Shane: 2009 A-Day report & photos

McElroy showcases arm; Tide defense works to stop the spread
By Shane from Centerpoint

One thing was clearly evident as I watched three years of Nick Saban recruits take the field for the University of Alabama’s annual spring football game — this team is blessed with abundant depth and major talent, especially along both lines of scrimmage. With ESPN airing the Tide in their prime Saturday spot, Saban seized another unique opportunity to showcase his program and the national television exposure should only enhance his out-of-state recruiting. The second largest crowd (84,000) to ever witness a college football spring game, who loaded the stands despite the ESPN television deal and the threat of potential rain, had to come away impressed with the overall effort. The Crimson Tide players gave everybody their money’s worth.

One very important question was answered. We now know that new offensive captain Greg McElroy (G-Mac) can throw a strike 40 yards downfield under pressure and hit superstar receiver Julio Jones in stride so he can blow by defenders and take it to the house. By the way, G-Mac said that Jones was his third read on the touchdown play. McElroy also displayed his ability to find other receivers by hitting Mike McCoy and Marquis Maze numerous times throughout the game for big yardage. Greg also threw a beautiful touch pass behind the defender’s back to McCoy for a touchdown.

Actually, this game was all about passing the football and defending the pass. The offenses threw a combined 65 passes while only running the ball 43 times. Considering that “air war” was a major problem for Alabama on both sides of the ball last year in the two late season losses, they needed the work. The running game was virtually nonexistent Saturday due to the absence of starter Mark Ingram, back-up Roy Upchurch, and the fall arrival of Trent Richardson.

The defensive front seven (really fourteen) is as packed with big, fast, quality athletes as I’ve seen since the mid-seventies when Bryant used to round up most of the best talent available in the South almost every year. Saban now has 22 or more athletes who are comfortable operating in his very complex system. Teams will find it virtually impossible to run the football consistently on Alabama’s defensive front when they play the Tide.

One glaring weakness from last season’s defensive meltdown was the defense’s inability to handle the high-powered “spread” offense. According to senior linebacker Cory Reamer, Alabama has taken corrective measures. He said, “We’ve been putting emphasis on working on different plays to stop the spread, because we got exploited by Florida and Utah. We gave up more points than we had given up all season against those spreads, so we came in this spring with the understanding of what we needed to do to get on top of the situation.”

I also asked him if the depth in the front seven was where it needed to be. He said, “We have a bunch of good defensive linemen who’ll provide constant pressure. That’s the big thing with the “spread” offense — making sure somebody is always in the quarterback’s face. We’ve got guys — we can run them in and out all the time.”

It is evident by Cory’s answer that defending the “spread” is now a priority for Coach Saban.

Some other unanswered questions were seemingly solved Saturday as well. Two wide receivers stepped forward with big games to complement Julio Jones. Senior Mike McCoy turned in a solid performance, and sophomore Marquis Maze is looking more like Tyrone Prothro every day. Both are SEC-caliber wide-outs.

I asked McCoy about being a go-to guy for McElroy. He responded, “Last year I intended to be the guy, but my hamstring situation was difficult. This year is my last go-around, so I’m ready. I’m back. Greg and I came in together and we’ve been hanging out — he comes to my apartment and I go to his. He’s a people person and easy to talk to — like family.”

Maze spoke of his desire to be a main weapon in the offense. He said that the timing is getting better and he believes he can catch anything thrown his way. I believe Marquis is a rare talent, comparable to the likes of David Palmer or Freddie Milons.

The offensive line was impressive and very effective early in the game, after being shut down for much of the spring by what this sportswriter believes will be one of the top three defenses in the nation next season.

Realistically, the legitimate information that can be gleaned from a spring football game is limited at best. However, Alabama’s intensity Saturday was on par with the level they display when then face-off with a major rival. Every player seems to be buying in to the “process” as well.

Coach Saban surprised the media in the post-game news conference with his declaration that, “We can be an outstanding team.” That says a lot coming from a man who rarely shows his hand. It is even less often that he will raise expectations. A statement like the one above should serve as a warning shot to the rest of the SEC — that Saban believes Alabama is going to be very good in 2009. By the way, I do too. I said they would win the national championship this year. I didn’t see anything Saturday that would change my mind. —Shane writes a weekly column for the Capstone Report.

All photographs by Chris Hyde. Click to enlarge.