New quarterbacks, new coordinator and a new attitude
Alabama is coming off the kind of disappointing season most teams would envy.
The Crimson Tide were No. 1 and undefeated until Nov. 30 and reached the Sugar Bowl. But the glaring number here is 0-2, as in losses to Auburn and Oklahoma to finish the season.
The theme of spring practice in Tuscaloosa has been to rediscover the magic that started to fade, players say, well before the heartbreaking loss to Auburn. The two-touchdown loss to Oklahoma was the culmination of the complacency that Alabama feared going back to spring 2013.
As spring 2014 comes to a close, Alabama coach Nick Saban is not only looking for a change of attitude in his team, but also some key personnel moves, starting with the replacement of quarterback AJ McCarron.
Follow @DavidFox615 for updates from Alabama and @BradenGall for updates from Auburn and stay tuned for game coverage Saturday and through the week.
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Alabama won’t have a true picture of who will replace career-leading passer and two-time national championship quarterback AJ McCarron until the fall when Florida State transfer Jacob Coker arrives. Credit senior quarterback Blake Sims, though, for making the most his spring in the spotlight. Alabama coach Nick Saban has praised Sims’ “command” of the offense. This will be Sims’ final audition before competing for the job yet again when Coker arrives. Coker, a Mobile, Ala., native, competed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston before last season at Florida State. Coker is still finishing his final semester in Tallahassee before he’ll be eligible immediately at Alabama.
T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry on the same team
Saban has been generous in his praise of Henry, who was one of the breakout players of bowl season with 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries against Oklahoma. He and incumbent T.J. Yeldon are both on the Crimson team for first-stringers on offense. That means Yeldon and Henry will both run into the No. 1 defense. Both are capable of being a feature back — and a star feature back, at that — so the rotation and 1-2 punch will be worth watching.
The unveiling of Lane Kiffin, offensive coordinator
One of the more intriguing coaching moves of the offseason was the addition of Kiffin to the Alabama staff as offensive coordinator. By Alabama policy, Kiffin shouldn’t be as much as a lightning rod as an assistant in Tuscaloosa. Alabama assistants do not conduct media interviews. That means the Alabama offense will have to speak for the former Tennessee and USC coach. Receivers, including Amari Cooper, have said Kiffin has a knack for getting the ball into the hands of his playmakers. But Kiffin is also one of a dwindling group of college coordinators who embrace the kind of pro-style offense Saban wants to run. How will that manifest itself on A-Day?
The attendance battle with Auburn
Everything is a competition with the Iron Bowl, so why not put the spring game attendance figures head to head. During the Saban era, Alabama has demolished Auburn in spring game attendance, at least until last season when the Tigers set a school record with 83,401 at their spring game. Alabama’s spring game attendance has leveled off to sub-80,000 (by the way, how many coaches are wishing they had a 78,000 at their spring games?). Maybe the added mystery — a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator — and good weather will draw more Alabama fans for the scrimmage. Remember, Alabama set a record in the 2011 spring game, another game after a non-championship year.
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The fan reaction
Perhaps no fan base in the SEC has had quite the swing in emotions. Alabama went into the Iron Bowl undefeated with hopes of a fourth national championship in five seasons. Then came the Kick Six. Then came the flop against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Hiring Lane Kiffin was puzzling. Is this a fragile fan base? With Auburn on top as well, no state will have a more interesting offseason than Alabama.
The state of the secondary
The secondary is the biggest question on the defense with positions open at spots not manned by safety Landon Collins. This brings up the classic question for spring games — if Sims has a good day passing is that good for him or bad for the defense and vice versa.
Trey DePriest steps up
The defense also needs its quarterback with C.J. Mosley gone. Middle linebacker and multi-year starter Trey DePriest takes over at signal-caller on the defense. He’ll also need to shepherd a young linebacker corps.
Nick Saban, having fun?
The tradition at Alabama, as it is for a handful of schools, is to treat the winning team in the spring game to a lavish dinner while the losing team receives, let’s say, more standard fare. In the case of Alabama, it’s steak with wait service for the winning players and coaches and buffet-style franks and beans for losing team. Saban, the “commissioner” of A-Day, always gets steak. “The players say I have to choose a team because they get tired of me being over there eating steak and not being on team,” Saban said. “But it’s not just the steak. It’s the tablecloth, the roses on every table, waitresses waiting on you. The other side of it is paper plates, one pot, beans, paper towels, plastic silverware.”
Related: What might get under Saban’s skin?
Saban’s not above sending a message through the media, particularly when he’s unhappy. When asked why running backs Kenyan Drake and Altee Tenpenny, two of the tree running backs on the White team, were absent from the open portion of practice, Saban tone ticked up for a bit: “They didn’t do what they were supposed to do in school this week, so I sent them to study table for four hours and they didn’t come to practice,” Saban said. “If they don’t stay over the for four hours, the probably won’t play in the spring game. There’s no update, just a fact. ...
“I’d rather do it now than during the season. You know, all these players need to learn that they have a responsibility and obligation to do the right thing for themselves.”
Freshman offensive lineman Cam Robinson
In a mild surprise, freshman Cam Robinson will play left tackle with the first-team offense on Saturday while Brandon Greene, his competition, will be with the second unit.
See the sights
Colleague Braden Gall ran down a few of the sights he’s looking to take in at A-Day over at Auburn including Toomer’s Corner and tailgates. I’ve covered games at most SEC programs, but Bryant-Denny is a glaring blind spot on my stadium resume. I’m looking forward to taking a stroll around the stadium to check out the national champion coach statues. There has to be a line for taking photos with the Bear and Saban, right?
From the beat:
AL.com reporter Andrew Gribble joined us to talk about what he’s seen around Alabama spring football.
Athlon Sports: A major point at spring practice this season has been rediscovering the edge and attention to detail that derailed last year’s national championship hopes. How much as that been an issue this spring?
Andrew Gribble: I think they realized they lost their identity at some point last season. Many of the players said that happened before the Auburn loss. That’s been the key talking point from Saban and the players. I think he’s been pleased with what they’ve been able to do. The attitude has been better this year. I think they’re still looking for leaders because they lost a few big ones. The vibe has been back on the right path. That’s been the key theme. Last year, they talked about avoiding complacency. That never really happened this year.
Athlon: How has the messaging been different from Saban compared to years past?
Gribble: He entered this year saying they were going to start over. That’s been the theme, and he’s been pretty positive with many of the players. He’s been more open with the quarterback competition than he was with the McCarron and (Phillip) Sims one. He’s been pretty transparent on that. He’s been very high on praise for Amari Cooper and Derrick Henry and guys like that. There’s been moments when he’s been more positive than in past years.
Athlon: What has been the reaction to Lane Kiffin’s hire, both from the team and the fan base?
Gribble: The fan base has bought into it. I think they were skeptical initially. But I think they kind of trust that Saban knows what he’s doing. The players have really responded well to him. Amari Cooper especially has talked about how the offense is simpler and playmaker-friendly. That’s good news for all the running backs and Cooper and O.J. Howard. Kiffin has a good track record with quarterbacks and they recognize that. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve heard a lot about tempo. They’re not going to look like Oregon anytime soon, but there are going to be situations where they pick up the pace a little bit.
Athlon: How much will the quarterback situation change when Jacob Coker gets here?
Gribble: They’re not going to have an answer by the end of spring, and Coker is the main reason for that. It’s kind of clear that Blake Sims has emerged as the top guy for this current group. He’s had a good spring. The players really like him. He worked with a quarterback coach over spring break, so he’s gotten a lot better. But Jacob Coker wouldn’t have signed with Alabama if he wasn’t going to compete. I think he’s still the frontrunner because he has the skills that Alabama likes in its quarterbacks, and he’s mobile, too. It’s really going to get started once fall camp starts. Saban’s said it could go into the season. I don’t know if it’s going to last that long, but he said the same thing with McCarron even though it was pretty clear McCarron was the guy.
Athlon: What are you looking for in the spring game, especially since most of practice has been closed?
Gribble: Quarterbacks obviously is the big one. The quarterback who has been No. 2 to Sims, Cooper Bateman, is going to be on the other side. He’s going to be able to throw a lot. The offensive line, it looks like a true freshman, Cameron Robinson, is going to be with the first team at left tackle. That’s following in the footsteps of Andre Smith in 2006. Secondary is a big issue. The loss of (cornerback) Eddie Jackson was really significant. He was emerging as one of the top corners. I don’t know how much they’re going to do with special teams. Alabama has one kicker now (Adam Griffith), and he’s been inconsistent. He didn’t have many opportunities last year, but he’s going to have to be the guy this year. Outside of what happened in the Iron Bowl, Alabama has been very good on field goals since 2011.
Athlon: How might the Yeldon/Henry tandem play out?
Gribble: I think Henry is going to be very involved in the offense, but Yeldon is very good. I think the ideal situation for Alabama is going to be to replicate what they had in 2012 with Yeldon and (Eddie) Lacy. They both split carries through the season, and when they got to Georgia and Notre Dame, they were fresh and had huge games. Maybe last year, Yeldon carried the ball a lot and he may have run out of gas. Having those two is a good option for them. It’s a good problem to have. I think (Kenyan) Drake is involved as well because he brings a different element with his speed. But Henry has received the most praise of anyone from Saban. He’s had a great spring, and he knows how to play running back now. Last year, he just knew how to run the ball.