06 August 2008
OK, camp has already started, so I'm a little late. Shoot me, I just started here.
The most important off-season developments occurred on or before February 5--but I mentioned them already in The Newcomers
. Those off-season developments were really good. The rest? Not so good.
Stud reserve lineman B.J. Stabler
, who has battled knee injuries throughout his career, gave up the fight and left the team. For an oft-injured reserve, he will be missed. (See the UT game from last year if you don’t know what I mean.)
Perhaps the most disappointing development was that neither of the reserve QBs on the roster put up any kind of competition at all in the spring. John Parker Wilson
has a chance to have a fine senior year, but frankly I do not have confidence in him after the way last year finished. More on that below.
Finally, on the when-it-rains-it-pours front, no less than three of Bama’s heralded wideout signees will not make it to the Capstone. The loss of Destin Hood was no surprise, for the smart money has put him as a likely major league baseballer from the get-go. The same is not true of Tallahassee standout Melvin Ray
, a notable theft from FSU, who is also going to be donning a minor league jersey next year instead of the crimson and white. A third four-star, Devonta Bolton
, somewhat surprisingly didn’t make the grades he needed and will be in junior college next year.
Just like that, the rich crop of signees that was slated to replace a significant group of graduating wideouts has been cut down to size.
Perhaps the most significant off-season move of all came on the coaching staff, when offensive coordinator/QB coach Major Applewhite
returned to his Austin alma mater. This may have occurured because we weren’t all that interested in keeping him. Although Applewhite was considered widely to have been a rising star in the assistant coaching ranks, having been the subject of a fairly high-profile bidding war before Bama eventually snared him in '07, that may have been based more on his notably polished self-presentation than on any real accomplishments.
The fact is that the O was disappointing last year and the QB play was even more disappointing. Add “unproven as a D1 OC” into that mix, then add Saban’s demand for a very high staff skill level to that, and the answer is: new OC.
Meet Jim McElwain
, coming from a successful stint as Offensive Coordinator at Fresno St. McElwain ran balanced offenses at FSU--last year
the Bulldogs put up 210.9 yards per game rushing and 208.6 yards per game passing, along with 32.8 points per game--but we slung it a lot in spring training. Don’t be surprised if Bama passes more than any Bama team ever, probably featuring a short-pass ball-control game.
Beyond any doubt, this position is the biggest and most important wild card on the team this year, and we will sink or swim according to the way John Parker Wilson
performs. The rest of the offense appears to be loaded, so if Wilson comes through to the best of his ability, we are going to put a lot of points on the board and win a lot of games.
But will he? With all his top receivers and almost the entire offensive line returning in 2007, and a full year of experience as the starter under his belt, Wilson’s numbers figured to head skyward. They didn't. His completion percentage dropped from 57.0 to 55.2, and worse, his yards per attempt—my favorite single passing stat other than the all-encompassing QB rating—dropped from an acceptable 7.1 to an anemic 6.2.
To boot, he had a season-long tendency to pack it in late in the game—with “late in the game” appearing as early as the 2nd quarter—and he just looked more and more snake-bit in the second half of games as the season wore on. By the end of the year, a lot of folks, including your truly, had pretty much lost all confidence in JPW.
But despite the scary way last year ended, there are reasons for at least a little optimism. The young man is no Joe Willie Namath, arm-wise, but he has plenty of ability, and experience, to run this collection of offensive talent up and down the field, if he can just get his head straight and believe in himself. Those of you who know this QB well know how encouraging it was to see him look off his primary receiver and find somebody else open not just once, but several times in the Independence Bowl. That was a wonderful omen for ’08. A new OC and a new QB coach sure can’t hurt, because whatever the last one was doing didn’t seem to work all that well.
None of the QBs already on campus made a run at him in the spring. Highly-touted signal-caller Star Jackson
will be a true freshman this fall, and word is he will get every shot at the #2 position, with the hope being to actually get him some significant playing time early in the year. If this plan exists in truth and not just in rumor, it says something about how desperate we are at this position: even though he appears to be plenty talented, Star is high-school skinny, and doesn’t have a ton of quarterbacking experience.
Here’s hoping for the best at this position.
The good news is that everybody but Jimmy Johns
is coming back, and Johns was not really a large part of the running game last year. The bad news is that nobody consistently flashed the star quality that is expected of a starting tailback in Tuscaloosa.
If that quality is to be found in the returnees, it will probably be in Terry Grant
. Grant showed all-star form in the first 4 games
of the season, with 73 carries for 483 yards, a more than healthy 6.6 yards per carry clip. The redshirt freshman then proceeded to fizzle, getting only 408 more yards the rest of the season in 107 opportunities, a mediocre 3.8. Even worse, Grant lost all ability to get the tough yard and more than once was knocked down by a single extended arm.
After the season was over, we learned that Grant spent much of the year slowed by a “sports hernia,” and is expected to be full speed and full strength this year. Early on, I heard ESPN’s announcers comparing him to Warrick Dunn, and it didn’t seem to be an altogether ridiculous comparison, as Grant did not seem to be a knock-down-with-one-arm guy early in the year, but rather a Dunn-type controlled zig-zagger who ran through arm tackles.
Proven depth is available, between Glenn Coffee
and Roy Upchurch
. Upchurch was the highest-rated of these backs coming out of high school, and some say they’ve seen flashes of it with the Tide. All I’ve seen is a solid backup, but I’d like to be proven wrong.
What I’d also like to see—IF there is doubt as to whether Grant is truly the percipient star that he appeared to be early last year—is at least an experiment with B.J. Scott
at halfback. I hear a lot of people comparing him to scatback types like Percy Harvin and David Palmer, and while Scott may well have those abilities, he also has arms like tree limbs and thighs like tree trunks and did more reps at the Baton Rouge combine last year than anybody else under 300 pounds.
Folks with Scott’s combination of speed and power usually end up at running back. If Grant gives us this star quality we need, that’s one thing, but if he doesn’t, why not give this guy a shot? I think he will have the best speed/power/moves combination on the roster, and that practically screams tailback.
and Ivan Matchett
are coming in as true freshman, and Demetrius Goode and Jeremy Griffin redshirted last year and both have talent (although Goode appears destined for defense
). Newcomers Mark Barron
and Chris Jordan
may end up elsewhere, but each is also a distinct possibility to get a look here. One thing we definitely do not lack at running back is numbers.
Rarely do you see a team lose its top 3 receivers and feel confident about the wideout position coming in, but that’s exactly the case at Bama this year. D.J. Hall
, Keith Brown
, and Matt Caddell
will all be missed, but we’ve got three guys coming back who have already proved themselves to be capable, some young talent working its way up the depth chart—and most tantalizingly, two prime 5-star high-schoolers inbound.
It’s not usual to start a position outlook by talking about the true freshman, but this is not a usual position or a usual year.
I started watching Bama football late in the 1962 season, when I was seven, and I can easily say that I have never been as confident that an incoming true freshman will step in and provide reliable SEC-quality work as I am confident right now in Julio Jones
. This guy is nothing less than an amazing athlete and a polished football player with an excellent work ethic. I am confident that he will start game one, and I am confident that if he is not our top receiver this year it will because somebody else played great, not because Jones didn’t play well.
—if he doesn’t play running back, cornerback or safety—might be Jones’ biggest competition for the top wideout nod. I have heard some rumors that he has dropped a few passes during summer workouts. If so, that will be the only thing holding him back. He’s got great speed, power, and elusiveness.
I can tell you right now, NOBODY is going to play jam defense on this guy. He will either juke you or just shove you aside and then be gone down the field. And if you can’t jam him, that leaves him open for the quick hitter, where he can use his considerable open-field skills to try to make something big.
I don’t want to forget the returnees. Mike McCoy
started most of last season as a sophomore, and although he didn’t really show much of a big-play threat, he’s solid with the fundamentals, an excellent blocker, and the kind of worker Saban likes. Will Oakley is a 5th-year senior who has battled injuries throughout his career, but has consistently played well when healthy.
But my pick to click among the returnees is Nikita Stover
, a highly-rated high-school baller who made his way to Bama through the junior college route without ever shaking in his determination to eventually wear the crimson. Apparently Stover is not the greatest warrior on the practice field—which Saban puts a lot of emphasis on—but he has consistently delivered when given an opportunity in games. He’s got one more season to live up to the hype, and I see him taking advantage of it—at least to the extent Jones and Scott give him that opportunity.
Finally, don’t forget about a passle of other young-uns. Leading the way is Darius Hanks
, red-shirted last year but consistently highly-touted by practice observers. Speedy 6’5” Earl Alexander
is still waiting for the light bulb to come on, but he is only a sophomore and a prime athletic talent. Brandon Gibson
was a national top 100 high school baller who redshirted last year, as did tiny speedster Marquis Maze
. Chris Jackson
is a true freshman who came in early and participated in spring training, but it looks as if he may well redshirt anyway.
I feel good about this group despite the graduation losses.
I’ll keep it a little shorter and simpler here. Seniors Travis McCall
and Nick Walker
will be sharing the starting duties for the third straight year. They’re both big guys who can block, but Walker is a bit more of a pass-catcher, McCall a bit more of a straight blockers. The question is whether the new OC will make the TE more of a frequent target, in which case look for Walker to increase his minutes.
Depth will be provided by sophomore Preston Dial
and freshman Chris Underwood. Neither of these guys has the size of McCall or Walker, so if either blossoms look for him to be a feature TE in passing situations.
Despite the off-season departure of super-backup B.J. Stabler, who probably started close to 10 games during his career, Bama will field its most experienced OL since – heck, I don’t know. But a long time. Maybe ever.
LT Andre Smith
– 26 career starts
LG Mike Johnson
– 13 career starts
C Antoine Caldwell
– 34 career starts
RG Marlon Davis
– 13 career starts (plus two years as a top reserve)
RT Drew Davis
– zero starts
Reserve center Evan Cardwell
– 7 career starts (plus 1.5 years as a top reserve)
College OLs with 93 career starts under their belt don't come along too often, and it's hard to overestimate the value of experience in an OL. Not only are these guys older and stronger than kids straight out of high school, but they have worked together enough to be a unit, with the ability to rely on each other's strengths and cover each other's weaknesses.
Criticizing the OL is a favorite autumn perennial in Tuscaloosa, but I urge fans to stifle that reflex this year, and watch these guys as an example of where the standard should be.
As for the individuals, Andre Smith is, of course, the anchor. He’s a consensus first-team pre-season All-American and widely expected to depart for more lucrative pastures after this year, when he will be eligible for the draft. The local consensus is that Andre hasn’t quite lived up to his potential yet, but he has played well enough to be first-team all-SEC last year. This year is his big chance to impress the pros and maybe become a top 5 pick.
Antoine Caldwell is the other all-star candidate. He might make an All-American backup team here or there, and has a good shot at all-SEC. A bit smallish for an NFL OL, but he’s quick and versatile, having been either a starter or lead backup at C, G & T during his Bama career.
Right tackle has been the sore spot on Bama’s OL for years now, and it would make a good story if Drew Davis is the guy who finally scratched that itch. A two-star high-schooler, Davis probably only got his scholly by virtue of his willingness to sit out a semester and enter in the spring. Now he’s a 4th-year junior with four spring practices under his belt, and we’ll be watching.
If Davis doesn’t pan out, we have options: Mike Johnson and Antoine Caldwell both have RT starts during their career.
Coming off the bench, along with the dependable Cardwell, are sophomores David Ross
and Taylor Pharr
, both of whom were highly recruited as high-schoolers, and redshirt freshman William Vlachos
, said to be one of the strongest men on the team. A talented trio of true freshmen, including 5-star Tyler Love
, top 50 national recruit Barrett Jones
, and 4-star John Michael Boswell
, will be there if needed, but most true freshmen offensive linemen redshirt, and with the talent already on hand I am predicting redshirt for all three, especially since the talented Love was slowed for part of the summer by a foot injury.