Alabama opens spring with first practice of the Kalen DeBoer era: What stood out?

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — “Man, all of a sudden, just like that, practice one is over.”

Kalen DeBoer’s opening words at his Monday evening press conference signified a new beginning for Alabama football, as the first spring practice for the 2024 team and as the first official practice of the DeBoer era. All things considered, DeBoer described the practice as “really clean,” both from an on-field execution standpoint and the transition between periods.

“It’s new for everyone,” DeBoer said. “I thought the guys did a great job. You could see the want-to, the desire. It was there through the effort they gave. So I thought it came together in a nice way.”

Now the work begins. DeBoer noted that players can finally watch themselves in film sessions now that practice has commenced; previously, Alabama’s new coaches were teaching using cut-ups from their previous stops. Player development is a core focus of any spring practice, but this spring it will be equally important for the coaching staff to build continuity and confidence among themselves and with the players.

“We have these maxims we refer to,” DeBoer said. “One of our maxims is to have a relentless pursuit of continuous improvement. We don’t take any of those words lightly, from relentless all the way to pursuit of improvement. That’s the thing I’ll ask our guys tomorrow when we get together and review the practice: Was that the mindset? Was that clear from the beginning to the end?”

Here are the other news and notes from the first day of Alabama spring practice.

Jalen Milroe and the quarterback competition

DeBoer didn’t use the exact words “clean slate,” but he did say that every player is starting from the same point. The first impressions made on Monday are an important part of the information-gathering process, and the intensity on the field matched the occasion. But someone had to take the first-team reps at each position, and at quarterback returning starter Jalen Milroe got the nod.

That’s hardly a surprise, as Milroe led Alabama to last season’s College Football Playoff, putting him in pole position for the 2024 job. However, DeBoer expects fierce competition at that position and every other through spring practice.

“The competition is always going to be there,” DeBoer said. “When we lined up, we referred to them as (the No. 1’s) and Jalen did. He’s putting everything into that he can along with the other guys that took those first reps.

“I fully expect those guys that are really hungry to be pushing those guys that are ahead of them to be their best. That’s what you want in a football program.”

Keon Sabb has the ‘it’ factor

Several transfers are expected to step into major roles on this season’s team, but on Monday DeBoer offered comment on one in particular: Michigan transfer defensive back Keon Sabb. The junior was a key cog on the defense that helped the Wolverines win a national championship, and early indications are that Sabb hasn’t missed a beat since joining the team.

“You bring a guy like that in to be an impact player for you,” DeBoer said. “His experiences, not just each play, but the experiences and leadership that he took his (past) team to in winning a championship, as he’s here longer and longer, that fits in well with what we’re trying to accomplish and what we’re trying to do.”

DeBoer didn’t specifically state a plan for Sabb in Alabama’s secondary, but Sabb is expected to assume one of the starting safety positions. There will be more clarity as practice continues, but Sabb has quickly established himself within Alabama’s culture.

“The character makeup, aside from what we know is a great football player, he’s a really good fit for us,” DeBoer said. “It’s been a pleasure getting to know him more and more each and every day, just seeing how he’s operating.

“Right now, he’s just going about his work, but you can tell he’s got that it-factor and the leadership piece within him, and we’ll be counting on him this fall.”

Coaching staff updates and roster notes

Spring practice brings several new jersey numbers to note, and there’s one immediate change that stands out. For the first time, Alabama will allow players to wear the No. 0, which has been taken by linebacker Deontae Lawson, previously No. 32. College football players have been allowed to wear No. 0 since the 2020 season.

Other number changes:

No. 10 Jaheim Oatis, DL (from 91)
No. 11 Jihaad Campbell, LB (from 30)
No. 20 Jah-Marien Latham, DL (from 93)

Here are the numbers for all incoming players, freshmen included (numerical order):

No. 1 Domani Jackson, DB
No. 3 Keon Sabb, DB
No. 5 Germie Bernard, WR
No. 7 Peyton Woodyard, DB
No. 9 Jaylen Mbakwe, DB
No. 10 Austin Mack, QB
No. 12 Zavier Mincey, DB
No. 15 Zabien Brown, DB
No. 16 Red Morgan, DB
No. 18 Caleb Odom, TE
No. 20 Daniel Hill, RB
No. 21 Bubba Hampton, WR
No. 21 Dre Kirkpatrick Jr., DB (the same number worn by his father, Dre Kirkpatrick Sr.)
No. 22 LT Overton, DL
No. 30 Cayden Jones, LB
No. 40 Sterling Dixon, LB
No. 41 Justin Okoronkwo, LB
No. 43 Jayshawn Ross, LB
No. 65 Naquil Betrand, OL
No. 69 Joseph Ionata, OL
No. 70 William Sanders, OL
No. 72 Parker Brailsford, OL
No. 74 Casey Poe, OL
No. 80 Josh Cuevas, TE
No. 88 Isaia Faga, DL
No. 92 Jeremiah Beaman, DL

The start of spring practice also meant that Alabama released its full and finalized coaching staff, including off-field staffers. Jay Nunez was officially listed as the special assistant to the head coach and the senior special teams analyst; he’s expected to handle the special teams gameplans that will be carried out by the full-time assistants on the field.

Other notable additions include former Washington co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Chuck Morrell and former Huskies strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery as special assistants to DeBoer. Another former Washington staffer, executive assistant to the head coach Ali Smith, is in the same role at Alabama.

In analyst roles, Alabama has added Mark Sheridan, the brother of Alabama offensive coordinator Nick Sheridan, Matt Shadeed, who follows Kane Wommack from South Alabama, and Kirk Barron, Ryan Trevathan and Mitch Dahlen, who also follow DeBoer from Washington.

(Photo: Gary Cosby Jr. / USA Today)

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