Posted: 10:33 a.m. Monday, Oct. 7, 2013
It was an easy win for Alabama against a team that simply cannot hope to succeed - or even respectably fail - at this level. It wasn't terribly impressive, but that isn't cause for worry, as the Tide under Saban tends to snooze through the cupcake games.
Frankly, there's not a lot to learn from a game like this, not even about the guys who don't usually play. By the time they came in, the game was over, and Alabama was just running out the clock. You could say both teams were running out the clock from the first play of the game, and you wouldn't be far off.
Since there is so little to learn, this week's From The Couch will be a little different. You'll see less game analysis, and I'll mix in a little retrospective on the season to date. Not only was the game scarcely worth talking about, but it's a good time to take stock of the season.
There is still at least one stout test remaining on the regular season slate, but there can be little doubt that Alabama played through the toughest part of the 2013 season when it went up against Virginia Tech, Texas A&M; and Ole Miss in the first four games, with only one of those a home game. There has been plenty to complain and worry about, from lack-luster run-blocking to the biggest yardage total ever run up against the Tide to a nagging injury that has completely deprived perhaps the Tide's biggest weapon, Amari Cooper, of his effectiveness.
Before the season began, I asked if this might be Alabama's best team ever. I thought the question was worth asking, considering the strength of the offensive skill units, the linebackers, and the recruiting class. However, I also pointed out the other side of the coin, that returning experience on the offensive line is possibly the best gauge of how good a team will be and that Alabama was returning its least experienced offensive line since at least 2007.
To date, the answer to the best-Alabama-team-ever question is a resounding no, and largely because of those OL problems. But guess what? Alabama came through the toughest part of its season undefeated. The Tide is obviously in good position to stay that way, especially if the young offensive line gels as the season goes along.
If that happens, the sky's still the limit, just like it was when I wrote that dumb article. But worries remain, so let's do that From The Couch thing and look at the goods and the bads one position grouping at a time.
AJ McCarron was virtually perfect, hitting 15 out of 16, and the one incompletion was a slightly-underthrown but catchable back-shoulder pass that O.J. Howard failed to corral. AJ only went deep once, but it was accurate and a frozen rope that probably would have been a TD if DeAndruw White hadn't been interfered with, putting paid to the rumors that AJ can't throw deep because of his arm injury. McCarron was under little pressure, and on the couple of occasions that a blitzer got through the Tide signal-caller found a receiver before the rush became an issue.
Blake Sims was creditable in relief, but not much more than that. He made one very spiffy play, sprinting backward and to the sideline to escape pressure and then turning upfield to find a receiver for a first-down pass, but he only put 10 points on the board in 36 minutes against a team that our 2nd-string offense should, in theory, have motored up and down the field against. Sims never tried anything that was double-digit yards downfield, even when facing a 3rd and 17 situation, never got running room, and almost threw a pick.
AJ McCarron may not be playing at quite the All-Pro level he showcased against Notre Dame, but the young man is having a heckuva season. His passing efficiency is down a touch from last year's nationally-leading number, but I attribute that to more pass rush worries and much less of a running game to distract opponents. At least so far in 2013, Alabama is a pass-first team.
That has put all the pressure on McCarron to win games for Alabama, and he has done just that. While he has already equaled his 2012 total with 3 interceptions, 3 picks in 126 passes is still pretty decent, and AJ doesn't have the luxury this year of being able to play conservatively and know the running game will pick up the points. His decision-making and passing have been spot on all year.
After AJ, it's worry time. Drink to Mr. McCarron's health, y'all. So far, it has been pretty good knock on wood, although AJ seems to have been showing some effects of the rumored foot injury, as he has run less in 2013 than in previous years and has looked to be perhaps a step slow when he does run. Last year McCarron averaged 12.5 yards gained rushing per game - not net yards, just gained yards, not taking sacks into account - and this year he only has 14 yards gained through 5 games.
There's not all that much to say here. Yeldon had a workmanlike 6 for 51 with a TD, Drake a workmanlike 5 for 40. Henry looked good late in the game, but what do 4th-quarter runs against Georgia State really mean, anyway? It was fun seeing Fowler and the Georgia State defenders do their bowling-ball-and-tenpins impression on #45's first run, but it wasn't so much fun seeing Dee Hart look entirely ineffective.
Drake had the niftiest move of the game, kind of a sideways jerk away from a defender that had him dead to rights on a little flat pass that #17 turned into a TD with a layout stretch to get the ball over the goal-line. Later he laid out and extended on another play, this one not quite reaching the goal line. On both layouts he took some contact while he had the ball extended.
On both these plays, Drake had already gotten the first down before the lay-out, and as I've said before, I don't like laying out and extending the ball like that except perhaps on 3rd or 4th down runs when you really need the TD or first down.
Please allow me to quote from myself, in the comments section of one session of the RBR playoff for the greatest play of the 2012 season. In pointing out that I would have preferred an incomplete pass to Yeldon's risky layout move for a TD against Missouri that was one of the nominees, I said:
I really don't like the tendency guys have to try too hard to stretch the ball out over the goal line these days. Traditionally it's something people would only do when they knew they could get it over and knew there was an opening. Now people are trying risky stretches in traffic - like this one. It makes the back look good but it's not worth the potential trouble and I wish our backs would stop doing it.
Seeing Tennessee lose the game against Georgia yesterday for exactly this reason sure didn't change my mind. Alabama's backs are as bad at this as anybody. It's risky and pointless and we need to do some coaching on this.
Back to the Georgia State game, I've heard some people celebrating because the Tide running game finally broke through. I must've missed that. To me, rushing for 181 yards against a team that gave up 401 on the ground to UT Chattanooga doesn't exactly bring back visions of the wishbone days.
Bama also didn't break through on blitz pickup. Georgia State guys ran in free at least three times, twice unopposed and once futilely opposed by T.J. Yeldon.
We are averaging 166.2 yards per game on the ground, 5.0 yards per carry. That's down over 60 yards a game and over half a yard per carry from last year, but it's hard to peg much of that on the running backs.
I don't think you can peg any of it on T.J. Yeldon. With the exception of the key fumble against Texas A&M;, T.J. has been sensational, averaging 6.2 yards per carry despite having to deal with way too many opponent encounters in the backfield.
Finding his backup has been more difficult than expected. Alabama signed no less than four of the top high school running back prospects in the nation last year, but to date none of them has made an impression anything like the impressions that Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and T.J. Yeldon made as true freshmen, or even that Dee Hart appeared to be poised to make as a true freshman before his knee injury.
Instead, it looks like Kenyon Drake, the guy who was probably the heir apparent from last year, is stepping up into the spot, showing the explosiveness that he has always promised. Saban's Bama teams have always counted on a backup tailback that other teams didn't want to see on the field, and hopefully we'll start seeing that over the remainder of the season.
DeAndruw White's TD reception was the catch of the year for 2013 and probably the best catch by a Bama receiver since the San Jose St. game in 2010.
Norwood didn't play much, but he looked healthy and impressive when he was in, physically superior to the Georgia State defenders chasing him.
More Chris Black, please. I'm inclined to say that Kenyan Drake is the only other guy on the roster with that kind of squirt-free ability.
I was a little surprised that Amari Cooper played at all, but he didn't play much and was never targeted as a receiver. Morer and morer healthier, please.
Here's a measure of how stacked this position is: although the guy who is easily our best and most explosive receiver has been completely ineffective due to an injury, it has still been the most explosive and effective corps of wideouts I have ever seen at Alabama. Consider the weapons we have without Cooper:
Christion Jones may not be the uber-sooper-dooper star he looked like against Virginia Tech, but he has sure hands, good speed, and is looking to wiggle free every time he gets the rock.
DeAndruw White is rounding into health as the season goes along and may be emerging as our top target, at least until Cooper regains his health. White runs the sharpest patterns on the squad, and has consistently been open deep and medium.
Not only is Kevin Norwood the kind of throw-it-to-me-on-3rd-down target everybody looks for in a possession receiver, you can't lock down on him short because he can also extend the field.
Kenny Bell is a proven genuine home-run threat.
O.J. Howard stepped on the field as a true freshman ready to play. His combination of power, speed and length create severe matchup problems for most teams, and the Tide's abundance of targets don't make those problems any easier to deal with.
Despite all that I'm asking for more Chris Black, and expecting to get it, too. He's the one guy who made a real impression on me against Georgia St.
It's really difficult to judge the OL based on the matchup against Georgia State's defensive line which manages to combine the "small" and "slow" attributes into a single position grouping.
But there's certainly little to complain about. Anthony Steen and Cyrus Kouandjio were both seen manhandling Georgia State linemen several yards downfield on the opening few plays. On his 6-yard touchdown run capping the initial drive, all T.J. Yeldon had to do was tuck in the space behind the CK/AK brothers who pushed the poor little guys on the other side all the way across the goal line.
Our starting OL never gave up pass pressure from the State defensive line. Alphonse Taylor lost his guy to an inside pass rush in the second half, and he and Grant Hill each were rung up for a false start, while Leon Brown was called on a chop block. Cyrus Kouandjio continues to flirt with a false start penalty on almost every pass play; of course the upside of that is that he gets into pass-blocking position faster than anybody else on the line.
Bama's running game is definitely off a notch this year from the last few seasons. I've already pointed out the stats showing the Tide is getting less yards per game and less yards per carry, but perhaps an even more dramatic difference is the 56 yards of lost yardage our backs have surrendered through 5 games. 11.2 yards per game. In 2012 Bama backs lost 77 yards in 14 games, 5.5 yards per game, which is just under half of 11.2. In 2011 it was 7 yards lost per game. Those yards lost are directly on the Tide OL, which has whiffed on far too many run blocks and has generally been ineffective against run blitzes.
Cyrus Kouandjio, hailed as a pre-season All-American and top 5 draft pick, has in fact been one of, if not the chief culprit for our woes. CK has blown numerous run blocks and pass blocks and has been flagged for multiple holding and false start penalties. On the other hand, we have successfully run behind him on power plays quite a few times and when he locks onto his man in pass protection, he's got him. The guy is so talented he could still go in the first round if he improves his play as the season goes along, but the scouts do watch the film, and as things go right now I would expect the big guy back in Tuscaloosa next year, and hopefully living up to his vast potential.
The positive surprise has been Austin Shepherd. From the signing of Leon Brown and Grant Hill to the late-fall-camp shuffling of Shepherd and Arie Kouandjio, I really thought that the staff was desperate to find somebody else to play this position. But Shepherd has been reliable in both run-blocking and pass-blocking, and when Alabama has run dependably, it has mostly been behind Shepherd and Steen.
Neither Ryan Kelly nor Arie Kouandjio has been fully satisfactory at his position, but both guys look like they have the potential to round into shape as the season goes along. Kelly, however, is out with an injury and the Tide isn't missing much - if anything - with Chad Lindsay filling in. There's no reason to rush Kelly's return from injury, as it's not certain the job will still be his when he comes back.
After Georgia State got a first down on a 3rd-down completion on its first possession, the DL stood up. On first down, Brandon Ivory came free up the middle to smear the running back 4 yards deep. On second down, A-Shawn Robinson penetrated and grabbed the back for another loss. On 3rd down, it was Denzell Devall grabbing the back behind the line and bringing him down for no gain.
For the game, Georgia State ran 15 times for 22 yards. Yeah, it's Georgia State, but still. On the other hand, the DL didn't really get much in the way of a pass-rush push, unless you count Xzavier Dickson, who was credited with a sack when he forced an intentional grounding.
This unit has been solid but unspectacular all year, sixth in the nation in rushing defense and steadily climbing the charts. A-Shawn Robinson has been a revelation as a true freshman, and may already be our most impactful defensive lineman. If healthy, he will be a fixture at the position for three years.
This has been a standard Nick Saban defensive line unit, though, which means that while it has been stellar against the run, it has produced few quarterback hurries and sacks. Xzavier Dickson, who has probably generated our best pass rush when in, hasn't seen the field all that much, as the playing time has gone to guys like Jeffrey Pagan and Denzel Duvall who don't quite get Dickson's push.
Ed Stinson is easily the leading tackler among defensive linemen, with 19 to Pagan's second-place 12, but only has 1 tackle for loss in 5 games. Robinson and Devall are tied for the lead in TFLs with 3 each.
We didn't hear a lot from the other linebackers, but #32 was too much man for Georgia State. His 6 tackles were twice the total of any other Tide defender, and he registered 2 early bone-jarring TFLs on State's backs. Depriest and Hubbard combined for only 4 tackles and no TFLs.
Of concern, Mosley left the game holding his ribs after taking a hard block on a 3rd-quarter screen play.
This unit has been outstanding, C.J. Mosley in particular. It says right here he is the best linebacker who has played for Saban at Alabama and possibly the best player. Mosley leads the team with 41 tackles, and nobody else has more than 24, a lot like last year when C.J. finished with 107 tackles to Depriest's 2nd-place 59. C.J.'s 41 tackles and 3.5 TFLs exceed the 32 tackles and 3 TFLs that Bama's other two starting ‘backers, Trey Depriest and Adrian Hubbard, have combined.
Unlike recent years, when guys like Nico Johnson, Mosley and Depriest have gotten a great deal of playing time off the bench, it's not entirely clear who Alabama's #4 linebacker is. If I had to guess, I'd point at Dillon Lee, but Lee has racked up the great majority of his 8 tackles on special teams, where he has been a stud. Reggie Ragland has 7 tackles, but has rarely been seen while games are competitive. Alleged super-stud freshman Reuben Foster has barely sniffed the field and has two tackles.
State quarterbacks had some success through the air, completing 12 of 122 for 160 yards without a pick. Bradley Sylve almost snatched one, but was a little too slight to wrestle it away and the tie went to the receiver for a nice pickup instead. Eddie Jackson gave up a completion up-top, and on the play when the block to C.J. Mosley may have injured Mosley's ribs, the block left the screen wide open for a nice gain.
Landon Collins made a spectacular play to blow up what looked like a well-blocked screen pass. Kudos to Vinnie Sunseri for avoiding a targeting foul coming across the field to the sideline on a play that turned into a nice completion for Georgia State. Better a nice completion than to lose Sunseri for two halves.
Pre-season, this unit looked to have just enough pieces to get the job done, but not a lot of proven depth. An injury to Deion Belue and team discipline levied against Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Geno Smith have, at times, appeared to leave the unit without the pieces needed. Obviously, that situation was most apparent when Texas A&M;'s Mike Evans torched Alabama to the tune of 279 yards receiving, and really, it was every bit as bad as those numbers sound. Alabama's cornerbacks were simply unable to prevent Evans from catching any pass that Manziel put into a catchable space, which was just about every pass thrown to him, and A&M; made hay out of it again and again to stay in the game.
At this point, Clinton-Dix's return is one great unknown, and whatever in the world happened to Geno Smith is the other. Clinton-Dix, of course, is indefinitely suspended for having accepted a small loan from an assistant strength coach. (The coach, Corey Harris, is "on administrative leave," which is French for "about to be fired once the paperwork is in order.")
The good news is that, while Deion Belue sat out both the Georgia State and Colorado State games with a turf toe, he was healthy enough in-between to play what looked like shutdown defense against Ole Miss. The other good news is the emergence of Eddie Jackson, a talented and physical true freshman who was not a blue-chipper coming out of high school but has looked like one in Tuscaloosa.
If and when Clinton-Dix comes back, the outlook is bullish for improved play out of this unit, but continued health is vital, especially that of Belue.
A new coverage star emerged Saturday to complement the play of previously-established studs like Landon Collins, DeAndruw White, Dillon Lee and Vinnie Sunseri. Dee Hart had two solo tackles short of the 20 on kickoff coverage and forced a fumble inside the 20 on another kickoff return by putting his hat right on the ball. Dee assisted in another kickoff return tackle and topped it all off with a 37-yard punt return.
Cody Mandell only got to punt once, but that was enough time to mark a second straight week of Bama downing a Mandell punt at the 1-yard-line.
Adam Griffith got his Alabama kicking career off to a rather inauspicious start, missing ugly on a 30-yarder.
Every facet of Alabama's special teams play has shone this year. Mandell is averaging 46.7 yards per punt, putting him in the top 5 nationally. Cade Foster is 5 for 6 on field goals, including a 53-yarder, and the only miss was just outside the uprights on another 50+-yard attempt. Punt and kickoff coverage have both been outstanding, with the consistently stifling kickoff coverage being particularly gratifying in light of the Tide's struggles in that category over the last few years.
Without outstanding special teams play, it's an open question as to whether the Tide would have won its first two games.