Working on Alabama football mysteries, not entirely without any clues

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Not many actually know what goes on behind closed doors on college campuses. Unless you mean an Alabama football scrimmage, when it seems almost everyone knows precisely what happened fairly quickly.

You can take a combination of a well-accessed friend or relative, ubiquitous message board posts and the pronouncements of Nick Saban, whether mysterious or revelatory, and come up with a fairly complete picture, give or take some accuracy.

These days, the recipe usually comes out tasting like optimism. For Saban, it tastes suspiciously like "rat poison," but his tastes are different. 

There is usually one omission in any “practice report,” even when Saban painfully points it out. Even for those with access, a scrimmage is not a game.

Fans may celebrate a 60-yard touchdown pass. Saban, who is probably looking for the secondary bust that made that offensive highlight possible, probably doesn’t, especially if the drill was designed to install a new coverage. 

With that caveat, and relying on Saban’s comments as the textual authority, here are a few ideas going forward.

Quarterback position prompts speculation 

Saban on sophomore quarterback Bryce Young: “We have to play well around Bryce. At times today, I didn’t think maybe we did as good a job as we need to. It’s all 11 guys. It’s the offensive line. It’s the receivers. It’s all 11 guys, so that he’ll have more opportunities to make plays.”

The quarterback position being what it is, that one prompted all sort of post-scrimmage social media speculation.

The likeliest explanation is one that occurs in most early scrimmages. The defense is usually ahead of the offense. Alabama is revamping its offensive line, and suddenly guys who are trying to learn a position at full speed are having to block Will Anderson and Christian Harris.

This isn’t some situation that is unique to Alabama. Look at the comments from Dolphin fans (and others) who got to watch every snap that Tua Tagovailoa took in his exhibition appearance Saturday. Some said Tua was fine, others wailed and gnashes their teeth that he was “a bust.” But it was unanimous that the Dolphins have work to do on the offensive line.

For Young, it was probably the same.

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Defensive back Josh Jobe (28) intercepts a pass during practice for the Crimson Tide Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.[Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Who will make up the defensive line? 

Saban on the defensive line: “We probably have eight or nine guys that might be able to contribute in that rotation. I also think that with Will and Chris Allen, those two guys can play sort of defensive end, especially in nickel situations. It gives us a little more athleticism, a little more pass rush. But we’ve got seven or eight guys that have all sort of rotated in there with the 1s and 2s and back and forth. And they seem to be making pretty good progress."

If one quote from the scrimmage should strike fear into opponents, this is it.

Yes, the days of the elite defense in college football holding teams to 10 points or under per game are probably gone. But even if you look at only the teams in the Top 25, you aren’t going to find 200 or 225 elite defensive linemen.

They are a rare commodity, coveted in recruiting. But if Alabama is rotating seven or eight, presumably without an injured LaBryan Ray (groin), that’s the foundation of a strong defense. Some of the names — Phil Mathis, Tim Smith and DJ Dale — are obvious, but it will be fascinating to see which of the younger players see 15 or 20 snaps against Miami in the opener.

There is another scrimmage at the end of the week to garner a few more clues. Then, on Sept. 4, clues become answers. 

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecilhurt@gannett.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt