Thursday, April 19, 2012

Profilin' the Tide: Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, and H-backs

Previously: General Offensive Preview, Offensive Line, Tailbacks 

These previews have thus far featured a lot of doom and gloom regarding the Alabama offense, particularly in light of Michigan's potential issues on the defensive line. However, the concept that this offense is completely without weaknesses, an indomitable force destined to roll over all comers, leaving a tragic trail of depression and crushed Golden Flake potato chips? Charlie Murphy, what say you?

Thanks, Charlie. Of course, it's all relative; to call this particular personnel group an outright "weakness" might be a bit of a stretch, especially when the talent therein probably exceeds most of the receiver groups in the SEC (and the Big Ten as well). There are some talented options here, and while many of them are either very green or "are not Julio Jones," that's okay. This offense doesn't necessarily need them to be transcendent. At the same time, perhaps the most underrated aspect of the Alabama offense has been the guys on the perimeter, including guys like Julio Jones, Darius Hanks, Marquis Maze, Preston Dial, Colin Peek, and Brad Smelley. Alabama didn't have a Julio-level talent last year, but Hanks was a very solid option, and Maze is the speedy electron type that defenses don't like to deal with after they've been bludgeoned to death by that OL and Richardson, Ingram, etc. From the H-back position, Smelley was actually the team's second leading receiver, and an important blocker in the ground game.

It's fairly easy for one to predict that the Alabama ground game will continue to look supremely dominant, even in the post-Richardson era. The options there are plentiful and, as already detailed, Alabama's offensive line will probably be the best in the country this season. The same level of unadulterated confidence doesn't necessarily apply vis-a-vis the players on the perimeter. There are two schools of thought here:
  • Alabama's offensive line/running game will be so good that it will turn guys like Kenny Bell, Christion Jones, and Kevin Norwood into stars (or, at least, Darius Hanks-level producers). 
  • The perimeter guys won't be good enough to consistently take advantage of single coverage that it could end up hurting the running game's ability to find itself in situations with favorable numbers in the box. 
The Starters 
On paper, the starters figure to be Kenny Bell and Christion Jones, although Kevin Norwood is also in the mix for starters reps. Luckily for Michigan, none of these guys are too big. Bell is 6'1'' 175, Jones is 5'11'' 175, and Norwood is the biggest of the bunch at 6'2'' 193. This isn't a physically imposing group, but they are definitely athletic. If Jeremy Gallon has shown us anything, it's that you don't need to be 6'4'' to go up and get it (although a little bit of Gary Gray certainly does help the cause). Other than Julio, Alabama's receivers in recent years (and, really, throughout Alabama's entire football history) haven't necessarily been flashy guys, partly because of the offense. There's no need to air it out when you can run it for 200+ yards while also holding the opponent to less than 10 points on a regular basis. 

Bell, of course, was a 4-star guy out of high school, and has seen his playing time increase each of the last two seasons after a taking a redshirt in 2009. In 2010, he played in 10 games, only making two grabs for 26 yards. In 2011, his production increased significantly, as he made 16 receptions for 229 yards and 2 touchdowns (vs. Tennessee and Auburn). Bell actually started 4 games last year, with his first career start coming in Happy Valley. Since his TD against Auburn was on a flea flicker, here's his score against Tennessee: 

It is true that Dooley and his assistants were probably too busy admiring the pleats in his orange pants to bother to call a defense there, but that's still an impressive play (and throw) by Kenny Bell, beating the coverage over the top with his speed and having the strength and hands to make the catch with a defender draped all over him. With Maze and Hanks gone, I would expect Bell to be The Guy in 2012, as much as this sort of offense needs a The Guy. 

Christion Jones is a smallish type who is a bit of a question mark. Jones was a 4-star out of high school, but that was as a defensive back (although he did play offense as well, obviously). He played in every game last season but only netted 3 receptions for 49 yards, while also seeing some time as a punt returner. As you can probably imagine, his lack of size, time as a punt returner, and his time as a high school defensive back all indicate that he might be from the Gallon school of wide receivers (i.e. small and shifty). Based on his recruiting profile, he seems like a better athlete than Gallon (not to mention being a few inches taller), but can he replace Maze as the main spark plug guy on the outside? It remains to be seen, although there exists a bevy of standard spring hype around him.

Norwood 1, Honey Badger 0

Kevin Norwood is another former 4-star that has not seen much time on the field. He will be a redshirt junior in 2012, and he has 14 receptions, 246 yards, and 1 touchdown to his name. To his credit, Norwood showed up huge in The One That Counted, grabbing 4 receptions for 78 yards against the discombobulated LSU Tigers. Perhaps he just played out of his mind on that day, but since Norwood was helping in filling in for Marquis Maze--who had been knocked out early in the game--I'd be pretty encouraged if I was an Alabama fan because Maze is of course no longer on the roster. Like Jones, Norwood is not very game-tested, but getting it done against a defense like LSU's in the SEC West Title Game Rematch is nothing to scoff at. He certainly looked the part of a starting major conference receiver, and at a similar size, reminds me a little bit of slightly shorter Adrian Arrington. 

At the H-back position, Alabama looks to replace Brad Smelley, who was a very effective third option for AJ McCarron. Smelley lead the team in receiving touchdowns, and arguably his best performance came against LSU in the MNC game, in which he had 7 of the 34 receptions he notched in 2011. It's somewhat unclear whether or not the responsibilities of this position will remain exactly the same under a new OC, but I'm not sure why it wouldn't. Alabama has developed this position quite nicely throughout Saban's tenure, and it adds a little bit of excitement and versatility to an offense that many view as "boring" or "plodding." The oft-maligned concept of "manball" can in fact be interesting from an X's and O's perspective, and this position gives the Tide a way to get production in the passing game, especially if the wide receiver talent isn't above average. 

Looking to replace Smelley are Harrison Jones--Barrett Jones's brother--and Brian Vogler, both redshirt sophomores. Both were very solid prospects out of high school but Vogler is a little bit bigger, at 6'7'' to Jones's 6'4''. Each had only one reception in 2011. 

At tight end, the Tide have two-year starter Michael Williams. Williams will be a fifth-year senior in 2012 and has by and large been a blocking sort but has shown the ability to make some plays. In 2011 he reeled in 14 receptions for 181 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Against Penn State, he had 3 receptions for 34 yards and a touchdown. He's far down the list of Alabama offensive players to focus the defensive gameplan on, but if he's making plays then Alabama is probably either near your end zone or the ground game is just generally humming along. 

The Replacements
Again, the common theme of this post is youth. After the aforementioned trio of receivers, the rest of the depth chart features a lot of inexperience and untested talent. DeAndrew White is another VHT guy that hasn't really had much of a chance to get on the field. As a redshirt sophomore, he'll have his chance this year. FWIW, he did grab a pair of touchdowns against Vanderbilt last year, but Vandy's defensive backs are all probably NERRRDDDDSSSSSSS, so, how impressive is that, really? 

Amari Cooper and Chris Black are talented true freshmen--of the 6'0'' and under variety--that should be in the mix for some playing time as well. The bad news for us is that both Cooper and Black enrolled early and have been going through the joys of spring ball and The Process. Black flashed some big play ability last Saturday during the A-Day game, grabbing a 44-yard TD pass from Phillip Sims. Marvin Shinn and Danny Woodson Jr. are class of 2011 4-stars that both redshirted last year, so it's hard to tell what to expect from them this year, if anything. 

General Spring Minutiae/Encomium That Results In A "Bristling" Saban
If you're the kind to pay spring scrimmage results any mind, here are the stats from Alabama first scrimmage a couple weeks back. If you don't care to click through, Christion Jones led the way with 7 receptions 83 yards, and two TDs, with Kenny Bell coming in second with 3, rec., 68 yards, and one TD.

Otherwise, nothing too exciting has gone on in the spring other than Brent Calloway's move to H-back. Calloway was a tailback out of high school but was moved to linebacker early this spring. Apparently, due to lack of numbers (insert your joke here), he'd been moved back to working with the running backs. However, Saban clarified that he was actually working with the H-backs, so, I guess throw his name in the mix along with Jones and Vogler for that position.

As for Bama's A-Day scrimmage, Kenny Bell hauled in a 47-yard TD on a flea flicker from McCarron. NOTE TO SELF (Cc: Greg Mattison): Alabama likes throwing the flea flicker to Bell (see: 2011 Iron Bowl, 2012 A-Day).

Things To Think About/Watch Out For/ARE WE GONNA DIE?
If there is any position group that will not cause us to die, it's this one. Again, that's not to say that it's lacking in talent, but it is lacking in overall experience and production, not to mention that replacing guys like Hanks, Maze, and Smelley--guys that have performed on the highest level--is never easy. 
  • Is Kenny Bell equal to the role of the #1 receiver? He is the most accomplished of the returning bunch, and has even started some games and shown some big play ability. 
  • Who will replace Marquis Maze as the speedy "just make a guy miss" receiver? It could be Christion Jones, but it might not be wise to rely on a guy as untested as Jones, but, then again, I'm not sure Alabama has any other options (other than freshmen). 
  • Perhaps the most underrated part of the Alabama offense--the H-back--will need to be replaced this year. Who wins the job, Jones or Vogler (or even redshirt freshman Malcom Faciane or true freshman Kurt Freitag)? If a solid option doesn't materialize, it could limit what sorts of one-back sets Alabama can run--in addition to what they can do in the red zone, an important point given Bama's often shaky kicking game--and the Michigan defense will take any help it can get in this regard. FWIW, Vogler (along with Michael Williams), were the first team tight ends during last Saturday's A-Day game while Jones, Faciane, and Calloway got reps with the second team. 
  • I didn't mention him above, but the status of Duron Carter might be one to follow. If you aren't aware, Carter--former Buckeye receiver Cris Carter's son--transferred from a JUCO to Alabama last year after leaving Columbus due to academic issues. After a drawn out debate leading up to last season regarding his eligibility, he ended up not playing a down in 2011, and it's looking more and more like he never will suit up for Alabama on Saturdays. Carter is still suspended according to Saban, although the door remains open for a return to the program, apparently, which is more than a little bit ridiculous but whatever. The chances of Will Campbell catching a 99-yard touchdown pass from Jareth Glanda this season are higher than that of Duron Carter ever playing for Alabama, ever, let alone against Michigan on September 1st. 
Meaningless Grade That I Will Give Out Anyway
I'll give this group a B, primarily because of the sheer talent available and the fact that the ground game will afford them copious single coverage. Odds are, this will be especially true against Michigan, which probabaly won't be bringing an extremely effective pass rush from the front 4 (at least during Week 1). Again, this is meaningless, but if I were to attempt to justify this assessment I'd say that Alabama's lack of returning production/gameday experience at both the receiver and H-back positions might be the biggest concern for the 2012 iteration of the Crimson Tide (aside from, possibly, linebacker). 

However, Alabama has the talent, and guys like Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood have made some plays in important games before. If these guys can be, at minimum, reliable chain-movers, then this offense will once again prove very difficult to stop. 

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