Monday, April 23, 2012

Profilin' the Tide: Quarterbacks

Previously: General Offensive PreviewOffensive LineTailbacksWide receivers, Tight Ends, and H-backs

Alabama quarterbacks through the [recent] ages; if you're reading this caption without the theme music from Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" playing in your head, you're doing it wrong 

As you can probably imagine, this preview will prove to be about as spicy as a Vanilla Wafer. That's not to say that they aren't good, but if you're looking for a more exciting snack item, you're better off looking to the Oreo or the Keebler striped cookie or perhaps a nice zesty piece of cardboard. I think we're still talking about football here but I'm not really sure. FOOTBAW. Okay, back on track.

Since time immemorial, the prototype for the Alabama signal caller has been fairly consistent. Somewhat surprisingly, Alabama has had one more All-American quarterback than Michigan since 1950 (Joe Namath-1964, Steve Sloan-1965, Kenny Stabler-1967, and Jay Barker-1994), but by and large the average Alabama quarterback has carried the cliched "game manager" label. While this is a label that I find to be somewhat useless--as if "managing a game" is as simple as making a sandwich or expressing outrage at any of Dave Brandon's doings via social media and/or the Internets, generally--it does carry some weight.

For an outsider, guys like Brodie Croyle, John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy, and AJ McCarron can seem somewhat indistinguishable. IME, Croyle was arguably the most talented of this group, and his career, as far as wins and losses go, was fairly nondescript. The obvious answer to this point is that, well, the teams that McElroy and McCarron have had the chance to lead were worlds better than those of the first two names on that list (minus the 2008 team that Wilson quarterbacked), not to mention the fact that Saban is just a tad better than Mike Shula at that whole coaching thing.

The Starter
Last season, the Tide looked to replace Greg McElroy, who after leading Alabama to a relatively disappointing 3-loss season in 2010, won the MNC in 2011. Leading up to the 2011 season, a mini-controversy existed at the position between Phillip Sims and AJ McCarron. Sims saw time in the opening game blowout against Kent State before not taking a snap the next week against Penn State, and so it was McCarron's job the rest of the way.

Just managing this game , you guys. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

There is no such controversy this time around, as the redshirt junior 6'4'' 210 AJ McCarron is firmly entrenched as the starter. McCarron, the leading hipster quarterback of our time, had an impressively efficient 2011 campaign. He went 219 for 328 (66.8%), passing for 2,634 yards and 16 touchdowns to only 5 picks. For a point of reference, that completion percentage is appoximately 6% better than Chad Henne's best season, completion percentage-wise (2006), and the yardage total is about halfway between Henne's two best seasons (2004 and 2005). McCarron's 328 attempt's equals Henne's 328 in Michigan's successful 2006 campaign, and so completing a shade under 67% compared to Henne's 62% is fairly impressive, no matter how inflated by "safe" passes and having Trent Richardson might make you believe it to be.

Outside of the first LSU game, McCarron brought at minimum serviceable efforts against the best teams on the schedule. Against Penn State in Happy Valley, he went 19/31 with 1 TD and no picks. Against Arkansas, 15/20 with a pair of TDs and no picks. Against Auburn (not of course a "good team" but still, a rivalry game), he went 18/23 with 3 TDs (a long of 41 on a flea flicker to Kenny Bell) and no picks. In perhaps the most important performance of his career, he went 23/34 against LSU in The One That Counted, and although he didn't convert in the red zone he also did not make any mistakes.

He took 13 sacks in 2011, the same number as Denard, which speaks to the function of the offense and the strength of the offensive line. Beyer, Clark, Roh, et al have their work cut out for them when it comes to rushing the passer. As far as mobility goes, he is obviously not Denard but definitely not Navarre:

Even AJ McCarron looks like Denard against UT

Other stats of note:
  • On 3rd & 3-7, McCarron was 34/49 for 377 yards and a whopping 7 TDs. 
  • 151 of his 328 attempts (46%) came on first down. He completed 70% of these passes. 
In short, while it might be convenient to slap the "game manager" label on McCarron, he is a more than capable college quarterback. He has good size and serviceable mobility, and although he's not asked to make too many plays downfield, he has the accuracy and arm to do so when called upon. The primary concern for Alabama and McCarron going forward is whether or not the tailbacks can combine to replace Richardson and whether or not the relatively green receivers can produce against single coverage. Brad Smelley, who may have been his favorite target in 2011, is gone, and Bama will need to find a quality H-back to replace him as the checkdown option that McCarron looks to in the red zone and 3rd and medium situations.

We can only hope the passing game, what with all the new receivers, looks sort of like this

The Replacements
Barring injury, I wouldn't imagine that any of the backups here will see serious game reps. However, there are talented options behind McCarron. Phillip Sims will be a redshirt sophomore, and despite being a couple inches shorter than AJ, is also a pocket passer sort. He was a 4.5 star out of high school (5 on Scout, 4 on Rivals), as you would expect. As mentioned, he did see some time in the opener last season before ceding the position to McCarron, only seeing garbage time snaps thereafter against Ole Miss, Tennessee, Arkansas, North Texas, and Vanderbilt. He has a bigger arm than McCarron, but obviously the offensive staff felt more comfortable rolling with McCarron in 2011, and that seems to have worked out nicely for Alabama. 

After Sims, there is 3rd-stringer Phillip Ely, who redshirted in 2011. There's not much use in going too in depth here, but, FWIW, he's 6'1'' 198 and also of the pro-style mold, choosing Alabama over LSU and Clemson, among other suitors. 

General Spring Minutiae/Encomium That Results In a Bristling Saban 
You would think that a program like Alabama would strive to have a close to the vest and completely uninteresting spring game, but, surprisingly, Alabama aired it out quite a bit during the A-Day game. 

McCarron went 29/42, good for 304 yards and two TDs and three picks. 

Sims has been dealing with shoulder issues all spring, missing out on some valuable spring reps in regular practices and previous scrimmages. However, he did participate during A-Day, going 9/12 for 135 yards and two scores (although both touchdowns were short passes that TJ Yeldon and Chris Black converted into long touchdowns plays). Quoth Saban
"I thought he looked a little rusty in the beginning, but definitely played better in the third quarter," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who stressed that Sims still wasn't 100 percent. "He made some big plays, and that's good." 
Ah, spring ball. It's all about as stimulating as your average episode of Entourage (which, if you're confused, means "not at all stimulating").

Things Think About/Watch Out For/ARE WE GONNA DIE? 
  • As usual, the ARE WE GONNA DIE answer comes first: maybe. That is, if the ground game is churning along like it did in 2011--despite having replaced a Rimington finalist at center and a Heisman finalist at tailback--then McCarron will likely have a McCarronian game, meaning something like a completion percentage of 65-70%, between 200 and 250 yards, and 2+ TD passes with no picks. Additionally, the receiving corps, as already described, is potentially the biggest question mark on this team other than maybe the linebackers. Of course, by "question mark" I mean they might not be MNC caliber but still very, very good. So, most of what goes into the consideration of McCarron's 2012 prospects don't actually revolve around McCarron himself. 
  • I have no doubt that Barrett Jones could be an All-American at his new position by the end of the year, but you'd have to imagine that there might be some center exchange issues early on in the season. It's pretty unfortunate that this is one of the few things we can reasonably entertain with respect to things we can feel positive about vis-a-vis the Alabama offense. The center position is obviously very different from either the guard or tackle positions, so Michigan's issues up the middle might be slightly mitigated if Jones makes a few mistakes with his calls and on snaps come September 1st. 
  • What kind of new wrinkles will new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier bust out that we may not have seen under former OC--and new CSU head coach--Jim McElwain? The word around spring ball from AJ has basically been NOPE NOTHING'S CHANGED THE PROCESS CONTINUES ON UNCEASING AND UNBROKEN. Okay, not exactly like that, but basically like that. I would think that Alabama would like to save its sneakier wrinkles for SEC play, but if Mattison figures out a way to slow down the run then we might see some things from Washington's playbook the last few years come to Tuscaloosa (uh, Arlington, I guess). 
Meaningless Grade That I Will Give Out Anyway
There's no quarterback controversy, and the starter is coming off a season in which he caretakered/game managed Alabama to a MNC season. Phillip Sims (not that Sims) is a solid if inexperienced backup. I'll go with a solid B+ here; McCarron is much better than Michigan fans will probably give him credit for throughout this summer, but he is also not a star and probably isn't a guy that can win the game by himself, but, then again, Alabama doesn't ask him to do that and the only game that sort of forced him to try to get outside of himself was the first LSU game. But, given the structure of the offense and Alabama football as a whole--play defense, run the ball, don't make mistakes--handing out any sort of grade is more meaningless for this position than for perhaps any other. McCarron has seen it all at this point; it will take a good helping of coordinatin' sorcery on Mattison's part to hold this offense in check in order to give Denard et al a chance at notching the upset.

And with that, that's it for the offense. Due to being in Ann Arbor for graduation festivities this coming week, you'll have to wait till next week for the thrilling conclusion to these previews*, in which I'll take at a look at which future NFL first-rounders will replace the guys that are about to be first round draft picks on the defensive side of the ball for the Tide.

*That is, if this Blackhawks-Coyotes series doesn't knock me dead first...HHNNNGGGGGGiest series ever.

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