Entering the 2009 season, new faces have entered the fray of the Crimson Tide offense, and prognosticators would be foolish to not expect a drop off from last year’s production.
It’s an understatement to say the Tide will miss Andre Smith.
Smith won the 2008 Outland Trophy and was a consensus all-American. In his absence, the Tide offense struggled last year, gaining season lows on the ground against Utah (31 yards) and Tulane (99 yards).
All together, the Tide must replace four offensive line starters from 2008: Smith, RG Marlon Davis, C Antoine Caldwell, and TE Travis McCall. McCall was utilized as an extra blocker from his tight end position.
Good offensive line play requires chemistry and continuity amongst its players, which can only be developed through repetition and experience. This graduating class started together for three seasons.
Last year, the Tide’s success in the run game took pressure off of John Parker Wilson. At times, opposing defenses cheated safeties, playing eight in the box without stifling the run.
The play action pass was effective and Alabama wasn’t forced into as many third and long situations as it was in 2007.
Against SEC West foes in 2007, the Tide’s run to pass play count was 180:186. By virtue of a better running game in 2008, the numbers improved drastically to 204:108. This run-heavy attack put John Parker Wilson in a position to be successful.
This season, however, the Tide will find the going tougher on the ground.
The offense will face more third and long conversions, and the quarterback will be forced to make plays more often than in 2008. The new offensive line needs time to gel into a cohesive unit.
Unfortunately for the group, the season begins with the likes of Virginia Tech at a neutral setting.
Things to watch for this year
Unlike the 2008 regular season, Alabama will need their quarterback to win games this year. McElroy’s only appearances have been in mop up situations. Can he come in and perform at a high level?
McElroy was one of the best performers at the annual Manning Academy passing camp this summer, an event that drew top quarterbacks from across the nation. The question is how much stock can you put into a guy who hits moving simulated targets? It’s a far cry from throwing with linebackers running at you in front of 90,000 fans.
Who is second on the depth chart is even a more complicated question. Star Jackson was unimpressive in the spring game, and rumors were walk-on Thomas Darrah was placed on scholarship. True freshman AJ McCarron is competing for the position as well.
What we do know is this unit will not dominate the line of scrimmage in the run game like the 2008 group. Can they protect the quarterback on obvious passing downs?
Saban has spoken highly of JUCO transfer James Carpenter, a December signee who nailed down the left tackle spot in spring drills. A position battle is ongoing to determine who starts at right guard.
To Alabama’s credit, they have done a good job of recruiting offensive lineman, even back to the Shula days. Consequently, it will be disappointing if the group can’t eventually put it together.
Offensive coordinator Jim McElwain has bigger plans for Julio Jones this year. The Tide will scheme to get Jones more touches by moving him around in multi-wideout formations.
With another year under his belt, Jones has learned the assignments of every wide out position. For the passing game to reach its full potential, Alabama needs to find a legitimate number two receiver opposite Jones.
Coming back from 2008 are Darius Hanks, Marquis Maze, and Earl Alexander, all receivers who showed flashes of brilliance last year but failed to produce consistently. The second leading receiver from a year ago tight end Nick Walker is gone, but heralded transfer Colin Peek is primed to step in if he can ward off a nagging foot injury.
It’s no secret that Saban and McElwain wish to run the ball first and pass occasionally to keep defenses off balance. Will the 2009 offense be able to play the same style of ball or will it reinvent itself as the season plays out?
Either way, it will be interesting to watch.