27 December 2008
Earlier we took a look at the top ten newcomers
for the Tide, and now it's time to take a look at the ten guys who made the most improvement from 2007 to 2008. Some of these guys played a major role in 2007, but made strides forward in their overall game. Others went from the bench to being a crucial part of the 2008 season. I have not included any true or redshirt freshmen in this list, as they had their chance in the previous one.
#10 PJ Fitzgerald
After only improving his punting from a 38.2 average to a 38.7 average from 2006 to 2007 there was a lot of hand-wringing among Tide fans about the punting game. Field position can win or lose you a game in a hurry, and the thought of PJ only improving another half yard led to some consternation.
No need to worry, though, as the newly scholarshipped Fitzgeral boomed his way up to a 41.1 average. While his official net punting average was 36.75, it should have been higher. Of the 240 punt return yards allowed by Bama this season, 92 came by Georgia's Prince Miller on a play that the SEC later said should have come back because of two seperate blocks in the back. Take that return out of the mix and PJ's net punting average is 38.4 - which would have been best in the SEC.
It is important to note that Alabama's team net punting average is lower because of two "deflected" punts. If a blocked punt crosses the line of scrimmage it doesn't actually count as a block, and the yards count as team punting
yards statistically. In both instances where this happened this season PJ could have been a little quicker getting rid of the ball, but both were blown blocking assignments - one of which caused a personnel change up front for Bama.
Of PJ's 55 punts, 14 were downed inside the 20 yard line. He also had 15 where he forced a fair catch, eliminating any possibility of return yards. Also not to be overlooked is the job he does handling the holding duties on all place kicks by Leigh Tiffin and Corey Smith.
#9 Marquis Johnson
I know, I know... the Florida game left a bad taste in a lot of folks' mouths. I'm not going to argue that Marquis is one of the SEC's best corners, but he played corner in all 13 games for the Tide, and for the most part did a fine job. Considering where we saw him last in 2007 - chasing FSU's receivers into the end zone - he made a huge leap forward.
When you consider that he had just 11 tackles and one pass broken up in his entire career entering the 2008 season, there probably weren't many Bama fans who expected that he would be one of Bama's three "starting" cornerbacks. While he technically only started in two of Bama's 13 games, he was the first defensive back off of the bench when Bama went to a nickel defense - and the Tide plays so much nickel that I'm tempted to call it the base defense.
The coaches had enough confidence in Marquis to slide Javier Arenas inside to the "star" position, and leave Marquis isolated against a receiver. With teams typically avoiding Kareem Jackson altogether, that meant that Marquis saw an awful lot of balls thrown his way.
In all he ended the season with 40 tackles (8th on the team), including one for a loss of four yards. He added five passes broken up and two interceptions to round out a solid junior campaign.
He still has improvement to make, and the talent at the corner position is only going to increase under Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. But the bottom line is that just about everyone had penciled in Alonzo Lawrence to take over this position, and Marquis simply wouldn't let it go. After the debacle in Jacksonville last season I would not have given a dollar for his chances of being a major contributor to Bama's first team defense. But he worked his butt off and has become a solid defensive back. To hold off talented guys like Lawrence, Robby Green, and potentially super recruit Dre Kirkpatrick he might have to make a similar improvement before 2009, but 2008 showed me a lot about the character of Marquis Johnson.
Coming up next will be two guys who spent their time in the offensive backfield.