Bryce Young fighting for starting QB role at Alabama amid COVID-19 setbacks
Hours before participating in what would have been his first practice at Alabama, Bryce Young saw his spring plans put on hold.
After joining the Crimson Tide in January, the freshman quarterback was well on his way to living up to his five-star fame. In less than three months, he had added roughly 20 pounds to his 6-foot frame, bulking up to 197 pounds. The new weight was accompanied by growing confidence in the film room as the right-hander was quickly soaking up Steve Sarkisian’s offense.
However, Young’s much-awaited Crimson Tide debut was postponed as Alabama’s spring practice was wiped out by the COVID-19 outbreak. Now his pursuit of landing the starting quarterback job at Alabama won’t take place in Tuscaloosa but rather 2,000 miles away in his hometown of Pasadena, Calif.
“He’s very disappointed, I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Young’s father, Craig, told BamaInsider. “But I think he’s more disappointed because he felt prepared. He was meeting with teammates, going over the script, and he was ready to go out there and compete. He felt like he had a pretty strong early period where, as an early enrollee, he felt he was doing well in the strength and conditioning and in the film room, and this was kind of his chance to get on the field and show what he can do.”
Bryce’s plans might have been altered, but his drive and determination remain unshaken. Despite dealing with the limitations caused by social distancing, the freshman still finds himself making major strides towards grasping Alabama’s offense.
The return home has reunited Bryce with longtime trainer Chris Flores of Sports Training and Rehabilitation Services. It has also put him back in contact with an elite company on the practice field. Flores works with several professional athletes in Southern California and has paired them up against Bryce in practice since the quarterback was in the sixth grade.
Recently, Bryce has been throwing to Pittsburgh Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster as well as former West Virginia star Kevin White, who was drafted No. 7 overall in 2015 by the Chicago Bears. Meanwhile, Bryce’s opposition has consisted of current Los Angeles Chargers defensive backs Derwin James and Desmond King II.
“The idea is to challenge him mentally,” Flores told BamaInsider. “He’s running his offense against those defenders, so that pushes him even more. There’s that mental challenge of knowing you’ve got to make your read faster, get the ball in there faster. You have to go through your drops. You’ve got to time it up, hold guys with your eyes. It’s really his ability to do it all.”
The accumulation of talent isn’t the only thing preparing Bryce for the next level. While he is unable to train with his new Alabama teammates, the freshman quarterback has been able to further familiarize himself with the Crimson Tide’s offensive attack. Flores, who shares a relationship with Sarkisian from his time at the University of Southern California, is familiar with the offensive coordinator’s schemes and has implemented them into Bryce’s daily workouts.
“We know the playbook and are able to simulate that playbook,” Flores said. “Then, the biggest part of it is we’re actually running his offense. He has to come out, call the play and then line up everybody where he wants them, give them the routes he wants and then really running it and simulating all of it. It’s kind like a crash course into this offense.”
Along with his on-field training, Bryce also speaks with Sarkisian daily as the offensive coordinator calls to check on his well being and answer any questions he might have. As of Monday, SEC teams are allowed to hold two hours of video conferencing per week where they can break down film.
Those digital meetings will prove invaluable to Bryce as he looks to further inundate himself with the Crimson Tide’s tendencies and terminology. From there, the verbiage can be incorporated into his daily routine until it becomes second nature.
“That’s one of his strengths, to take what he’s learned the week before and apply it into practice,” said Taylor Kelly, who served as Bryce’s quarterback coach at Mater Dei High School and still trains with him today. “He has the ability to pick up on that as well as a kid who has been there for three years.”
Bryce demonstrated a high football IQ at Mater Dei where he was entrusted to call out protections and line shifts as well as checks and hot routes. The reigning Gatorade Football Player of the Year in California is coming off a senior season in which he completed 72.6 percent of his passes for 4,528 yards and 58 touchdowns with six interceptions while adding another 357 yards and 10 more scores on the ground.
“He’s very elite with his mental preparation and his understanding of the game,” Kelly said. “He was lightyears ahead of defensive coordinators that we played against.
“He would see something and call it and change it, roll with it. He did a great job of understanding the game and spent a lot of time watching tape, learning defenses and finding a way to pick apart their weaknesses.”
Understanding football concepts is one thing, but Bryce will still need to pair that with reps on the field. That’s become a bit harder this week as Pasadena has closed down its football fields in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
As of now, Flores said he is still able to train with groups of three to six people and has Bryce scheduled to throw with Smith-Schuster again in the coming days. Both Flores and Taylor are also able to meet the quarterback for one-on-one workouts.
The other obstacle in Bryce’s regimen is maintaining his weight despite not having access to Alabama’s training facility. While the university is not allowed to monitor players’ workouts, new strength and conditioning coaches David Ballou and Dr. Matt Rhea have sent along the team’s weight program which provides athletes with a structured workout to follow if they choose. Players have also been provided with Apple Watches which help track workouts and monitor heart rate and sleep patterns in order to aid in recovery.
In addition, the Young family has met with team nutritionist Amy Bragg who has sent along dietary suggestions for Bryce to follow back home.
“Bryce is in such great shape. Here, the challenge has been maintaining that,” Craig said. “It’s like man, Alabama’s doing such a good job of feeding him, now we have to maintain that. So our grocery bill has gone up a bit.”
Both Flores and Taylor believe that Bryce has taken well to his new weight, noting that he has been able to generate more power on his throws while not losing any of his patented escapability in the pocket.
“The part I’ve been most excited about is it hasn’t changed his mobility and his feet,” Flores said. “That speed is his strength obviously, so to be able to maintain that while gaining the weight he’s gained is truly a testament to what Alabama does as a program.”
It’s currently unknown when Bryce will able to return to Tuscaloosa to rejoin the team. The SEC has currently postponed spring practices until April 15. Although, that date is essentially serving as a placeholder until a further decision is made as the likelihood of spring practice appears slim.
Thursday, Nick Saban suggested the possibility of a two-week summer session in which players could go through a non-contact learning period before fall camp. The head coach pointed out that such a process would be especially beneficial for young players who are still getting acclimated to the program in the absence of spring camp.
Even if Alabama is unable to make up any of its lost time, Saban indicated that freshmen will still be given an equal opportunity to compete for playing time once fall camp begins.
“We’re going to lean on the people who are the most responsible to go out and do their job and be able to create value for themselves because they’re confident and understand,” he said during a teleconference with local reporters. "That could be a freshman. We’ve played a lot of freshman around here, I think we played 19 last year and five started. I know they’re not going to have the benefit of going through spring practice, but we’ve had a lot of guys that came in the fall — Minkah (Fitzpatrick), Ronnie Harrison — we’ve had guys that weren’t here in the spring, they didn’t get here mid-year and they started as freshmen.”
With the departure of Tua Tagovailoa, Bryce will vie for the starting quarterback job alongside redshirt junior Mac Jones and sophomore Taulia Tagovailoa. After months of preparation, the five-star freshman is ready for that opportunity — whenever it finally arises.
“I don’t see his mindset ever changing about the way he competes,” Craig said. “Whatever aspect or form that takes, he competes the same. I don’t think that will ever change. He’s going in there to compete.
“The way we’ve always talked about competing is don’t worry about winning the job. What you worry about is doing every rep, getting better at every rep and giving your ultimate and competing for every single rep. At the end of the day, see where you stand.”