Thursday, April 5, 2012

Profilin' the Tide: The Offense

My boredom project last offseason consisted of writing up full-length posts on each of the Buckeye quarterback competing to replace the departed Terrelle Pryor (doesn't that feel like ancient history at this point?). That was fun (no it wasn't). This meant spending real, actual time looking up information of debatable utility about players like Kenny Guiton, Taylor Graham, Joe Bauserman, and Braxton Miller. What's a "Kenny Guiton" you ask? Nobody really knows, but from what I can ascertain, he seems to be Mike Cox if Mike Cox was a quarterback and also played for the Buckeyes. You might think this is impossible, but this is a 2012 that features Bob Davie and Terry Bowden coaching in New Mexico and Akron* respectively; anything is possible in these times of ours.

This is a thing I'll probably watch between 1 and infinity times this offseason. 

In any case, with the spring game scrimmage football type substance coming up, we're faced with an imminent dead period shortly thereafter. With a high profile game being our first, I think this is probably a good time to check in with the Tide, who are of course also in the midst of spring ball. Nick Saban called and Michigan is still practicing, so, the crimson footbaw machine will continue to improve and self-correct before the torrid Alabama summer hits; in Alabama, this is unironically called The Process. Other things that also fall under the umbrella of The Process in Alabama: learning not to drive to Chick-Fil-A on Sundays (this is ingrained after many years of weekly disappointment), understanding the usage of the appropriate tone and/or inflection of a well-placed "Roll Tide," and trying not to spontaneously combust upon walking out the door on any given summer day.

For those unfamiliar, I spent my high school years down south in Alabama, so I probably feel a little more comfortable than most Michigan fans in talking about the Tide, from personnel changes to fan sentiments to the arcane customs and traditions that accompany the strange beast that is Alabama football. In a way, this game, for me, is similar to Michigan-Michigan State for in-state kids at Michigan; a win in this one would present me with the trolling opportunity of a lifetime.

On a serious note, I plan on taking this through most of this month (maybe it will prevent me from having to watch my White Sox's early tumble into irrelevance), going through each position group with as much statistical depth, local source citing, and general editorializing as possible so that we can have a pretty good understanding of who this team that we'll be facing on September 1st in Independence Day Alien Spaceship Stadium actually is.

Today I'll start with a brief summary of the offense and some general themes to consider going forward into the end of spring ball and throughout the summer.

*Seriously...Akron. That still makes no sense.

"The Process, The Process, The Process...oh hey, also, you're moving to center." 
It is true that the Crimson Tide offense is basically the apotheosis of MANBALL, but this often sarcastically-deployed word doesn't really do the Bama offense's efficiency and overall effectiveness justice. The Tide put up just under 35 points per game in a conference known for its defense (Although, outside of LSU and Georgia, I'm not sure that there was another truly great D in the SEC, and Bama didn't even play UGA last year. There's also South Carolina, who was pretty good but also not on the schedule, and Florida, who was actually sort of decent defensively insofar as a 7-6 team's defense can be decent.) Boring does not mean "bad," and I'm sure Alabama fans have found this style of play to be decidedly not boring.

The Tide return 4 out of 5 starters on the offensive line, the lone departure being William Vlachos, a 2011 Rimington finalist (we can't all be the Molk Man). Alabama is so stacked that All-American LT Barrett Jones is being moved to center to make room for Cyrus Kouandjio on the left side. That is an unbelievable luxury and it speaks to the Saban and Co.'s excellence on the recruiting trail. No, I won't be referencing over-signing in this posts, FWIW. As a Michigan fan, it's counter-productive vis-a-vis this game anyway.

Last year's offensive coordinator, Jim McElwain, left Tuscaloosa for a head coaching gig at Colorado State. The Tide bring in former Washington OC Doug Nussmeier, and from the sound of things he's going to be another guy running the Alabama offense; I'm sure it's more complicated than it looks, but running the ball behind that line and taking the occasional calculated chance deep/play action seems like a pretty fantastic job to have. In his 3 years in Seattle, Nussmeier had the chance to work with Jake Locker and Keith Price; Locker was of course a first-round pick despite not really completing many passes and seemingly getting killed all the time, and Keith Price had a very nice debut season as a starter in 2011. I'm not sure there's much to glean from this, as the role of Alabama OC is pretty well-defined and lacking any sort of leeway. According to AJ McCarron, the current heir to the throne of the prestigious line of "floppy-haired Southern gentleman pocket passers" (see: Brodie Croyle, John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy), says that not much has changed:

"Same as always," McCarron said. "Nothing different. Just some new faces around there. Other than that, everything seems to be clicking so far. Hopefully we can keep progressing."
To be fair, Alabama would be crazy to shake things up significantly. There's no need to mess with something that's worked spectacularly, and we should expect more of the same from the Alabama offense (although Nussmeier will certainly bring his own offensive wrinkles).

The offensive line is fixing to be perhaps one of the best in Alabama history, and the offense is returning its signal caller, as well as the guy that challenged McCarron for playing time last offseason/in the early part of last September (that would be former 4/5-star--of course--Phillip Sims, who appears to be missed valuable spring reps due to injury). Trent Richardson is gone, but Alabama is not lacking for tailbacks. If there is a weakness to be found, it's the receiving corps, which has a quite a bit of outgoing production to replace.

Here are a few things to pay attention to heading into A-Day (Alabama's spring scrimmage, also on April 14th):

  • Can Phillip Sims get healthy enough to rekindle the mini-QB controversy that sort of existed at the beginning of last season before, you know, Alabama went on to win the national championship? As a Michigan fan, you should be rooting for chaos and controversy here. 
  • The left tackle position. Can Kouandjio lock up the position in the spring? Obviously, Saban would never intimate that any position had been "won" in April, but we'll certainly have practice reports and tea leaves to get a general feel for his progression. He did play in every game as a freshman last year before going down with a knee injury in the Tennessee game, so he's not lacking experience. However, knee injuries are always an issue no matter what, so that's something to look out for. Either way, Michigan's defensive ends have a very tough matchup awaiting them. 
  • Replacing production on the outside. It's easy to forget about guys like Darius Hanks, Marquis Maze, and Brad Smelley when discussing Alabama football, but they were not insignificant pieces of Alabama's prodigious success last year. Kevin Norwood stepped up big in the The One That Counted, filling in for an injured Maze...he will probably have to continue to do that if Alabama wants its offense to continue to be the well-oiled, balanced leviathan that it has been of late. 

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