Alabama youngsters get chance to earn bigger roles
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) The youngsters and reserves took over for much of No. 1 Alabama's game against Georgia State, and it wasn't just about emptying the bench in a blowout win.
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban was also thinking about the near future in positions that might need a boost. The biggest example in Saturday's 45-3 victory was freshman offensive lineman Grant Hill, who hadn't played in the first four games but was inserted at right tackle for Austin Shepherd during the game.
"We just felt like instead of taking a chance to redshirt him for this year that we were going to go ahead and play him because I feel like we need him," Saban said after the game. "I think it creates some competition. I think he's very close to being one of our five best players. Whatever position he has to play, we felt like we had to get somebody else ready to play."
Hill, who was regarded as one of the nation's top guard prospects, joined a growing list of youngsters making an impact on the Tide (5-0), which visits Kentucky on Saturday. He was the 12th freshman to play for Alabama this season.
The Tide's offensive line has been the most criticized part of the team, which makes Hill's development potentially significant down the line.
"I think Grant's a great player," guard Arie Kouandjio said. "He has a lot of potential and is really good at focusing in. I think the sky's the limit if he keeps improving."
Defensive end A'Shawn Robinson joined fellow freshmen tight end O.J. Howard, cornerback Eddie Jackson and long snapper Cole Mazza in the starting lineup.
Redshirt freshman Chris Black was the leading receiver with six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown. Freshmen tailbacks Derrick Henry and Altee Tenpenny got carries with T.J. Yeldon exiting early, and Saban also praised five-star linebacker recruit Rueben Foster. Backup quarterback Blake Sims, at times used as more of a Wildcat quarterback instead of a passer, got to run the whole offense for more than half the game.
Plus, sophomores Landon Collins and Geno Smith were pressed into extra action at a relatively new position with the indefinite suspension of starting safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Normally a strong safety, Collins started with relatively little practice time at free safety. Saban gave them daily tutorials before team meetings during the week.
"For 45 minutes I would just meet with them about basic fundamental things," he said. "I would show teaching tapes of guys doing it correctly ... Whatever the circumstance was.
"Those days really helped those guys, because it gave them a visual of, this is how we're supposed to do it and why. I think that extra time is just really beneficial to helping the players."
The game time was presumably even more helpful.
Robinson had a tackle for loss in replacing Jeoffrey Pagan, who Saban said sprained a shoulder during practice but could have played if needed.
"I just thought it was really good that they all got to play," Saban said. "A'Shawn Robinson has really made a significant improvement over the last two or three weeks as an upfront guy, which is really important to us."
It proved a good game to let some of the young players work out the kinks. Hill and fellow freshman Alphonse Taylor were called for false starts after Alabama had first down from the Georgia State 1, and the Tide wound up settling for a field goal.
"I think they played great for the most part," Kouandjio said. "Like everything else in life, there's always room for improvement. They got some experience under their belt and now they can move on with that."
Black, meanwhile, almost certainly would have played last season but for a preseason shoulder injury. He has had trouble breaking into a deep receiver rotation after making one catch in the first four games, playing in three of them.
Black made a nice move on a 10-yard touchdown catch from backup quarterback Blake Sims.
"It was a lot of fun," Black said. "Everybody knows I've been patient since the injury last year, but I just always look forward to the opportunity.
"Coach always tells me I'm a play away. I just come out and be ready so when they call my number I'm ready."