happen that way during the games.”
But don’t look for any live shots to be taken at any of the Tide QBs for preparation. Besides being unheard of with almost any squad, it’s a risk Alabama particularly can’t afford.
And speaking of protecting quarterbacks, there’s the nagging question about the offensive line. Will they be ready?
The answer: Not before fall.
“It’s absolutely wide open. There are five spots that they have to go and get,” offensive line coach Bob Connelly said at the beginning.
Arguably, three of those positions are solidified: Kyle Tatum at right tackle, JB Closner at center and Antoine Caldwell at left guard.
Connelly wants Cody Davis and Chris Capps to battle it out for the left tackle spot. Currently, Capps is running with the first stringers and Davis with the second, but neither have given either Connelly or Shula a warm-and-fuzzy feeling about the position.
“If a true freshman is physically ready and can understand the game mentally we will absolutely look at playing him. It’s just where we are numbers wise,” Connelly said.
At the right guard spot it appears that rising senior Mark Sanders and sophomore Justin Moon are battling to back up B.J. Stabler in the fall. Yes, Stabler has been hurt and limited in the fall, but he is still the favorite to get the job. Sanders and Moon have flip-flopped in working with the first team during spring.
“The biggest issue we have is youth,” Connelly said.
Youth equates to uncertainty and that’s why it will be hard to judge this Tide team – as a team – coming out of the spring. Teams are built in the off-season, the whole off-season. Winter workouts, spring practice, summer conditioning and two-a-days combined.
The 15 days of practice we get to watch now are but a small ingredient.