18 September 2011
The University of Alabama football team practiced in shorts on Monday for their first practice in preparation of the SEC opener against Arkansas on Saturday.
Here's what you need to know:
Robert Lester was limited at practice, but he was cleared for contact. There was some fear that the back injury that forced him out of Saturday's game against North Texas might be severe, but indications are that he was having back spasms. While the play he was injured on looked bad, it's important to note that he had sat out the previous possession. He spent that time on the bench by himself, rather than up on the sidelines where the other defensive players were watching. It's likely that his back was already bothering him. Coach Saban indicated that he should be fine for Saturday.
Dee Milliner was absent from practice due to illness. Coach Saban indicated that he should be fine by mid-week.
That left Dee Hart as the only Bama player in black, which is huge. The fact that Bama won three games in which pretty much everyone who is going to play was able to contribute, and the Tide is heading into SEC play healthy is a big deal.
Duron Carter was working with the scout team again, only this week he was wearing the number of an Arkansas player. Word has started to make its way through the internet from reliable folks that Duron isn't likely to play this year. That's a big blow to a receiving corps that is still struggling to establish its identity. But if there is a definite ruling at this point, at least everyone can move forward knowing what to expect. Indications are that Duron plans to stick around and play next season.
Bama will practice again on Tuesday, and we'll have our normal report.
But since we've entered SEC play, it's time for us to start delving a little deeper into things. So today we'll look at the offense, Tuesday the defense, and Wednesday the special teams.
After A-Day I was convinced that Phillip Sims would be the starting quarterback. He simply looked more confident and skilled when working with the first unit offense. Through three games, the exact opposite is true. A.J. McCarron, despite what Coach Saban might say publicly, is the clear starting quarterback.
That's not to say that A.J. has played flawless. He's made some poor reads. He's made some ill-advised throws. He took a ridiculous sack on Saturday, running out of bounds seven yards behind the line of scrimmage when he had ample time to throw the ball away. He has also led the Tide to three wins, including one in front of the largest crowd to ever see Alabama play football.
Through three games he has completed 48 of 75 pass attempts, which is a completion percentage of 64%. The increased level of the competition will obviously make that number tough to continue throughout the season, but if he managed to hold that number, it would be the third best completion percentage total in school history - matching Joe Namath's 1964. He has 579 yards - 193 per game. That number isn't particularly large, but when you consider that he split the first and third games with Sims, and Bama didn't pass much in the fourth quarter of the Penn State game, it's a solid number. Two touchdowns to two interceptions isn't terrible through three games, but isn't quite the level of efficiency in that department that we got used to with Greg McElroy.
The biggest thing is that A.J. seems comfortable leading the offense. And right now, Phillip does not.
Phillip's numbers haven't been bad - 13 of 22 for 122 yards. He's thrown two interceptions and fumbled without throwing a touchdown. McCarron has turned the ball over the exact same number of times, but he's done it in considerably more snaps. That's not to say that Phillip has been turnover prone. He's played like a redshirt freshman quarterback in the SEC. It's a hard job, and there is a reason that very few freshmen are able to be successful at it. The ones that are usually play on teams that aren't very good, and they are given the opportunity to play through their mistakes. Alabama is in title contention and simply can't afford to have a quarterback playing through his mistakes.
Having said that, I think that the coaching staff still his confidence in Phillip. I believe that if A.J. were to go down to injury that we would see Sims come into the game armed with the entire playbook. And, ultimately, I think he would be successful. But right now there is less of a risk with A.J. And that's why he's getting the starts and the majority of the snaps.
Regardless of all of that, Bama's quarterbacks have combined to complete 62.9% of their passes through three games. The lack of touchdowns is more due to Trent Richardson's short yardage ability than it is to a lack of ability from the quarterbacks. Yes, they have missed some red zone throws, but the offense is typically going to put the ball in the hands of Richardson at the goal line rather than throw three fade routes.
It would be tough to give the quarterbacks a grade of A because of the 6 turnovers to just two touchdowns. But Bama has scored 116 points and won three games, despite the fact that the three opponents have stacked the box and forced the Tide quarterbacks to beat them. So it would be tough to grade them lower than a B. And when you consider that both of these guys are seeing their first meaningful playing time, a grade of B is really pretty good.
It's tough to judge running backs solely on stats. So much of their success or failure is dependant upon defensive schemes, offensive line play, and the score of the game. Having said that, Alabama is averaging 242 yards per game on the ground. So someone has to be doing something right. Bama ranks 15th in the nation in rushing offense, and is just 1/3 of a yard behind South Carolina for the conference lead.
So while there has been plenty of teeth gnashing over the struggles to run the ball, the numbers indicate that Bama hasn't been quite as bad at it as we it might have seen. Then again, you know what they say about lies and statistics.
Trent Richardson did struggle some in week one. He also barely carried the ball. He struggled some against Penn State, too, but ended up over 100 yards. In fact, while Trent has had what most people would consider a bit of a disappointing beginning to the 2011 campaign, he has averaged 105 yards per game and leads the nation in touchdowns with 8. Maybe our expectations were a little out whack if that's in any way disappointing.
What is a bit of a shock is that Eddie Lacy has matched him for the most part yardage wise, despite having just over half of the carries. Eddie has 304 yards on just 28 carries, a staggering 10.9 yards per carry. He's thrown in 3 touchdowns just for good measure, too. So as Bama's backup, he's averaging 101.3 yards and a touchdown per game. I think most people would take that from their primary back.
Just for good measure Jalston Fowler and Blake Sims have totalled 126 yards on just 16 carries, though the vast majority of that has come from Fowler. And the majority of his came on a beautiful 49 yard run in week one. I'd like to see him used more, especially in the second half of games. And we'll see more from Sims as the year goes on an he improves on ball security.
The backs also have 10 catches for 118 yards (all Richardson and Lacy), and have been mostly solid in pass blocking.
When you factor in that all three opponents have stacked the box, and all three have keyed on Trent on virtually every play, you have to be pretty impressed overall with the numbers these guys have put up. The problems have been, for the most part, when the guys have been hit in the backfield; having never gotten a chance to get the play going. When they have had holes, they have hit them. And Bama has five runs of more than 40 yards so far. Add all of that up, and you get a pretty solid A- so far.
The quest to replace Julio Jones has been a mixed bag so far. The fact that Darius Hanks had to sit the first two games didn't help. The fact that Duron Carter still hasn't played has also hurt. The biggest thing holding the unit back, though, is inexperience.
Marquis Maze has been steady - 15 catches for 186 yards and a touchdown. He has made a couple of nice catches so far, including a very big one from a momentum standpoint at Penn State. He's been the guy drawing a few double teams so far, but should see that drop off some now that Hanks is back. He projects to have 60 catches at the end of the regular season. That would put him at #6 on the single season chart at Alabama. So while he hasn't been flashy, he's been solid.
Darius Hanks made a big impact in his first game back, despite only catching two passes for 20 yards. Both of those receptions went for a first down, but that's not where his impact was truly felt. Go back and watch the wide receiver screens. Guess who was the lead blocker... watch the long runs. Guess who was eliminating his guy from the play. Hanks didn't get the credit last season for his blocking because Julio did it at an elite level. He'll get the credit this year.
What's been interesting to watch is how Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White have basically switched places since the beginning of the year. White started in place of Hanks in week one and had a nice game. Then he fell off the map and Bell stepped into his place. Both guys have five catches each, along with Brandon Gibson - who just kind of shows up every once in a while with a nice play. Bama needs at least one of these guys to step up and become that "next guy" behind Maze and Hanks.
The Tide has gotten great play from a receiving standpoint from its two primary tight ends - Michael Williams and Brad Smelley. Williams has 4 catches for 44 yards and a touchdown, while Smelley is second on the team with 7 receptions and 72 yards. McCarron seems to have a solid rhythm with Smelley, and I think we'll see Bama use that to really create matchup problems in the coming weeks.
The big shock so far this season, though, has been the emmergence of Christion Jones. If people had made a list in early August of freshman that they expected to make an impact, Jones likely would not have been on any of them. But through three games, he's played as much as any true freshman on the offensive side of the ball. The coaches love him, and I expect we'll see them be creative in their ways of getting the ball in his hands. He only has 3 catches for 49 yards so far. Don't be shocked if he equals that on Saturday. He is a matchup nightmare, especially if he motions out of the backfield.
A lot of folks will tell you that the receivers are only as good as the quarterbacks. That works both way, though, as the receiver have to make good reads and run good routes. There haven't been but a couple of drops, which helps, but there have also been times when there was a complete lack of separation from the receivers. These guys are mostly young, and having Hanks back will help. So give them the same grade as the quarterbacks - B.
If you've read this site for a while, you know that I don't know much about offensive line play. I do know that there have been entirely too many guys in Bama's backfield wearing opposing jerseys this season. But I also know that the staff has used the first three games to test the game readiness of Cyrus Kouandjio and to move some people around a good bit. That's likely over for now, and we should see the line develop some cohesiveness as they play as one unit.
The Tide has allowed 6 sacks, though one of them was 100% the fault of the quarterback (McCarron running out of bounds). So 5 sacks in three games is not too bad. It's not great either. The 242 rushing yards per game is really good, but how much more could it have been if there weren't the aformentioned guys from opposing teams in the backfield?
Again, I'm no expert here, but I think it would be tough to grade the line out much better than a C. There's a new coach, and there have been a lot of guys shuffling around. Let's see how they look once Bama settles into one group and we start seeing the pistol and the wildcat a little more. Even still, given them a C, if for no other reason than I think that they are capable of way better play.
Bama is averaging 38.7 points per game and 475.7 total yards per game. That puts them 4th and 2nd in the SEC, respectively. I don't think anyone expects the Bama offense to be confused with a juggernaut, but I think we all expect to see the the Tide be able to dictate its will on opponents - especially inferior ones. We've seen it at times this year, while other times things have been flat.
A new quarterback, an unsettled offensive line, and the #2 receiver missing two games... is it any wonder that this offense didn't come out hitting on all cylinders? The Bama defense is good enough that this team does not have to score 38.7 points per game to win. What the team needs to do is control the game and avoid turnovers. Right now Bama has just a one minute edge in time of possession over its opponents. Granted three scoring drives of one play last Saturday hurt that number, but we should see Bama with a six or seven minute edge at this point. Especially given the level of competition. Turnovers have also been far to prevalent, with the Tide sitting at -1 in turnover margin at the moment.
It's been more of an adjustment than most of us would have liked, but probably about what the coaching staff expected. The bottom line is that Bama has scored nearly 40 points per game, and at no point in time has the team been challenged. The defenses will get tougher, so the level of consistent play must improve. Even still, you have to be a bit excited by a few things. And you have to admit that Bama has been extremely vanilla in game planning and play calling.
Average it out from above and you get a B. That seems about right.
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