Nick Saban's squad entered Saturday in rebuild mode with question marks all over the defensive unit and at quarterback with names like C.J. Mosley and AJ McCarron off to the NFL. The result was plenty of answers as White defeated Crimson, 17-13, in a defensive-minded affair from start to finish.
As is the case every year, the Crimson Tide's spring game brought in massive attendance numbers. As D.C. Reeves of The Tuscaloosa News helps to illustrate, the crowd at Bryant-Denny Stadium was quite large:
The official estimated attendance was 73,506, the eighth-most in school history, per the team's official website.
While the massive interest is certainly not a surprise, what should catch observers off guard is that Alabama's game is suddenly not in its typical spotlight, as CBS Sports' Bruce Feldman points out:
Why? A bit of a down year paired with a roster in serious flux. ESPN Stats & Info has the scoop:
Alabama lost 3 offensive & 7 defensive starters from last season (went 11-2). But it had the nation's top recruiting class. #BAMASpringGame— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 19, 2014
Quarterbacks figured to be the main storyline of the day despite the arrival of Jacob Coker being delayed as he graduates from Florida State, but the defense stole the show in the first half.
Cooper Bateman was the man under center for the White, while Blake Sims captained for the Crimson. Both had no answer to the still-in-flux defense.
Tim Williams and co. controlled the line of scrimmage for much of the first half, while a rebuilding secondary looking to replace Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri, Deion Belue and John Fulton held its own against inexperienced passers.
Bateman entered the day firmly behind Sims on the depth chart, but that didn't last long, as Cliff Kirkpatrick of The Decatur Daily helps to point out:
Cooper Bateman looks better than Blake Sims so far.— Cliff Kirkpatrick (@COKirkpatrick) April 19, 2014
Overall, the offense struggled to get going early. Cecil Hurt of The Tuscaloosa News has the scoop:
Unofficially 29 offensive plays in A-Day so far. 15 for no gain or worse. #HeyItsADay— Cecil Hurt (@CecilHurt) April 19, 2014
Those are certainly the type of numbers that could result in criticism raining down on offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, but it's important to remember he spent all of Saturday looking to somehow get the most out of two quarterbacks who likely won't be No. 1 on the depth chart at the start of the season.
Besides, it wasn't all bad as the first half rolled onward. Bleacher Report's Christopher Walsh details one stunning play:
Former 5-star prospect Robert Foster makes terrific 34-yard catch on 5-star corner Tony Brown. That's a lot of stars.— Christopher Walsh (@CrimsonWalsh) April 19, 2014
That's elite talent all around that won't be committing friendly fire by the time the season rolls around. Tony Brown has elite speed that will make him an instant contributor, and Robert Foster's elite skill set speaks for itself.
By the way, the score remained 0-0 at the half, with the real winner being Coker, as ESPN's Alex Scarborough colorfully muses:
Wonder what Jacob Coker is thinking about on the sideline right now. He’s here for the game, and the QB play hasn’t been spectacular so far.— Alex Scarborough (@AlexS_ESPN) April 19, 2014
Saban spun the offensive debacle into a positive, and he has a point, per reporter Patrick Claybon:
Saban " If the offense is struggling it means the defense is playing pretty well"— Patrick Claybon (@PatrickClaybon) April 19, 2014
Fair enough. The defense kept its strong play alive in the second half and—go figure—scored the first touchdown of the game as defensive end D.J. Pettway intercepted a sloppy screen pass from Sims and returned it 29 yards to give the White a 7-0 lead.
No matter. Running back T.J. Yeldon—the leader of what is easily the team's deepest position—got his side on the board on the ensuing drive to knot things up:
T.J. Yeldon punches it in to knot the game up at seven apiece with 6:38 to go in the third.— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) April 19, 2014
He was easily the best player on the field Saturday, while Bateman and Foster stood tall as well after three quarters:
T.J. Yeldon leads rushers through three quarters with 73 yards and a touchdown. Cooper Bateman is 10-for-19 with 124 yards.— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) April 19, 2014
Robert Foster continues to lead all receivers with 50 yards on four receptions. Dillon Lee leads either defense with seven tackles.— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) April 19, 2014
Remember how Foster got the best of Brown earlier? The freshman star got his revenge in the fourth quarter as quarterback Alec Morris—who spent the majority of the day as the punter and holder—threw a sloppy pass which Brown picked off.
A Parker McLeod interception on the ensuing drive negated the damage of Morris' mistake, however. Bateman then took the outcome of the game into his hands and capped off his brilliant day with another touchdown pass to ArDarius Stewart to make it 17-7.
The capper? Sims threw another interception, this time to Reggie Ragland. Let's allow Aaron Suttles of The Tuscaloosa News to take it away:
Outside of an injury, I can't imagine a worse day for Blake Sims.— Aaron Suttles (@AaronSuttles) April 19, 2014
To be fair, Sims got one last crack at it and hit Chris Black, who did the rest of the work by eluding multiple defenders on the way to the house from 55 yards out to make it 17-13.
A tad of drama then unfolded as Sims' side recovered the onside kick. He found Amari Cooper and Black to bring the ball to the White 25-yard-line, but the game's running clock cut the comeback story short.
For his efforts, Yeldon was unsurprisingly named the player of the game:
T.J. Yeldon is named Dixie Howell Memorial Most Valuable Player of the A-Day Game.— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) April 19, 2014
Ditto for Pettway, who shared the honor dished out to linemen:
D.J. Pettway and Jonathan Allen are named co-winners of the Dwight Stephenson Lineman of the A-Day Game.— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) April 19, 2014
Jalston Fowler and Reggie Ragland took home some hardware as well:
The Lee Roy Jordan Headhunter Award is given to Jalston Fowler and Reggie Ragland.— Alabama Football (@AlabamaFTBL) April 19, 2014
All things considered, it's quite apparent the Crimson Tide have reloaded sufficiently on the defensive side of the football, especially with young stars like Brown appearing to have what it takes to step up at critical spots.
Offense is a different story, although the impending arrival of Coker still could change the situation. Until then, fans can take solace in the fact the team has a minimum of four quality backs who can carry the load as long as the line plays in a cohesive, effective manner.
It's easy to chalk Saturday up as a negative, but a strong defense and elite running game goes a long way in the SEC.