TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was A-Day in Tuscaloosa, so either way Alabama wasn’t losing.
Frame it as a maturing defense seizing opportunities or a youthful offense still finding its sea legs, the action in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday wasn’t high on scoring.
The Crimson team consisting of the first-team offense and second defense took care of their counterparts 14-10, but it wasn’t about the scoreboard.
The 92,310 who attended were there for a quarterback competition. They got one along with six combined turnovers, though only two were the interceptions thrown by AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims. Then there was the curious case of the left tackle and the defense that looked closer to the 2009 championship version than last season’s sequel.
It wasn’t all bad for the offense and the two quarterbacks battling to lead it. Both looked sharp most of the afternoon, although drops and a few misfires held scoring down. McCarron and Sims split time with the first and second teams, and each had higher completion percentages with the projected starters.
“I think offensively, even though we moved the ball today, we turned the ball over six times and most of them were fundamental mistakes,” coach Nick Saban said. “One of the things I told you when we started the spring is that, fundamentally, we wanted to become a sound team. We’ve still got guys carrying the ball away from their body and swinging the ball around. There were several other opportunities for us to fumble the ball again, and some of them weren’t even forced fumbles.”
At left tackle, two-year starter Barrett Jones played with the first unit after assuming the blind-side blocking role for the first time since high school this week. Alfred McCullough and junior college transfer Aaron Douglas, a former Tennessee player, both worked with the second team after being labeled leaders through most of the 15-practice spring.
McCarron, a rising sophomore who played with the first team in the opening half, completed 21 of 38 passes overall for 222 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Sims was 19-of-38 for 229 yards and one interception. Both were restricted from addressing reporters, as has been the case all spring.
The defense had a lot to do with the troubles of the offense. Sacks totaled eight with McCarron being touched down six times for a net of negative-33 yards. Brandon Lewis was the only defender with two sacks, while a healthy Dont’a Hightower drew the praise from Saban.
“I feel a lot better. I just feel like my old self,” Hightower said. I’m back in shape and my weight is down, and I’m playing a lot faster. It feels great after all the hard work I put in.”
The junior linebacker’s three quarterback hurries complemented his six tackles and one sack. Linebackers Alex Watkins, C.J. Mosley and Chris Jordan each had nine tackles to top the stats.
Almost lost in the competitions was the game’s MVP. Rising junior running back Trent Richardson led the first-team offense not just on the ground (nine carries for 49 yards), but he also caught a game-high seven passes for 85 yards and a nifty second-quarter touchdown from McCarron.
Running backs caught 14 of the 42 passes thrown while running a simplified offense.
“I’m feeling pretty good and I’m just ready to go,” Richardson said. “I can’t wait to play that first game in September.”
The first touchdown of the game capped a long drive by the McCarron-led Crimson offense, though it was a bizarre defensive play that earned six points. McCarron mishandled a William Vlachos snap on the ninth play of the opening possession at the 1-yard line. Mark Barron scooped the loose ball and ran 96 yards for the touchdown wearing the black non-contact jersey while recovering from a torn pectoral suffered in November.
Saban called it “a bad snap,” while the senior Vlachos said it was an issue easily resolved.
“We changed a cadence there and we haven’t really had enough reps — me and AJ — down on the goal line there,” Vlachos said.
McCarron had a shot at replicating last season’s wild A-Day ending late in the afternoon. Leading the White team trailing by three with 1:13 left, the offense drove 11 plays and 62 yards before his fourth-down pass to Kevin Norwood fell incomplete. Last April, McCarron launched a 39-yard pass caught by Brandon Gibson in the end zone on the final play of the afternoon.
Sims had his share of sustained drives, too.
He led a 14-play, 80-yard march with the second team to close the first half with a field goal. He converted the third-and-9 situation with a perfectly placed pass to tight end Brian Vogler for12 yards.
Sims also quarterbacked the 90-yard drive that spanned 14 fourth-quarter plays ending with the game-winning Dee Hart touchdown run of 17 yards.
“I thought both of the quarterbacks showed some promise in terms of making good decisions,” Saban said. “Both of them threw a pick that probably wasn’t a good decision, but I thought they did a really good job of managing the game. We didn’t have a lot of issues, and both showed that they have some ability to play the position and to play winning football at the position.”