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Even up close, A-Day was a mixed bag

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- I don’t know what I was expecting to see. With all the access I had been granted for Alabama’s spring game Saturday, I was supposed to see something, though. As an honorary coach in my team-issued polo shirt and hat, I was able to blend in on the sideline and inside the locker room. I could sit next to the quarterbacks between series and rub elbows with Lane Kiffin. In between, I was allowed to scribble down a few notes. My story would hopefully be more entertaining for it and maybe I’d learn a thing or two.

But what was I really looking for? Feeling as if I was allowed on the inside, I had to come away with more than a few humorous anecdotes. I had to answer the big questions: Can Jake Coker be the starting QB? Is the defense back? Can Alabama return to the College Football Playoff? Perhaps foolishly, I thought I was there to discover something meaningful. I wasn’t.

I was there to have a good time and enjoy a unique perspective, which became clear to me before the game ever began. Circling the field during warm-ups, I alternated between writing in my notepad and taking pictures with my phone. I watched half-amused as a recruit used a selfie stick to snap a photo of him and the defensive line. I was in a zone, tweeting a few scenes from the sideline. Then Scott Cochran flew by me like a blur, cackling in his distinctly Cajun accent as he snatched my phone from my hands. Sprinting ahead, Alabama’s strength coach shouted, “It’s too easy!” He grinned and flipped my phone back to me. A moment later he was trying to strip an unsuspecting receiver of the football.

Alabama turned the ball over seven times during the scrimmage that followed. The offense was sloppy and Kiffin was beside himself. When players failed to sub in and out correctly, he screamed, “I’m losing my mind!” He gazed at his quarterbacks after each failed series with a look of bewilderment, his eyes wide and arms out as if to say, You’ve got to be kidding me. ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster made a few big plays at receiver, but Kiffin didn’t throw up an early touchdown signal or pump his fist. Just when you thought Coker was turning a corner with a solid first half, he came out in the third quarter and threw an interception.

The defense allowed a few long gains, but overall they controlled the line of scrimmage well with 19 tackles for loss. And that was without star lineman A’Shawn Robinson, whose prodigious beard and well-practiced scowl is something to behold. Defensive end Tim Williams was a rocket off the edge and linebacker Christian Miller was equally explosive with two sacks. But the secondary shined brightest with five interceptions, celebrating each one as if it were a game-winning touchdown. When Jabriel Washington picked off a pass early in the game, fellow DB Hootie Jones told him, “Go get the belt!” and the entire defense took turns touching the shiny “Ball out champion” belt, an award for defensive players who create turnovers.

The specialists were fine as Adam Griffith made 2 of 4 field goal attempts and JK Scott boomed five punts for an average of 53.8 yards. During halftime, the lanky sophomore punter was in his own world, stretching in a way that resembled something close to yoga. No one dared disrupt his chi.

The White team -- my team -- won, beating the Crimson team 27-14. Ryan Kelly, who won the Paul Crane Offensive Lineman Award for his performance, was already prepared for his opposing teammates’ trolling. He said, “If they’re talkin’ trash, just tell 'em you want your steak one and one-half inches thick and medium well.” On Monday, the losers would be left to eat pork and beans.

When coach Nick Saban gathered everyone together in the locker room afterward, he said he was pleased with what he saw. Watching him in his salmon-colored sport coat during the scrimmage, you could tell he likes this team. Likes its chemistry. Likes its work ethic. He knows they've got a long way to go -- he told players the scrimmage was a “midterm” -- but he likes where they're heading.

As for me, I’m not sure what the future holds. What I saw up close during the roughly two-hour scrimmage was too much of a mixed bag. Early on, the offense was sloppy and lost 4 yards on a bad third-and-long attempt. Going for it on fourth down, a backup on the sideline joked, “Fourth-and-14? I like our chances.” Then Coker dropped back in the pocket and found Stewart in the middle of the field for a 40-yard touchdown.

As a whole, the quarterbacks weren’t inspiring, but Coker did show a rapport with teammates that was missing last fall. At the same time, his receivers showed good progress while facing the daunting task of replacing all three of last year’s starters, including Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper.

The secondary -- my biggest concern -- was good, but it was tough to tell how much of that was their own success versus the offense's failure.

Both lines played well and Derrick Henry looked like a beast running between the tackles. “Ain’t that kid a horse?” one teammate said of Henry. But on the other hand, Kenyan Drake’s black no-contact jersey reminded me of how thin Alabama is at running back. Altee Tenpenny, Tyren Jones and Alvin Kamara were supposed to be solid backups, if not starters, by this point in their careers. But as Saban said at the postgame news conference, “They didn’t live up to what they were supposed to do and aren’t here anymore.”

The big question -- Can Alabama reach the College Football Playoff? -- was not solved Saturday. Nothing I saw on the sidelines or heard in the locker room said that this was a team of destiny. Nothing said it wasn't, either. I like Alabama's pieces. I question how they'll all fit together, but I recognize that it's too early to tell. There's plenty of talent, but given the way Saban and his staff recruit, that's never the issue.

It was fun to play coach for an afternoon, but all it did was affirm that no matter the vantage point of a spring game, you can't expect to learn too much. After all, not even the real coaches know what's going to happen next.