08 September 2009
Merry 2009 football season, boys and girls. From The Couch is back for another few months of stale, wordy analysis, but you'll probably like it anyway because it's about Bama football!
Before plunging in, let me tell you about the format change we're going to try this year. Basically, the position-by-position rundown is kaput, vamoosed, finis, which means no more paragraphs about the tight ends when I have nothing at all to say about tight ends.
Instead, I'll just post a bunch of blurbs about stuff I noticed. In the best of all possible worlds, the blurbs would be well-organized; in this world, we'll see.
So let's have at it.
Like pretty much everybody else, I had a moment mid-way through the second quarter - along about the time McElroy made it nine straight non-completions with a frankly Garo Ypremian-like effort - that I was thinking: Can't P.J. Fitzgerald throw a little?
But by the time the game was over, I was happy with our new quarterback, and after going over the tape a couple of times, I'm even happier.
Too early for a full conclusion, but I think I'm going to be optimistic about the turnovers and say that QB is going to be an upgrade, at least by the end of the season.
The Offensive Line
I talked about McElroy first because QB is the glamor position, but OL was really our biggest question mark, because our OL played at a high level last year and we lost three key contributors. In other words, we had a long way to fall at a vital position.
I would say that the news is pretty good, and if a standard scenario holds and our green offensive line rounds into form over the season, it could be very good.
There was one abysmal stretch in the second quarter where, over the course of a few pass plays, Jason Worilds beat Davis around the end on a speed rush twice - one of which led to our interception - Upchurch got juked out of his shoes by a blitzing linebacker, who flushed McElroy out of the pocket, and Johnson let his man come free up the middle after he bumped into Vlachos and lost his balance or got confused. Otherwise, the only straight-out breakdown came in the third quarter, when McElroy rolled right and Preston Dial broke back left and blocked a guy who wasn't in the play while the defensive end who lined up in front of him came through untouched and made sure that McElroy kept right on running without a chance to slow down and look for a receiver.
Run-blocking is a little tougher to grade on TV, because the normal camera angle makes it impossible to see who is blocking who (or not). I mostly look for results, and I mostly see what everybody else sees. The results started out mediocre, ended up great. Against a D that is supposed to be pretty good, you have to be happy with that.
Eight rushing plays and six passing plays gained 13 yards or more. The Hokies had three gains of 13 or more compared to our 14.
False start penalties across almost the entire front line. Time-outs or hurried snaps when plays came in late. A couple of busted plays.
Not a shocker with a new QB and a mostly-new OL. I would bet my bottom dollar we are committing less of these when SEC play starts on September 26. Frequent penalties and lack of execution are NOT hallmarks of Nick Saban teams.
Speaking of ill-prepared sloppiness, how' bout that wildcat? The ONLY value I saw from the wildcat was that it gave Ingram better vision on power runs of the 3rd-and-1 variety. Otherwise, it's just a tailback run where you tip the D off before the play starts that you have no other option. Throw in a couple of bad snaps, and the wildcat maybe should've been spayed before the game.
Unless we can add a couple of wrinkles to the extremely basic version we ran Saturday night, I would suggest saving the wildcat for goal line situations.
26 first and ten play-calls, 20 runs. It wouldn't be so bad if we hadn't gotten stuffed on first down so often. We faced 2nd and 9 or worse a staggering 19 times Saturday night. Mix it up, guys.
Speaking of mixing it up, that was a very nice call to go to the tight end in the back of the end zone for the two-point conversion - but maybe not so nice to go right straight back to the well on 3rd and goal immediately after recovering the fumbled kickoff right after that same two-point conversion.
I liked McElwain's play-callin in '08, but this was not one of his better efforts.
Spreading it Around
On the other hand, McElwain or McElroy or somebody deserves some credit for spreading it around. The Tide faithful have enjoyed complaining about the lack of anyone stepping up to be a reliable second option after Julio, but that's mainly been because you have to have something to complain about, ya know?
Unsurprisingly, both the guys who flashed it occasionally last year, Maze and Hanks, had productive games, and so did that big new guy from Georgia Tech.
Ingram and Richardson
I made the pre-season prediction that Richardson would lead in carries over the second half of the season. That may still happen, but the road is a little steeper than it first appeared, because Ingram showed some improvement over his '08 form.
Ingram's superb athleticism was on display from the moment he stepped on campus, but too often in '08 he showed the wide gulf between himself and Glen Coffee in the vision department. Coffee could really spot those holes - and Ingram really couldn't.
I was very happy to notice Ingram picking his way through holes several times Saturday night. He was particularly adept at going wide and turning upfield at the proper moment. He made that work several times.
The downside: he did get stuck behind the line a few times, which is a few too many. Also, there was a bizarre play early in the 4th quarter when Ingram burst through a hole, had nobody in front of him, and for some reason decided to execute a spin move. Of course that slowed him down and he was caught and hauled down immediately.
As for Richardson? Even though his only playing time was in a no-win run-it-up-the-gut-and-hell-yes-they're-waiting-on-you situation, he hit the line like a ton of bricks. We'll be seeing more of him soon.
Everybody knows that Smelley is in there for receiving, not for blocking. But there were at least three occasions where he led a back into a hole and failed to pick up a free defender.
Granted, all three were tough blocks where Smelley had to instantly find the open defender, who could come from any angle, and react quickly and physically. In other words, these were three difficult tasks.
But 0-3 is not a good batting average, especially since Brad didn't catch any passes, either.
Julio Had a Big Drop
Any time Julio drops one, it's headline news. But this was the biggest drop of his career: third down and trailing in the fourth quarter. It wasn't a dead easy catch, but it was easy enough.
Otherwise, Julio was Julio. No big plays, but there would've been one if McElroy hadn't just missed on one first quarter toss.
Julio also picked up a vicious helmet-to-helmet shot from Tech safety Kam Chancellor while he was running downfield on a pass pattern. The ref actually called Chancellor for interference, which was questionable, but missed the blatant personal foul. I hope the ACC office takes note of that.
Upchurch and the Virginia Tech DBs
Roy enjoyed creaming a Tech DB who was waiting on the goal-line so much that he took it to another one later at the end of a twenty-yard run when he might've had a chance to get around the guy for a long run. However, you do have to hand it to Upchurch for a good shot: the recipient, Cody Grimm, had to be helped off the field.
But Grimm took revenge later, stripping Upchurch from behind after another long run. Upchurch is no track star, and he needs to be prepared in situations like that, because defenders love to go for the ball after a breakaway run. Granted, it was a strong accurate punch to the ball, so the ball might've come out under any circumstance, but Upchurch was not holding on as tight as he might have.
Better than last year. Not as good as we'd like.
Eryk Anders got in Taylor's face at least three times, but each time tried to close the gap too fast. You have to contain a nifty runner like Taylor, who is just going to give you the old matador treatment if you come in too fast and straight. Anders coulda been wearing horns.
Between Deaderick, Dareus, Washington, Cody, and Chapman, who the heck is going to sit on the bench? What a terrible, terrible problem we have. . . . :)
I know we have DL talent I haven't named. But the five guys above are all real good.
Maybe my favorite play Saturday night was a play that was supposed to be a little dump pass in the flat to a Tech wideout. For some reason, Chapman peeled off to cover him. The dude was dipping and ducking around in the flat to get open, but Chapman stuck like glue. Taylor threw it into the dirt because his man was so covered.
No, not an Orson Scott Card novel.
I'm less worried than I was about Eryk's run support. He's no Brandon Fanney as a run-stopper, but he ain't chopped liver, either. He pinched inside and got physical in the scrum several times.
Rolo: Did He Do It?
VA Tech had 3rd and 2 on their first series. Taylor hit a back across the middle. Rolo was around the line of scrimmage and the back caught the ball and went scooting toward the stripe. Rolo was facing away from the back with an offensive lineman pushing him away. Rolo spun away, back and toward the middle of the field.
That's all I really saw for sure, because whatever happened was blocked off by the lineman. But somehow that back wound up on the ground, a yard short, and no other Bama players were around. Did Rolo spin off an offensive line block and instantly stone a running back after having his back turned to him? I wish I knew. If it happened, it would be as impressive as the way he stuffed Tebow from the side on a power run last year.
Offensive Defensive Backs
This is the most physical defensive backfield Alabama has ever had. Period. Even Kareem Jackson turned into a little mini-Hercules during the offseason.
Just wait til Woodson knows the system well enough to get on the field.
Everybody is bashing Marquis, and he did have a couple of bad plays. He had some good ones, too, though - more than Barron did, for example. Marquis is also more physical than he has been in the past.
He's pretty much where he was a couple of years ago, when he was seeing time despite questionable ability because there was nobody else to fill in. Now he has definitely improved - but so has the DB talent level. As an improved defender, Marquis is still a maybe for playing time.
Some things never change.
McClain and Hightower
A lot of people talked last year about us having a great pair of middle linebackers and mentioned McClain and Hightower as a duo. Frankly, I didn't think Hightower deserved to be mentioned in the same breath. I would've been more inclined to brag on us as having McClain and a decent supporting cast, instead of bragging on McClain and Hightower.
Sure, Hightower made a lot of tackles, but too many of 'em were 7 or 8 yards downfield, while McClain was haunting the LOS. But Dont'a came on the last couple of games of '08 and started living up to the hype. It happened again Saturday night.
Now, I'm down with "McClain and Hightower lead a strong group of Bama linebackers."
Have I seen this movie before? The little guy was looking like an All-American kicker - then he misses a 36-yarder.
He had a good game overall, but I fear the inconsistency is still there. Prove me wrong, Leigh.
Well, we had a couple of problems Saturday night. One was the offensive sloppiness. As I said above, history says that won't last.
Unfortunately, history tells us something else about kickoff coverage problems. This has been killing us ever since Ron Middleton left.
On the TD return, what happened is that Upchurch and Barron each stayed in their lane, but Upchurch made it 8-10 yards further before he got blocked and held up. That allowed the returner to sprint by Upchurch and then cut left for the sideline. Although Barron was right in front of him when he cut, the dude was going all out and Barron was basically at a standing start. No way he does anything but get smoked in the race for the sideline.
If Barron and Upchurch had been standing beside each other instead of 8-10 yards apart, there would've been no hole to cut to the sideline through. Upchurch never lost outside contain, the guy just ran by him.
Also, for the first time in recent memory, Leigh Tiffin was not in front of a breakaway kickoff returner. He hasn't made every tackle, and sometimes he only managed to slow the guy down by getting run over, but Leigh has saved more than one TD with his play as a mini-safety. Not this time.
(Which is what one BOL poster called our walk-on long snapper in a post title.)
If this dude keeps making multiple big plays a game, I'm going to start asking people to get his name right. I might even get it right myself.
Two BS sideline penalties - one on Chris Jordan at the end of a kickoff return, one on Tech for hitting McElroy as he went out. If a guy starts firing off before the other person is out of bounds (or clearly and undeniably stepping out of bounds), THAT IS NOT A PENALTY. You can't ask a football player to stop playing when the play is not over.
Defense: what I expected. (Drool.)
Offense: good news.
Special teams: need a little work, but won't cost us many games.
Coaching: Except for the offensive play-calling, top notch. Our guys were ready, in fabulous shape, and had good game plans on both sides of the ball. Even the Wildcat didn't really hurt us - yeah, it sucked, but it distracted the bad guys. It took Tech until late in the game to realize they could just bring 11 whenever we ran it.
Florida had better be improved from last year. We are.
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