Alabama Football: Midseason Grades for Players and Coaches
With last weekend’s win over Kentucky, Alabama has gotten off to a 6-0 start for the fifth time in seven years under Nick Saban’s guidance.
However, despite its perfect record, Alabama has already seen its share of ups and downs through the first half of the 2013 season.
How have the Tide’s coaches and players graded out through the midway point of the season?
It’s almost hard to heap superlatives upon Saban given all that he’s accomplished since taking over in Tuscaloosa.
However, considering the roster upheaval from last season and the early-season struggles his team endured, Saban may be in the midst of one of his better coaching jobs with his club positioned for another run at a national title.
The Tide navigated their struggles on offense (offensive line) and defense (secondary) through an opening four-game gauntlet against teams with a combined record of 16-9.
While Alabama still has areas where improvement is needed to match its championship standard, Saban and his staff have done a tremendous job in getting the team to fight through its struggles without suffering a defeat.
It’s no surprise that AJ McCarron’s performance to date has mirrored the schizophrenic path that the offense has travelled through the first half of the season.
McCarron was brilliant against Texas A&M, and there’s no doubt that he was the biggest difference in the much-hyped showdown between the Tide and the Aggies. However, McCarron clearly struggled in games against Virginia Tech, Colorado State and Ole Miss.
The Tide’s senior leader has already matched his interception total from 2012 (three), but he’s shown signs of coming out of his slumber in recent weeks—including throwing for a career-high 359 yards in the win over Kentucky.
Expect McCarron to be at his best as Alabama inches closer toward a third consecutive national title.
Sophomore T.J. Yeldon entered the season as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate. Yeldon has been solid, if not spectacular, at times. He’s averaging more than six yards per carry, and he topped the century mark against Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Kentucky.
One of the surprising elements of the Tide’s backfield has been the emergence of Kenyan Drake as Yeldon’s backup. Drake is averaging more than seven yards per carry and has scored a touchdown in five consecutive games.
Drake and senior Jalston Fowler have taken the majority of snaps when Yeldon has been on the sidelines, which is a minor shock after Saban brought in four highly touted freshmen in the Tide’s 2013 recruiting class.
Overall, this group is starting to pick it up production-wise, and that trend should continue throughout the rest of the season.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Entering the 2013 season, Alabama looked to possess one of the nation’s top pass-catching units.
Although that still could be the case, the unit’s headliner—sophomore Amari Cooper—has largely been ineffective through the first half of the season.
Juniors Christion Jones and DeAndrew White have picked up the slack in his absence, combining to record 42 receptions for 547 yards and five scores. Also, tight ends Brian Vogler and O.J. Howard have been active in the passing game, combining to record 16 receptions for 209 yards.
If Cooper can get back to his 2012 form upon his return, Alabama’s passing attack will be among the nation’s most potent units.
If there’s one unit that has bore the brunt of criticism from the media and fans for the Tide's early struggles on offense, it’s been Mario Cristobal’s offensive line.
Granted, anyone expecting this unit to function at a similar level to the 2012 unit, despite losing a trio of All-Americans, was unrealistic in the first place.
While Alabama’s offense ranks in the middle of the SEC, according to cfbstats.com, the offense has shown signs of life in recent weeks, mostly due to the improvements made in the trenches. The Tide's 668 yards of total offense against Kentucky is a signal that Doug Nussmeier's group is starting to click entering the meat of its conference schedule.
If players such as Chad Lindsay, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd continue to get more comfortable, the Tide’s offense could look similar to how it did toward the end of last season.
Another unit that underwent a transition in the offseason was the defensive line. Chris Rumph built this year’s unit around veteran defensive end Ed Stinson.
However, the growth of true freshmen A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen has given a boost to a group that has stepped it up over the last four games. Also, juniors Jeoffrey Pagan and Xzavier Dickson have provided the Tide with solid play up-front throughout the season.
In fact, after struggling in the first two games of the season, Alabama has allowed only 206 yards rushing in its last four games and rank seventh nationally in rushing defense, according to cfbstats.com.
The continued growth of players such as Robinson and Allen will give the Tide an excellent chance to form a dominant unit by season’s end.
Alabama’s depth, talent and experience at linebacker has been beneficial, considering the changes to the defensive line and the secondary.
C.J. Mosley has been the rock of this unit, and he continues to be one of the nation’s most dominant defenders. Trey DePriest, Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall have been solid alongside Mosley.
Aside from the Texas A&M game that forced Alabama to play more nickel and dime coverages, this group has performed at a high level through the first half of the season.
Perhaps, no unit has undergone more upheaval than Saban’s secondary. The rotation at corner has been shuffled due to injuries and some early-season struggles.
Add in the midseason suspension to starting safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and it paints a clear picture as to the inconsistencies in the Tide’s lineup on the back-end of the defense.
The Texas A&M game was obviously a rough outing. However, safety Vinnie Sunseri’s third-quarter pick-six may have been the defining moment of the 49-42 victory over the Aggies.
Also, the insertion of freshman corner Eddie Jackson into the starting lineup has been a revelation. The combination of Jackson and Deion Belue at corner, and the emergence of Landon Collins and Jarrick Williams as the Tide’s extra defensive backs in nickel and dime sets gives the secondary a chance to gain some chemistry and consistency moving forward.
Considering that Alabama scored a touchdown via a punt return, a kickoff return and a blocked punt (all within the first three games of the season), the Tide’s special teams unit has factored heavily into the team’s 6-0 start.
Christion Jones has been a dynamic returner, and the coverage units have largely been outstanding.
According to cfbstats.com, senior punter Cody Mandell ranks fifth nationally, averaging nearly 47 yards per punt, and he’s been an unsung hero for allowing the Tide to stay on the right side of the field-position battle in times when the offense has struggled.
Kicker Cade Foster has hit on seven of his eight field-goal attempts—including a long of 53 yards.
In fact, the special teams unit has been the most consistent segment of the Tide’s roster through the first half of the season.