Hungry Crimson Tide open up title defense with A-Day scrimmage
Alabama began its title defense with the annual A-Day scrimmage on Saturday
QB AJ McCarron, the MVP of last year's title game, will be key for the Tide
Nick Saban could look to newcomers for a spark, including tailback T.J. Yeldon
The plan was hatched as I drove from my home in Birmingham toward Tuscaloosa on Saturday morning. "When the time comes, you've got to call for the option, just like Nebraska in the '90s," my brother, Erik, a die-hard Cornhusker fan, told me over my cellphone. "Alabama has got a chance to do what Nebraska did back then -- win three national titles in four years -- and I figure you can show them the way. Either that or call for the fumblerooskie!"
A few days earlier I had been asked by the Alabama athletic department to be a "guest coach" for the Crimson team during Alabama's A-Day game, with an under-the-breath mention that I might be able to call a play. Alas, just as my colleague Andy Staples experienced last week in Gainesville during Florida's spring game, the Tide staff chose not to avail itself to my coaching acumen. Yet along with a few other reporters, I was allowed inside the program for one afternoon. Here's what I saw:
At a little past 1 p.m. CT., I walked into the Alabama home locker room. For reporters during the season, this is off-limits territory, as the locker room is always closed to the media. Yet before I took even five steps into this sprawling, sparkling room below the north end-zone stands, I was sucker-punched in the gut. Long-snapper Carson Tinker, whom I've spent a lot of time with over the last year, smiled as he welcomed me inside the air-conditioned cool of the team's inner-sanctum. "Good to see you, man," said Tinker, who I nominated to be SI's Sportsman of the Year in 2011. "It's going to be a great day."
Minutes later, with his players on a knee and gathered around him, Nick Saban spoke to his team. "Look at this day like a final exam," he said. "Even though we are competing against each other, we are a team." And then he led his players out the locker room door, passing a bronze plaque that featured the profile of Bear Bryant and emblazoned with his words: "Simply put, football is eyes, momentum, and contact."
At 2:05, Cade Foster kicked off the ball. The reporter "coaches" were allowed to roam the sideline, and right away it was clear that the intensity level of the players -- while high -- was not even within a zip code of where it will be when 'Bama opens the season against Michigan in Dallas on Sept. 1. There was no tackling on special teams, which is now a common practice in spring games, and there were no vicious hits by the defenders. This was understandable, given that the No. 1 priority for the day for the coaches was to emerge as healthy as possible. And Alabama did; no significant injuries were reported.
At 3:07, offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, sitting on a chair in the Crimson team's locker room during halftime, was in full throat. "Let's play the full 60 minutes, dogs," he said to the other starting offensive linemen. "We've got it. Let's go!"
Saban spent the halftime meeting with position coaches and talking to AJ McCarron for several minutes. The most important player on the Tide roster next season will be McCarron, a 6-4, 205-pound junior who won the MVP honors in Alabama's 21-0 win over LSU in the BCS national title game last January. To read more about McCarron and his increased arm strength -- and his increased responsibilities in the 'Bama offense -- check out my story in SI in this week's issue.
On the last play of the third quarter, McCarron authored the play of the game, tossing a 47-yard touchdown strike to Kenny Bell after a flea-flicker. Aside from the solid performance of McCarron, who threw for 304 yards, the player that turned the most heads in the game was true freshman running back T.J. Yeldon, a former five-star prospect from Daphne (Al.) High. On one stirring play in the third quarter, Yeldon caught a pass over the middle from backup quarterback Phillip Sims, broke a few tackles, then sprinted away from the defense for a 50-yard touchdown. I was standing close to Trent Richardson -- who likely will be a top-five pick in the NFL draft later this month -- as Yeldon tore down the field, and Richardson smiled as if he was seeing his heir apparent. (And I think he was.)
At 4:14, after the White squad had defeated the Crimson team 24-15 (thus making me 0-1 in my career as an Alabama "coach"), the entire team once again took a knee in the locker room. Saban was anchored in the middle of this massive huddle. "Nothing we accomplished in the past will help us in the future," Saban said, his voice rising. "We've got a chance to be a really, really good football team, but ..." And then Saban, the reigning national championship coach, launched into a speech about the character it takes to win a single play and a single game.
Minutes later, Saban walked up a flight of stairs and addressed a horde of media. It wasn't a necessarily pretty or exciting spring game, but, naturally, that was by design. "You want us just to e-mail Michigan what we're doing?" Saban said to reporter who asked about what Alabama did differently on offense on Saturday from last season. "If I saw anything new out there, I would have been upset."
So maybe that's why I didn't get a chance to make my play call: Saban is saving that option for Michigan.