TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — On Saturday, Alabama football will resume an annual tradition in the 2021 A-Day Game, a scrimmage game that year in and year out signifies the end of the spring practice season and gives both fans and media alike their first opportunity to view next season's Crimson Tide program.
There are many things that the media and fans will be looking for in this weekend's scrimmage. With such a high turnover in team leadership from last season, a lot of positions will need to be filled and it will be interesting to watch just exactly who is slotted where on both the first- and second-team offenses and defenses.
On Thursday, Alabama head coach Nick Saban noted what he deems a successful A-Day Game:
"I like to see the players play hard," Saban said to the media via Zoom. "I like to see them be able to execute the basic things that we're sort of calling and playing in the game. Try to evaluate how many guys we think can play winning football, how many guys have earned the right to have a role on this team by how they compete and how they play. What kind of juice, how they enjoy playing football. All those things contribute to how a guy develops."
Even though the spring season will draw to a conclusion on Saturday afternoon in Bryant-Denny Stadium, the evaluation process of players is far from over and the final roster is far from complete.
In A-Days past, there is typically a strong correlation between who starts on the field in the first-team positions and who starts in Game 1 of the season. However, this season brings a whole new set of obstacles and opportunities thanks to players returning for an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic like offensive lineman Chris Owens or other positions still needing leaders to emerge due to heavy losses at the position.
Saban noted that while the spring practice season might be over, there is still a lot to take away from the final scrimmage.
"We're going to continue to evaluate them in this game," Saban said. "Obviously, you never want to get a guy hurt and we're hopeful that that doesn't happen. But we like to see execution. We like to see players gain confidence in a game-like situation that they will go out and play well and that helps their confidence going into the season next year."
Here are five things to look for in Saturday's A-Day Game:
Which Players Will See Action?
At first, this might seem like a 'gimme' point at the surface level, but it does have some depth.
This spring season has seen a plethora of players unable to play due to injuries. Chiefly among them have been wide receiver John Metchie III, offensive linemen Emil Ekiyor Jr. and Pierce Quick, defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis and defensive back Malachi Moore among others.
Last weekend, Saban noted that both offensive linemen Evan Neal and Javion Cohen suffered injuries during the team's second scrimmage game. While neither injury was deemed serious, they both could possibly miss out on this year's A-Day Game should the injuries still be pestering them.
With so many players dealing with injuries, it will be interesting to see if any have any sort of action on the field this Saturday. If not, the landscape of the team could shift dramatically between the final scrimmage game and the Crimson Tide's season opener.
That's sometimes the case, but this season could see more of a difference than usual.
How Has Bryce Young Improved?
One usual highlight of the media is being able to attend spring practices and get a feel for the team. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this has been an opportunity that the media has been unable to take advantage of.
Sure, a lot of positive noise has surrounded quarterback Bryce Young this spring season, but none of it has been seen in-person by either fans or media.
Last season, Young saw limited action on the field behind Heisman-finalist Mac Jones. In nine games played, Young completed 13 of 22 passes for 156 yards and one touchdown — an average of 7.1 yards per completion. This season, though, Young has been slated as the starter for the first-team in the A-Day Game.
However, Saban noted on Thursday that while Young is indeed starting, there is still competition for the position.
“Bryce is the quarterback for right now, so he’s gonna operate with the first team," Saban said. "There’s competition at the position, but in order for guys to get a lot of reps, the next guy has to play with the next guy. We may have one guy out, so one guy may not be able to practice.
"What you see in this game really doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of figuring out the depth chart and all that because there’s gonna be a lot of guys missing. So how we play guys in this game doesn’t necessarily mean anything relative to next year.”
This spring season has been an opportunity for Young to gain some of the experience that he was lacking last season. Without a spring season in 2019, Young was unable to garner valuable practice experience, which reared its head at multiple points last season.
This year is different. Young's performance will undoubtedly be one of the biggest headlines on Saturday afternoon, regardless of whether he impresses ... or whether he disappoints.
What Will We See From the Defensive Backfield?
With defensive back Patrick Surtain II having headed off to the NFL, one would think that Alabama's defensive backfield would be lacking in a certain degree of talent given the huge hole left behind.
In short, it isn't.
Moore will likely be unavailable for Saturday's game, but other players are right there to take his place. Chiefly among those is Jordan Battle, who from what we've gathered is having an outstanding spring season. Combine him with players like Josh Jobe and freshman Ga'Quincy McKinstry, and the team's defensive back unit is looking to be one of the top in the SEC, if not the country.
Fielding so much talent in the defensive backfield, one of the primary questions is where McKinstry is going to start. He certainly has the pedigree to potentially start, but whether its first- or second-team remains to be seen.
Battle has taken on his new leadership role in stride, filling the hole that Surtain left behind. That being said, one thing that Battle reiterated was that his defense hasn't quite found its leaders yet.
That could possibly be worked out on Saturday. There is still a lot of football to be played before next season, but one thing to look for on Saturday will be who starts, and which team will they play on?
Can the Offensive Line Replace the Talent That it Lost?
Last season, Alabama possessed one of its greatest offensive lines in program history. With center Landon Dickerson, tackle Alex Leatherwood and versatile guard Deonte Brown, the Crimson Tide was unmatched as a unit.
This year, however, all three are gone.
We've already noted here the plethora of injuries on the offensive line this spring season. Neal, Ekiyor Jr.,Quick and Cohen have all been sidelined. An assortment of them could still play on Saturday, but who or where is the primary question here.
Alabama brings with it a talented freshman class. Along with tackled J.C. Latham, the twin tackle/center duo of Tommy and James Brockermeyer are also slated to make an impact on A-Day. With so many offensive linemen out due to injury, it wouldn't be surprising to see the freshman take on larger roles than they normally would.
One non-issue is that of sixth-year senior Owens, who has not had any injury issues and returns as the proven leader of the group. Now, whether he will resume play at center — a position that he started at following Dickerson's season-ending injury in the SEC Championship game — or play as tackle remains to be seen.
Combining the questions surrounding injuries, talented freshmen and Owens' versatility at multiple positions, the offensive line unit will be one of the most important position groups to watch on Saturday.
How Will the Wide Receiver Corps Look?
Like many of the other position groups on the field, the Crimson Tide's wide receivers also experienced key losses at the end of last season.
Heisman Trophy-winner DeVonta Smith and electric wideout Jaylen Waddle have both since departed for the NFL. Without them, one would think that there would be a downtick in production. However, that won't be the case if the current set of wide receivers have any say in the matter.
The elephant in the room is Metchie, who hasn't been able to practice all spring with an undisclosed injury. Metchie is expected to be the team's leading receiver next year, so his absence this Saturday will likely raise some questions depending on how the rest of the unit performs. That being said, the wide receivers have had all spring to practice without him, so there is little cause for concern in that department.
Along with Metchie, Slade Bolden also returns. With new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, Bolden is expected to take on a larger role this season due to O'Brien's previous work in the NFL with wide receivers like Julian Edelman that possessed his playing style. Of all the wider receivers, Bolden arguably has the most to prove on Saturday. And in a crowded wide receiver room, he will certainly have to fight for a starting spot.
Other returners include Javon Baker, Xavier Williams, Traeshon Holden and Thaiu Jones-Bell. Of those four, the murmurs have been loudest about Williams, who has had a solid spring season thus far. Another returner is former running back Keilan Robinson, who recently had his roster updated to wide receiver on Alabama's website. The addition of Robinson as a wideout raises some eyebrows, as one of the Crimson Tide's biggest wants at the position following the departure of Smith and Waddle was speed. Robinson brings that and then some to the position.
As far as newcomers, Ja'Corey Brooks, Christian Leary and Agiye Hall make up the freshmen list. All three are solid additions but will likely see late-game action due to the loaded list of talent above them.
The wide receiver group is in a similar position as the offensive line regarding who will start where. With Metchie's injury, a question is who will take on the primary receiving role? How will Bolden perform in O'Brien's offense? Will Keilan Robinson see success as a wideout?
Like every other year, we'll just have to wait until A-Day to find out.