The Insider Report is a combination of reporting throughout the start of Alabama’s fall camp. It includes information received in on-the-record interviews and press conferences with coach Nick Saban and Alabama players, our own observations during periods of practice that are open to media, and information received from individuals who have seen Alabama practices or scrimmages.
The Big Picture
It’s a bit abnormal to imagine the offense being ahead of the defense this time of year in Tuscaloosa, but that seems to be the case. A traditional adage is that the offense takes longer to come together, because it requires all 11 players to be in sync for a play to work. On defense, you might have a breakdown that the offense misses or can’t exploit. But with eight new defensive starters and a bunch of young players, particularly in the back end, the offense seemed to be ahead of the defense in Saturday’s scrimmage. Nick Saban’s comments also seemed to reflect that, particularly when he discussed the second string on defense.
The big concern overall will be depth on defense. That would have been the case even before injuries to Terrell Lewis and Chris Allen, but losing them means that Alabama will be relying on a couple more freshmen at outside linebacker. The secondary is likely to see multiple freshmen in the two-deep to begin the season. As with any player, those freshmen will have to progress during the season as they’re counted on more.
Now, here’s how individual positions look.
The battle between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa wasn’t resolved going into Saturday’s scrimmage, and it didn’t seem to be resolved afterward. Hurts threw two touchdowns and Tagovailoa had three. Those who were at the scrimmage reported that both players mixed up their reps with the starters and the second string, but Tagovailoa took the first reps with the first team.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s over and done with. Hurts may have taken the first reps with the starters during the scrimmage last week as coaches wanted to give them both a chance. That might not be the case, but you never want to read too much into one day. Hurts’ performance in the scrimmage on Saturday would also make it difficult to think the competition is over.
Both players have gotten positive reviews, though Nick Saban has been short when asked about the quarterback battle. Hurts had a long touchdown pass on Saturday and has been effective throwing the ball. Tagovailoa’s arm talent continues to show up.
As has been said all along, it’s possible that both quarterbacks could see the field in the opener. It’s possible that there’s a role for both on the team throughout the season. Tagovailoa seemed to enter camp as the betting favorite. It may not have shifted further in his favor, but he hasn’t fallen off at all.
Najee Harris (foot) didn’t participate in Saturday’s scrimmage, and Damien Harris didn’t take a ton of reps. It’s just not necessary for a veteran like him to go out and risk injury in live action when other players could use the reps more.
That allowed Josh Jacobs to be one of the standouts from Saturday. He had two rushing touchdowns and turned some heads with his play. He did a good job in the open field and made some defenders miss. Though Damien Harris didn’t play a lot, there were times when Harris and Jacobs lined up on the field together.
Brian Robinson didn’t seem to have a particularly memorable scrimmage one way or the other, but all indications are that the coaching staff remains high on him. It’s amazing how much his body type (6-1/221) looks like Najee Harris (6-2/230) from a distance. He’s just a sophomore and seems on track for an excellent career. Just a matter of whether he takes a bigger role this season or further down the line.
Freshman Jerome Ford ran with confidence and acquitted himself well. Not sure how much of a role he’ll have this year, but he’s one to remember. Don’t write him off just because he wasn’t ranked as highly as a recruit as some other Alabama backs. Never hurts to have an extra player at this position.
The first three receivers look like the sophomores, as expected. Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith have all shown their skill and seem to be ahead of the competition. Jeudy is probably the most highly-considered of the three. He’s a more consistent target and was seen lining up at all three receiver positions during the scrimmage. Ruggs and Smith will have big roles as well, but if there’s a bread-and-butter receiver, it looks like Jeudy.
There’s also loads of excitement around freshman Jaylen Waddle. We talked about him on a podcast last week and he continues to be mentioned He’s one of two freshman who have been mentioned most consistently to this point (the other is on defense, and we’ll get to him). Some are even higher on him and say he’s one of the team’s best players of any age. Shyheim Carter described him as “athletic and shifty.” He’s working with the second string and was on the field with the starters at times on Saturday. He had two touchdowns in the scrimmage, including one from Jalen Hurts with double coverage all over him.
Tyrell Shavers and freshman Xavier Williams are also players to keep an eye on. Veterans Xavian Marks and Derek Kief will have to hold them off (Kief had a touchdown on Saturday as well).
At tight end, Irv Smith Jr. seems to be progressing, and Hale Hentges will continue to have a role with the offense even if he doesn’t catch 30 passes. Kedrick James is one to watch who could take a bigger role. He’s gotten very positive reviews from teammates through fall camp. Miller Forristall might have been the top pass-catcher at tight end last year before his ACL injury, and he’s back as well. That group of four is equipped to handle most anything the position requires.
The left side of the line hasn’t changed much since the start of fall camp, with Jonah Williams, Lester Cotton and Ross Pierschbacher holding it down at left tackle, left guard and center. Matt Womack’s injury takes one factor out of the competition on the right side between Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills.
The scrimmage Saturday saw Wills play at right tackle and Leatherwood at right guard. That mirrors what we saw during the viewing period last week and when we were at practice today. As with the quarterbacks, it’s possible that that’s just the reverse of the previous scrimmage. Regardless, it’s notable that unlike at quarterback, there wasn’t rotation between the two on Saturday.
The second team has still seen some shuffling. Deonte Brown played left guard on Saturday while Josh Casher was at right, the reverse of what they’ve done for most of camp (and the reverse of what we saw earlier today).
Expectations for the offensive line are still high and this unit should be a strength of the team. Jonah Williams is a potential top-10 pick, Cotton is a powerful blocker and Pierschbacher’s move to center has gone well. Both Wills and Leatherwood have bright futures as well.
Most of the attention in the preseason has been on defensive ends Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs. That’s a solid duo to begin with, but don’t sleep on defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. He told us on Monday that he’s up to 305 pounds (the website lists him at 289). He’s gotten rave reviews from his teammates on the defensive line and from offensive linemen who have played against him. Nick Saban has also had a lot of good things to say about him. Some think he might end up being Alabama’s best defensive lineman by the end of the season.
Elsewhere, sophomore LaBryan Ray and redshirt freshman Phidarian Mathis will be counted on more this season to be in the rotation. Senior Johnny Dwight and junior college transfer Tevita Musika, listed at 338 pounds, might be more likely to be used as situational players. Musika might have a role similar to Darren Lake in 2015.
If you watched closely during ESPN’s series on fall camp, you could see freshman Christian Barmore pressuring Tua Tagovailoa. He’s pushing for time with the second team as well. Freshman Stephon Wynn will be out at least a couple more weeks with his leg strain.
Losing Terrell Lewis and Chris Allen hurts this group, and there’s no way around it. Tosh Lupoi hinted at media day that Lewis could surprise people with how quickly he bounces back, but he’s not going to be there for a while.
That leaves Christian Miller, Anfernee Jennings and Jamey Mosley for the time being. They’ll need depth behind them. Look for Eyabi Anoma to get time right away in pass rush situations, and potentially see more time as he continues to develop. Cameron Latu and Jarez Parks are both likely to play as well, though they might not have major impacts immediately. Parks probably fits more as a Jack LB, while Latu and Anoma might both be Sams right now.
There’s reason to be excited about Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses. They might be the most athletic pair of inside linebackers Alabama has been able to play at the same time during the Nick Saban era. They’ll cover a lot of ground sideline-to-sideline and both seem comfortable with the defense. Saban has mentioned that he’d like to see some more leadership from Mack Wilson during fall camp as the defense is still rebuilding. Moses could also see some time as a situational pass rusher, like he did as a freshman.
Behind them, there’s still some work to be done. Saban said that they needed Markail Benton “to mature and develop and not be one of those guys that’s always looking for an easy way.” He said on Saturday that Josh McMillon would have been a candidate to slide to outside linebacker following the injuries, but he’s needed inside. He’s a reliable veteran who can get the defense in the right position, and moving a guy like that with a young second team might do more damage than good. Losing either starter would result in a bigger dropoff than you saw in 2017 or 2016 following the two injuries to Shaun Dion Hamilton.
It might be too early to tell on Ale Kaho. He’s only been in camp for a little over a week as of this writing, and most of that has been during his acclimatization period.
The offense seemed to burn the defense at times during the scrimmage. While part of that was an inexperienced second unit, some of it was the starters. Some of it wasn’t just busted coverage, but rather the offense making better plays.
Nick Saban didn’t mince words on Thursday when he said that Xavier McKinney (safety) and Trevon Diggs (corner) were the most consistent players in the secondary. That put Saivion Smith, Shyheim Carter and Deionte Thompson under a microscope.
As mentioned in the wide receiver section, the other true freshman who has received strong reviews is Patrick Surtain Jr. He’ll contribute right away, probably in nickel or dime as Alabama’s fifth or sixth defensive back. We’ve seen him getting run with the first team defense in nickel packages during the viewing period, and also seen him shadowing Alabama’s starters at cornerback and star a lot during camp. He could open the season at star, which would keep Carter in a role similar to what he played in dime last year. That would also invite comparisons of Surtain to Minkah Fitzpatrick, fair or not.
Jalyn Armour-Davis also seems to be making a push to be on the second team. Nigel Knott (corner), Jared Mayden (star), Daniel Wright (safety) and Kyriq McDonald (safety) are also possibilities with the second team. Veteran Keaton Anderson has seemed to have some opportunities with the second team as well.
Nick Saban said last week that freshman punter Skyler DeLong has looked good, but they’d like him to be more consistent. That’s about how he looked on Saturday, with one excellent punt but another that was badly shanked. There’s not much chance he isn’t the punter, but don’t count on him to be JK Scott from the start.
Kicker is another position that is potentially undecided. Bulovas had a strong spring, but grad transfer Austin Jones has played well in fall. Both players hit 45+ yarders on Saturday, though some said that Jones was a bit more impressive. Bulovas had a kick blocked, partially because his blocking collapsed but also because he left the kick low. This might be a year when Alabama opts to use both kickers as you’ve seen at times previously.
Saban seemed optimistic about the return game last week. Trevon Diggs, Henry Ruggs and Jaylen Waddle all returned punts on Saturday. Waddle, Ruggs, Damien Harris, Brian Robinson and Slade Bolden were all used in kick returning formations. This is an area that you may see Waddle make an early impression.