29 December 2008
For some guys improvement is a matter of attitude. For others it is more a matter of teaming up with the right coach, and finally seeing the light come on. Today's duo is an example of both, as well as an example of upper classmen taking a big step forward.
#8 Roy Upchurch
Coach Saban has a word for guys that don't buy into his system - irrelevant. That's a word that was used to describe Roy when Coach Saban first arrived on campus, but the last two years have seen a complete overhaul in Roy's dedication to the Alabama football team.
He was always a solid contributor on special teams, but simply didn't enough of the "other things" required of a running back to be successful. Among those "other things" are blocking, carrying out play fakes, running good routes, and most importantly, practicing hard.
Roy entered the 2008 season having carried the ball 62 times for 282 yards and one touchdown. He also had seven receptions for 51 yards. For a guy who was very heavily recruited out of high school, that was a disappointing start to his Alabama career. Injuries were a problem, no question, but attitude was the bigger issue.
This season was a different story. The stats improved, but that wasn't the most noticeable difference. He was still number three on the depth chart at running back, but his level of dedication in the weight room, the film room, and on the practice field were light years ahead of where he was last season. By the end of his injury-shortened season he was Bama's best back at picking up blitzes, and had become so proficient as a blocker that he was seeing time at fullback.
If not for a late season neck injury that caused him to miss Bama's last several games, he would have surpassed his career totals in every category in this season. He played in 10 of Bama's 13 games, but he only played a handful of snaps against Auburn before coming out with a reoccurance of his neck injury. So keep these numbers in perspective as having come in virtually nine games... as the number three running back:
58 carries for 350 yards and four touchdowns. Throw in an additional nine catches for 101 yards, and you can start to see how Roy was developing as a complete player. .
The interesting thing for me with Roy is that while he had 350 net yards rushing, his gross total was 351. That means that exactly one
time this year Roy was tackled for a loss, and that was for one yard. The two longest plays of his career coming into this season were a 25 yard run and a 22 yard reception. Those numbers are now 62 and 29, respectively. He averaged 6.0 yards per rush and 10.1 yards per rush. To put it another way, he averaged a total of 6.7 yards every time he touched the ball. Those are solid, solid numbers.
On special teams he added three tackles and a blocked punt (that Chris Rogers returned for a TD).
But his true value to the team was probably not understood until he missed the SEC Championship game. He might not have made the difference in that game, but the Tide sure could have used his versatility.
#7 John Parker Wilson
No player in recent Bama history has been as equally loved and hated. Some Bama fans will love anyone who starts at quarterback, while some will always list the backup QB as their favorite player. Some fans will excuse the mistakes made by a player when they are effort errors, while some will never get past a mistake like the interception at the end of the half against Mississippi State in 2007. John Parker holds every Alabama passing record, but I don't think anyone who is older than seven would enter him into the discussion as one of Bama's ten best quarterbacks.
A quick look at the stats will show just nine touchdown passes, which are a step back from the 18 he threw in 2007, as well as the 17 he threw in 2006. His 2096 yards are also less than then he put up in both of those years. And I'm saying he improved? You bet he did.
Coming into this season the one negative word that most Bama fans would link to John Parker is "turnover". It wasn't just the sheer number of turnovers, but when those miscues came. In looking at the numbers only, though, he entered this season averaging an interception every 38.7 pass attempts. This season that number was one every 48.3 attempts. The University doesn't keep (or at least publish) individual fumble numbers, but that was also a bad problem for John Parker in his first two years as Bama's QB. In 2008 he didn't fumble once in his 160 rushing attempts.
Simply put, he took care of the football this year. He threw just six interceptions, and the only one of those that came at a crucial point in a game was the final one, a fourth pick against Florida that pretty much sealed the deal. When you can go an entire season with just one costly, major mistake that put your team in a position to lose, especially when you had a combined 453 touches between passes and runs, that's pretty damned impressive.
It was clear last season that John Parker just simply didn't have a great teacher-pupil relationship with Major Applewhite. That's not an attempt to throw Major under the bus, either. Some guys just don't mesh, and this could have been just as much John Parker's fault as it was Major's. Either way, the relationship with Jim McElwain was a totally different thing.
Aside from all of the numbers, though, John Parker simply looked more comfortable this year. Yes, he was fortunate to have a great offensive line and a good stable of running backs, and that will make any quarterback look more comfortable. It also helped that his go-to receiver (Julio Jones) was a superior talent to anyone Bama had at that position in either of the past two season. Adding the tight end back into the passing game also made a world of difference.
And while it might be easy to just shrug this improvement off to a, "all he had to do was hand the ball off" mentality, that's not only unfair, but just plain wrong. Go back and watch game footage and see how many times John Parker made an adjustment at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes it was changing the play completely, other times it was changing a blocking assignment. Either way, chart how many times he made an adjustment at the line, and then chart how many of those plays ended up being positive.
Coach Saban and his staff did this all year, and all year we heard consistent praise from the coach about John Parker's ability to manage games. It would be tough to say that John Parker flat out won
any individual game on the schedule this year, but it would be impossible to say that he flat out lost
one, either. And that's not something that could be said about 2007.
Management was the name of the game, and John Parker did it well. Not only was Bama able to rack up nearly 5,000 yards of total offense in 2008, but the Tide averaged 31.2 points per game. With the way that Auburn, LSU, and Tennessee struggled to find a QB who could manage games, how quickly do you think any one of those teams would have loved to have had John Parker under center this year? One other quick note to gnaw on.... Bama didn't have a single delay of game penalty with John Parker under center this year. The Tide also didn't waste many time outs at the line of scrimmage.
There will very likely be a serious upgrade in overall talent at the QB position in the next few years at Bama. And while that superior talent could lead to special things, I think a lot of us took a three-year starter at quarterback for granted this season. We also took it for granted that in his entire career at Alabama he never missed a single play because of injury.
The numbers for the season are 169-293 for 2096 yards, 9 touchdowns and six interceptions. Throw in five rushing TDs, and you've got 14 TDs to just six turnovers. Also factor in that what was likely the most impressive play of his career, a fourth quarter long TD run at LSU was called back for a holding penalty behind the play. And "impressive" doesn't even really adequately describe how awesome that play was.
But the bottom line for why John Parker Wilson is on this list is a simple one. Coming into the 2008 season he was 13-13 in his career as Bama's starting quarterback. Heading into the Sugar Bowl that record is 25-14. His leadership earned him a spot as a permanent team captain, and regardless of who takes over as the QB next season, John Parker will be missed.
Coming up next will be two guys who went from being solid (to great) special teams players to starters on the defense.
#9 Marquis Johnson and #10 PJ Fitzgerald