Spring practice is an essential landmark in the long college football offseason, a time for coaches to take the measure of their roster and lay the foundation for the work ahead in the fall. But at Alabama, winners of five of the last nine national titles, even spring practice has championship stakes, and that mindset has molded Nick Saban’s powerhouse into a standard-bearer for the sport. The Crimson Tide opened their doors to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in the lead-up to the A-Day Game for a look behind the scenes as the defending champs wrapped up their spring workouts.
Photos by Erick W. Rasco. Captions by Eric Single.
Saban is no stranger to uncertainty at the quarterback position—the Tide have entered Week 1 with a different starter every year since A.J. McCarron’s senior season in 2013—but after Tua Tagovailoa’s national title game heroics in relief of Jalen Hurts, the pecking order under center became the subject of national intrigue. When Tagovailoa broke a bone in his hand during the first practice of spring ball, the head coach himself moved one notch up the depth chart.
Saban’s office is downright understated in comparison to many other aspects of the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility—decked-out players lounge, locker-room waterfall, etc.—but the front-and-center framing of his conference and national championship rings on a desk embossed with Alabama’s script A make a sufficient impression on the recruits and visitors called in to see the coach.
No player signs with Alabama under the assumption that he can sleepwalk his way to a starting role. As cogs in a brutally efficient machine, four- and five-star players end up buried behind other blue-chippers, leaving Saban with a balancing act that makes him the envy of coaches across the country. He can foster legitimate competition for playing time at every spot on the field, but he also has to manage the egos of players who could start for most other Power 5 teams. (Those who get lost in the shuffle often transfer, as offensive lineman Dallas Warmack, brother of Eagles guard Chance Warmack, elected to do after donning his No. 59 jersey one last time for the spring game.)
Tagovailoa (No. 13) may have been relegated to the sidelines during the spring game, but his presence was inescapable as the incumbent starter, Hurts, struggled through the air in the early going. After rallying Alabama from a 13–0 halftime deficit in the national title game against Georgia and uncorking a perfect 41-yard strike for the game-winning touchdown in overtime, Tagovailoa became a Tuscaloosa legend. But handing him the keys to the offense would mean taking the ball away from Hurts, who despite his limitations as a passer is 26–2 as a starter entering his junior season.
The A-Day Game doubles as a statewide celebration for a team whose six to seven home games a year are often too tough of a ticket for thousands of Alabamans and Southerners who support the Tide. Admission is free to the public, and Saban approaches the heavily scripted scrimmage with the same intensity and attention to detail as a regular season game.
While players look to make one final impression in the spring game, Saban continues to break in a new-look coaching staff, which suffered considerable turnover in the wake of the 2017 team’s success, losing both offensive and defensive coordinators and several other position coaches. Pete Golding (center) was hired away from UTSA in December to serve as the Tide’s co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach, an assistant on a defense that is still very much the product of Saban’s handiwork.
On the field, Saban stands behind the line of scrimmage, with ESPN analysts Joey Galloway and Kirk Herbstreit close by for occasional interviews and up-close commentary. That arrangement briefly backfired when Saban was caught on a hot mic remarking that third-string quarterback Mac Jones was throwing the ball downfield more effectively than Hurts was.
With the fans’ offseason thirst for football temporarily quenched and several roster questions left unanswered until fall camp, the Crimson Tide wrapped up their spring every bit of the preseason national title favorite that they are every year.