Those focused on offensive issues missing bigger picture from A-Day

With something to prove, Alabama’s defense showed it’s on the right track

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was similar to what Alabama weather can be like during the spring, sort of all over the place. Here it can fluctuate from cool to hot, followed by rain and then back to cool again, all in the span of an hour or two.

Yes, the conditions were like that at Bryant-Denny Stadium for the Crimson Tide’s annual A-Day game on Saturday, but so was Nick Saban’s postgame press conference.

He began by teasing the guest media coaches from the losing side after the White’s 31-17 victory over the Crimson, then got irked and annoyed by some of the questions from reporters, followed by more joking, and then wrapped up by announcing he was going to have something in his hip fixed.

It was an odd press conference, even for Saban.

Yet his overriding message was that no one should be quick to make any conclusions based off of what they saw, especially by the first-team offense.

“I’m only saying this because you all have a tendency to make somebody a star,” he said.

Early enrollee John Metchie, a wide receiver who could have been going to prom Saturday night, was named the game MVP, and reserve quarterback Mac Jones had the best passing numbers, both while facing the second-team defense.

Remember, Jones was A-Day’s co-MVP last year along with kicker Joseph Bulovas. The last time the expected starting quarterback won the award was Greg McElroy in 2009.

What Saban was trying to do, and had no chance of stopping, was ease the growing angst about Tua Tagovailoa and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, even though they’re still nearly 140 days away having their first official game together.

This may have only been A-Day, but what everyone wanted to see, and unfairly expected, was for the first-team offense be the strength of the team. They craved to see Tagovailia connecting with receivers and scoring almost at ease again, for the offensive line to be physical and imposing, and the running backs to rack up yards.

But Alabama wasn’t playing that game on Saturday.

It didn’t run the offense that we’ll see in the fall.

“We didn’t have a game plan today,” Saban said. “We had the simplest offense and the simplest defense that we could possibly have, so that more players could play and the people that we’re going to play next year will not watch us on ESPN and say, ‘Oh, let’s game plan for all this stuff that they’re going to do.’”

Consequently, Tagovailoa didn’t have his best day. He still completed 19-of-37 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown, but was playing without a right tackle as Jedrick Wills Jr. was out, replacement Matt Womack suffered a shoulder injury early on and the next guys on the pecking order were all on the other team.

So Tagovailoa was sacked four times and regularly pressured. He threw up a bad ball that junior cornerback Trevon Diggs picked off after the outcome had long been decided, plus there were numerous dropped passes.

Don’t fall into the trap in thinking that Tagovailoa’s best days are suddenly behind him, as some will suddenly want you to believe.

“There’s nothing wrong with the guy,” Saban said when asked about the quarterback’s health and the velocity of passes. “He can run fast. He can do everything, he went through the offseason program. I don’t see any difference.”

However, there’s another factor from Saturday that seemed to get almost uniformly ignored:

Alabama’s defense may be better than expected.

Raekwon Davis looked like he might be ready to return to his sacking ways of two years ago and true freshman DJ Dale was credited with one at nose tackle.

At linebacker, even without senior outside lineback Terrell Lewis, fill-in Eyabi Anoma looked the part and was a menace all game long. It’s beginning to come together for him.

Where fans can really start to get excited, though, is with the secondary, which had to replace the top six players a year ago. It has the potential to be very good.

Junior safety Xavier McKinney was a real presence and tied for his side’s lead in tackles with 5.5. At corner, having Diggs back from a fractured foot and paired with Patrick Surtain II gave the defense a talented tandem with the ability to take away an opponent’s top receiving threats.

Since Saban arrived in 2007, Alabama’s almost always had one tall, lanky standout corner, but not two. Not like these.

They changed the way the Crimson team wanted to attack, and a lot of opponents this fall will have no choice but to follow suit. For many those 17 points may look pretty good.

“They were a lot more disciplined,” Tagovailoa said about the secondary.

So no, the quarterback didn’t feel like he played particularly well, and the re-introduction of Sarkisian didn’t go as well as hoped.

But in the big picture, helping them get some redemption from the last two defeats in the National Championship Game (Tagovailoa last year, while Sark was promoted from analyst to offensive coordinator at the end of the 2016 season) was not an A-Day or spring priority.

Saban said it himself with his initial comments of the spring, that the No. 1 thing and objective was for the team to get its mental edge back.

The defense took a step in that direction.

“The most important thing about this is if spring practice was a test, it would be like the test you took at the beginning of the semester, beginning of your class, that test tells you exactly what you need to do throughout the course of the summer and fall camp to get ready to make the good grade on the final,” Saban said. “That’s basically what spring ball does.

“Everybody has to believe the truth of where they are. That’s the only way to improve and that’s what we will try to do as a team.”

So the winds of discord will blow across college football, with critics and naysayers second-guessing the Crimson Tide and Tagovailoa alike throughout the hot summer months.

What they missed were the first signs of the chip on Alabama’s shoulder, which the defense used to its advantage in securing A-Day’s ultimate prize, the bragging rights that serve as gravy for the winning team’s streak dinner.

“We felt like we had a point to prove,” linebacker Anfernee Jennings said.

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