By Mitchell Carter
Going into the 2008 season, opinions wildly varied as to how the various units of this year’s Crimson Tide team would perform (relative to the process, of course).
Offensive Line and Running Backs
The true Bama homers were enthusiastic about the offense, noting that the bulk of the offensive line was returning intact, and the backfield was upgraded—at least on paper.
Rivals and pundits noted that games are not played on paper, and the problems that plagued the running back position last season, such as depth and injury, were not guaranteed to be repaired by time and freshmen.
Many opinions of the potential effectiveness of the Bama running game were formed as a result of the Louisiana-Monroe debacle in 2007, where the Tide offensive unit was unable to gain less than one yard that was needed to convert a pivotal fourth down, during a desperate late game drive.
Homers pointed to the depletion of depth resulting from the suspension of the “textbook five,” while opponents used that cry as proof text to the frailty of Alabama’s depth.
While the offense looked powerful and dynamic at times—such as the Tennessee game—at other times it simply looked… offensive.
A universal concern on the offensive side of the ball was the receiving corp. Gone was the blue collar productivity of Keith Brown and record setting career of DJ Hall.
True homers pointed to the influx of talent with the addition of high school phenom Julio Jones, and the development of talent already on campus. The doubters questioned Julio’s effectiveness at the collegiate level—and rightly so. Jones’ performance in post season all-star games against division one talent produced mixed results.
By and large the tight end position was an unknown. Under the direction of Major Applewhite, the tight end position was relegated to being just an extension of the offensive line.
For years the Bama faithful have cried for more passes to the tight ends—to no avail. Confidence (or lack thereof) in the tight end position was simply non-sequitur, as no one knew how they would be utilized—or how they would respond to their use.
Probably the most divisive unit of the Alabama offense in terms of polarizing the fan base (and pundits), was the quarterback position. The backup quarterback has always been the most popular man on campus at Alabama.
Going into the 2008 season, opinions of the Alabama quarterback position were wildly varied. In 2008, John Parker Wilson was the epitome of a “Jeckyl and Hyde” quarterback.
Against Arkansas, Wilson was Cool Hand Luke, completing 24 of 45 for 327 yards and his two picks were offset by four touchdowns thrown; Tennessee numbers were similar, as Wilson threw for 363 yards and three touchdowns—with no interceptions.
Many have forgotten that at that point in the season, Wilson was generating Heisman talk in the national media. The talk of Heisman disappeared with Mr. Hyde reared his head.
Against LSU, even though Wilson’s performance was sub-par at 14 of 40 passing, Alabama battled tooth and nail and was tied at 34 with less than two minutes left. When Wilson fumbled the ball giving LSU possession at the Alabama three yard line, the wheels came off completely.
The next week against Mississippi State, Wilson was 16 of 32 with two interceptions—one returned for the deciding points in the game. The next week against Louisiana-Monroe at home, Wilson had a high completion percentage with 21 of 31, but was picked off twice by the Warhawks.
The Independence bowl was a microcosm of Wilson’s 2008 performance. In the first quarter, Wilson looked like Joe Montana. After getting rattled late in the second, Wilson began to more closely resemble Joe Sixpack.
Expectations versus Reality
Let there be no mistake. All doubters of the Alabama offensive line were proven wrong—in most areas.
A unit that could not provide enough blocking for a one yard gain against a mid-level Sun Belt Conference team, is now driving would be tacklers five yards down field. Every defense that has faced the starting five of the Crimson Tide OL has been victimized for chunks of yardage—most recently Kentucky, who had held three of four opponents to less than 70 yards.
The lone team to top 100 yards rushing gained most of their yards after the outcome had been decided—and ended up with just over 150 total yards. Alabama gashed the UK defense for over 300 yards (not counting sack yardage).
Sacks were a real problem in 2007, and the numbers after six games are identical in 2008. However, there has been much less pressure overall, and many of the sacks were coverage sacks—not the total breakdowns seen in 2007.
Where the pundits have been proven correct, is the depth concerns. When Alabama has been forced to shuffle the line (as against Tulane), the Tide has been far less successful on the ground.
The Green Wave held Alabama to 90 yards below their current average. Against UK, the Tide running game decreased noticeably when All-American Left Tackle Andre Smith suffered an elbow sprain.
All in all, the OL has EXCEEDED expectations.
If there was any questions about Glen Coffee’s recovery from his sports hernia in the spring of 2007, and how durable he would be, they are answered now.
“Mr. Coffee has something brewing” in 2008, and is on pace to rush for over 1400 yards. The Alabama rushing attack is tops in the SEC, and Coffee is the biggest part of that with 712 yards already in 2008.
Coffee has had runs of 87, 78, 51, and 31 yards, the kinds of runs that bring back memories of Shaun Alexander and Bobby Humphrey. Coffee is averaging an amazing 7.2 yards per carry.
No. 2 RB Mark Ingram led the team in rushing against No. 8 Clemson, and has 357 yards. Ingram’s powerful running style has proven invaluable in the red zone.
Third string RB Roy Upchurch has 218 yards—5.9ypc, and a 62 yard TD run against Arkansas. Last year’s leading rusher Terry Grant has been conspicuous in his absence, having gotten only 22 carries thus far.
Some speculate that his lack of playing time is a combination of Saban favoring a larger, more powerful, running back, as opposed to a scat back. It is worth noting that Grant suffered the same type of injury in 2007 that hampered Coffee last year—a sports hernia, and they can take time to heal. That would explain his absence in the passing game—a position filled well by Roy Upchurch, who is the team’s fourth leading receiver.
The Running backs have VASTLY EXCEEDED expectations.
With DJ Hall lost to graduation, the hope was the Julio Jones would step in to provide a big-play receiver. Thus far, Jones has done better than most all but extremist homers would have expected of a true freshman.
Jones has almost three times the yardage of Mike McCoy, the No. 2 receiver in terms of production. Jones’ is not in the top ten among SEC receivers, however his four TD’s ties him for first in the SEC.
Other receivers have shown flashes of brilliance, yet by and large the receiving corp has been underutilized due to the success of the running game. Wilson’s 127 passes puts him behind almost all other QB’s in the SEC.
The second leading receiver on offense is not a receiver, but a tight end, and all told, the verdict is INCONCLUSIVE on the receiving corp., due to lack of passes thrown. If I was pushed to make a choice, I would say that they have SLIGHTLY underperformed due to the inability to get open against man coverage.
Hopefully, experience will help.
Who knew? Gone is Applewhite’s 40 passes per game to wide-outs, in is McElwain’s power running and safe passing, and the tight ends have benefited greatly. Travis McCall may well be the most effective blocking tight end in the SEC, and Nick Walker has 15 receptions—second only to Jones’ 19. The tight ends have EXCEEDED any expectations.
This is tough…sort of. Wilson has done what has been asked of him—which has not been much.
Wilson has been an efficient leader of the offense. Against Georgia, Wilson was incredible…he was as close to perfect as is reasonably possible.
Against UK, he twice under threw wide-open receivers that would have scored if the ball had been delivered on time.
As Saban points out, sometimes the blame is hard to place. When receivers don’t get open, it is not Wilson’s fault. The biggest difference between this year and last, is that Wilson has a running game that he can be confident in.
I have always said that Wilson is a very good quarterback, but he is not capable of carrying the team consistently. Last season, he was asked to do more than he was capable of, throwing 40 passes in multiple games.
In his first season as starter, he had little supporting cast. Somehow, through all of it, he has managed to re-write the record books at Alabama. With the confidence Wilson has in his teammates, he no longer has to force the issue. McElwain has Wilson throwing it away, instead of into double coverage. That improvement alone is immeasurable.
Wilson has just two interceptions through six games, after having 12 in 2006, and is protecting the ball better.
All told, I have to rate Wilson as EXCEEDED REALISTIC expectations. I say realistic, because some segments of the fan base will not be happy unless he performs in every game the way he did against UT last season.
The final component is the addition of Jim McElwain as offensive coordinator. Time has shown that everything the Fresno State fans told us was true, and he is a big part of why the offense has been so good.
Top to bottom, it is easy to see why Alabama’s offense is averaging almost 34 points per game thus far. This season Alabama has scored over 40 points on three occasions, and 34, once.
At this point last season, Alabama was 4-2 and outside of the top 25 following the loss to FSU. This year, the offense has EXCEEDED expectations.