TUSCALOOSA, Ala -- It felt a lot more like football on Saturday afternoon as the University of Alabama held its first scrimmage of spring practice inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Crimson Tide wore full pads and went offense against defense under partly cloudy skies -- all in all great conditions to get the first taste of full-speed action for the first time since Jan. 9.
Alabama coach Nick Saban addressed the media after the roughly two-hour scrimmage and gave his take on the team's progress with nine days of practice now under their belt. He said he was pleased with the overall effort of his team and focused on the need for the more inexperienced players to learn how to play a winning brand of football.
“With a lot of young players, the thing we need to improve on is getting more players to understand what it takes to play winning football on a consistent basis," Saban said, calling on players to think about the process of getting better and understand they must have a plan to go about doing so.
Saban kept most of his compliments for his quarterback. AJ McCarron was a solid 25-for-43 passing for 290 yards, 3 touchdowns and an interception. Saban said McCarron played well and was “very commanding” under center.
McCarron’s backup, Phillip Sims, was kept from throwing during the scrimmage because of what Saban called a “sore shoulder” comparable to bursitis. Saban said there was nothing structurally wrong with Sims' throwing shoulder and that he received a shot to “enhance the healing.”
The wide receivers were led by sophomore Christion Jones, who caught seven passes for 83 yards and two scores. Kenny Bell also caught a touchdown to go with three catches for 68 yards. Kevin Norwood caught four balls for 50 yards.
Saban said he’s been impressed with the unit's ability to get on the same page as McCarron, and added that one freshman receiver has stood out to him.
“I think Amari Cooper has shown a lot of ability as an incoming freshman," Saban said of his rookie receiver. "He'’s still feeling his way sometimes and trying to learn.
"DeAndrew White was having a really good spring prior to pulling his hamstring again. I feel pretty good about the progress those guys have made. AJ has had a really good spring, and sometimes the quarterback can make the receivers look pretty good and vice versa.”
Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue both had interception returns for touchdowns. Sunseri was featured on special teams his freshman year, and backed up Mark Barron some at safety. Belue transferred to Alabama from Northeastern Mississippi CC and is expected to compete for a spot at cornerback with Dee Milliner and fellow junior college transfer Travell Dixon.
Alabama is dealing with the loss of three-fourths of its secondary from last year. Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and De’Quan Menzie are all gone, leaving it up to Sunseri, Belue, Dixon and Milliner to step into starting roles. Senior Robert Lester is the only returning starter at safety and sophomore Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix will compete for the second safety spot.
“(Belue) has played well,” Saban said. “He’s a good cover guy. He learns quickly. He’s very instinctive. We’re pleased with the progress he’s made. John Fulton has had a good spring so far. Dee Milliner’s done a really good job. Travell we’re moving around and trying to teach him how to play star and corner, a lot of stuff. He’s got a little overload going on right now but he’s very conscientious and should be a guy that can contribute in the two-deep.”
Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster performed well in the Tide’s first scrimmage. Shelley was a perfect 4-for-4 in field goal attempts and Foster made 3-of-4 with the only miss on a 54-yard attempt that was blocked by Nico Johnson.
Moving forward, Saban said he hopes to be able to start implementing some game-planning in the weeks remaining before A-Day. The Sept. 1 showdown against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, could come into play soon.
“We’ll obviously evaluate this film, see where we want to go,” Saban said. “But hopefully if we make the kind of progress we need to make we’ll start being able to spend a little bit of time on some of our new opponents for next year and give our players a little knowledge and experience of some of the things that may be a little bit different than what we’ve been practicing.”