28 August 2009
The Alabama football team practiced outside in glorious late afternoon weather in Tuscaloosa on Friday afternoon. To put things into perspective... the next Friday practice will be held in Atlanta. That's how close we are to the season.
Here's what you need to know:
Terrence Cody was absent from practice again today recovering from the flu. Coach Saban indicated that he thought players who had the flue would only be out 3-5 days, and this Cody's third missed practice. My guess is that he'll miss Saturday's practice, as well, and then use Sunday's off day to get ready for game-week practice. Terrence is the only player expected to be on the two-deep that is missing practice.
Kenny Bell was out of the black jersey. He's still trying to get back into action after wearing a protective boot for shin splints, and today is the first today that he's been cleared for contact.
No one other than quarterbacks were in black no contact jerseys.
In what would be considered a shocking development, due to how close we are to the season starting, Damion Square was practicing with the jack linebackers today. He's big enough to play defensive end, where he practiced during his redshirt season of 2008, but has shown the type of athleticism that could see him serve in a similar role as Brandon Fanney at the jack. He not the type of explosive play-maker that you ultimately want to see, but could be the type of run stopper at the position that Fanney was. I don't expect he'll go from end to starter at the jack this late in the proceedings, but he could quickly become a situational guy. Or he could be back at defensive end tomorrow. This one surprises me quite a bit.
While a depth chart isn't expected to be released until Monday, it looks as though things are starting to take shape all over the field. The biggest spotlight has been on the offensive line, and with the same five guys having practiced as one group since Wednesday of last week, speculation appears to be becoming reality for those guys. We knew that Mike Johnson and Drew Davis were all but guarantees to start, and the strong springs from James Carpenter and William Vlachos gave the appearance that they would also be in the starting unit. Barrett Jones is a bit of surprise, though, as he didn't start working with the first group until well into fall camp.
The true freshmen offensive linemen are now at the point where the staff might have to make a decision as to whether or not to redshirt them. Kellen Williams will almost certainly redshirt, as he joined the team late after having reconstructive knee surgery. The other three guys - Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, and Anthony Steen - are no guarantee either way. Steen looks as though he is running with the second group at right guard, so you would think that he is very unlikely to sit the entire year. Warmack was extremely impressive in the spring, and could redshirt if he is not needed this season. He looks physically ready to play, and could be the most difficult call of the three.
Fluker isn't likely to redshirt, simply because it's unlikely that he will stay at Alabama for four years. That's a lot of expectation to put on a young man, but he has the size and athleticism of an NFL player right now. Left tackle is premium position, and if he can learn the position well enough to play it in the SEC, then he simply isn't going to stick around for a senior season. If he is redshirted this year, then he will contribute nothing on the field to the team this year... and then he would be eligible to leave after his redshirt sophomore season. That's what happened with Knowshon Moreno at Georgia, and I'm betting that Mark Richt wishes that he had played Moreno as a true freshman. Even if D.J. is only able to help on one or two plays, in two or three games in 2009, that's a bigger contribution than what he would make if he redshirted. And if those are crucial plays - like goal line situations - they could be the difference in Alabama playing for championships, and the Tide settling for watching the SEC Championship Game from home. I don't expect the big fellow to start any time soon, but I do expect we'll see him on the field in 2009.
One area of importance that has received very little coverage from us this fall is special teams. To be honest with you, with Bama returning both kickers, and both return men, it just hasn't been a terribly interesting thing to talk about.
Coach Saban did spend some time in his most recent press conference talking about the fact that P.J. Fitzgerald has been consistent and steady improvement every year that he's been in the program... and this year is no different. The former walk-on has been criticized a lot by Tide fans as a weakness for the team, despite having shown that steady improvement. My guess is that we'll see P.J. improve his overall average to around 40.0 yards, while his net average climbs close to 37 yards. And while those aren't All-American like numbers, the small difference between total average and net average is a lot more important than most people realize.
Leigh Tiffin has also seen his share of criticism. It seems like some fans still haven't gotten over the 2006 Arkansas game. Leigh needs to more consistent from inside of 40 yards, there is no question about it. But he did improve in his overall kicking from 2007 to 2008, and there is no reason to assume that he won't improve again in 2009. He has added weight, which he indicates will help him on kick-offs. Most of his kicks on fan day were inside the five yard line, with most of them having good hang time. If Bama is able to field a solid kick coverage unit - which it should - having high kicks inside the five could allow the Tide to pin teams inside the 20 yard line. Sure, touchbacks are nice, because the alleviate any concern over a long run back. But having a skill position player take a huge hit from Courtney Upshaw at the 17 yard line is better on two fronts.
Javier Arenas had an up and down year in 2008, with a couple of early season fumbles and a bone headed decision in the SEC Championship Game being outweighed by the fact that he returned several kicks for touchdowns. The coaches are looking for Javier to make the kind of decisions that you expect from a senior, and there is no reason to think he won't be a touch smarter with his returns - when he gets the chance. Look for most teams to kick away from Javy on punts and kickoffs. Julio Jones will be the likely beneficiary of the kick offs coming his way - assuming that his ankle injury doesn't keep him out of that role - and it will be interesting to see if Bama goes with a two-man punt return team to force teams to make difficult decisions.
One thing to note here is the rule change regarding "rugby style" punters - the guys who run outside of the tackle box and punt low line drives that bounce forever. In season's past they were offered the same protection as a regular punter. No more. If the punter leaves the tackle box in order to kick, he is a live player, and he can be "contacted" by the defense. We saw a lot of teams in 2008 go with this style of punting to avoid kicking to Javier, and this rule change could benefit Bama.
The Tide will practice again tomorrow, for the last Saturday practice until the off week in mid season. We'll have our normal report, as well as a look at how some of the freshmen could impact the depth chart.