25 September 2009
Fresh on the heels of Coach Saban letting us know on his call-in show "Hey Coach!" that Julio Jones would play on Saturday against Arkansas, here's a look at how the receivers have done through the first 25% of the 2009 season.
If you had told me at the beginning of the season that Julio Jones was not the Tide's leading receiver after three games, I would have assumed that there was a connection to the spring fishing trip. After all, this was a guy who completely dominated the field as a freshman, piling up huge numbers despite three injuries that required off-season surgery. So there's no way that he would fail to lead based on talent. And there's no way that he would fail to lead because of injury.
But then something funny happened. That secondary receiver that Alabama spent all of last season looking for? They found him. Or, more precisely, the Tide found them.
In all there have been 13 Alabama players who have caught passes this year. For the moment let's take out the three running backs who have caught passes - Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and Terry Grant. Let's also dismiss the three tight ends who have caught passes - Colin Peek, Preston Dial, and Brad Smelley. And, just for good measure, let's also toss out the two guys who made their first career receptions in mop-up duty against North Texas - Brandon Gibson and Michael Bowman.
That leaves five guys - the five who we all thought would make up the Alabama receiving corps in 2009. They have caught a combined 28 passes, with five of those having been caught by Julio. The other five guys have combined to make 23 receptions in the Tide's first three games - almost eight per.
We didn't see that type of production from secondary or tertiary receivers in 2008. There are a number of reasons as to why - inexperience, lack of effort, quarterback tunnel-vision - but the bottom line is that we simply didn't see it. And while all of the off-season talk surrounded Bama finding that one guy to step up and be the Robin to Julio's Batman, I don't think anyone really considered the idea of it being the entire group stepping up.
Mike McCoy leads the group with eight receptions, but Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze have six each. Throw in three from Earl Alexander, and you've got a group that has stepped forward tremendously. It has to be granted that some of their receptions would have certainly gone to Julio had the talented sophomore played in the last seven quarters.
But the real joy for Alabama fans has to come from the fact that without Julio in the game, the Tide still managed to pass for better than 400 yards in those seven quarters. Would you have believed that in July?
I'm looking forward to seeing Julio play on Saturday. The Razorbacks are a bad defensive unit, especially against the pass. They rank 90th in passing yards allowed per game, and 116th in pass effeciency defense. Yes, a lot of that damage came from an above average Georgia team. But it would be reasonable to expect Bama's passing offense to be at least in the same general ballpark of Georgia.
It's been widely publicized that Julio hasn't scored a touchdown since the Georgia game of last year. And it's been noted by many Bama fans that Julio should have had a touchdown against FIU. The combination of the bad Arkansas pass defense, the long streak without a touchdown, and the fact that he's missed the last seven quarters of football should provide Julio with a ton of motivation to play.
At this point Julio has five receptions and two dropped passes. That's not something I thought that I would ever say (type), but that's the case. The good news is that he'll be healthy on Saturday, and he's too good of a receiver to remain in the middle of Bama's receiving corps statistically. Expect Arkansas to double and triple team him, and expect Julio to have a big game anyway.
Now, with Julio out of the way, let's get to the rest of the guys:
I already discussed Mark Ingram's receiving numbers in the running backs article, but they bear repeating. After just seven catches all of last season, Mark leads the Tide with ten in three games this year. His 120 yards are second on the team, and his two touchdowns lead the squad. Having that type of weapon out of the backfield is a bonus. Greg McElroy seems perfectly content to check down to his safety valve, and Mark has reaped the benefit of that.
I've already jumped up and down screaming about having been wrong about Mike McCoy, but I'll do it again - I was wrong. There's still a lot of football to be played, but Mike has been Bama's best wide receiver through the first three games. It's not just the eight receptions for a team high 138 yards. It's not just that he had his first career 100 yard game. It's not just that he's had two plays longer than his previous career high. Have you seen the guy block?
In each of Bama's first three games Mike has had a highlight reel block. One of those blocks where the defensive player was slow to get up. Mike lost a lot of playing time late in 2008 because he wasn't blocking, and he wasn't running routes to completion when he wasn't the primary receiver. That hasn't been the case in 2009, and the whole offense is benefiting from it.
Mike has the size and skill set to be an NFL wide receiver. He's got to continue to show it in games, though. And I'm very happy to say that through three games he's been the most pleasant surprise on the team.
Darius Hanks spent last season working with Greg McElroy on the second unit, and they have a natural rhythm that demonstrates that experience. Darius has six catches, and they've all resulted in a first down - with five of them being third down conversions. Crimson Tide Sports Network color analyst Phil Savage has called Darius a "safety blanket" for Greg McElroy, and I think that's a good description.
Darius runs good routes, and Greg seems to really look for Darius on third down, even when he's the second or third check down on the play. A quarterback is always going to have that one guy that's he's most comfortable throwing the ball to. The fact that, in this case, the guy is possibly the third best receiver on the team makes it a unique situation. It also means that teams will have to really think twice about double teaming Julio on third down. And that's a good thing.
His average of 15.7 yards per catch indicates that it's not just safety valve type routes, either. These two guys have connected for 94 yards, with most of the passes going for more than ten yards. That's quality work for a guy who struggled to see the field last year.
Colin Peek has been as advertised as a receiver, but has been way, way better as a blocker than I anticipated. I'll be shocked if this guy isn't playing in the NFL next year, and I'm thrilled that Paul Johnson was dumb enough to let him go. He's got six receptions for 76 yards - an average of 12.7 per. Most of Bama's passes to the tight end are of the short variety, so the fact that he's been able to turn short passes into long gains speeks highly of his athleticism.
Arkansas got killed by Georgia's tight ends last week, and Colin is Bama's best at the position. If the Arkansas linebackers don't have a better game, Colin could have a career day.
Marquis Maze has been the big threat receiver that we all hoped he'd be. McElroy has hit him for gains of 48 and 34 yards already this season, with the latter being a touchdown. In all Maze has six receptions for 106 yards, but the most impressive thing to me is that he doesn't have any drops. His hands were a question mark last season, and throughout the spring. For now, that hasn't been an issue.
I do think Marquis needs to become more active near the line of scrimmage, catching short passes and using his speed and elusiveness to turn those into long gains. But that's mostly a scheme thing for the coaches, and right now those plays are going to the running backs. So Marquis's role has been to stretch the field, which is something he's really good at. Arkansas struggled against the long pass against Georgia, and Marquis could have a big game if the Hogs safeties don't do a better job of containment.
Trent Richardson has three receptions for 26 yards. I'll be honest and tell you that I only remember two of those... but those two were awesome. The first of those came against FIU, where he made two guys run into each other with a nifty outside-in juke, and then trucked four guys for an additional five yards. The second came against North Texas when he should have been tackled for a loss of five yards. The North Texas linebacker had him squared up, with Trent's back to the field. It was like the guy never hit him, though. It only went for three yards, but in my mind it was a gain of eight when you factor in the five yards he should have lost.
Trent needs to do a better job of blocking before he releases on his safety routes, but when you consider that this is likely the first time in his life that he's been a secondary option on the football field... well, I'm okay with him needing to improve here. The best thing is that he's caught all three passes that were thrown his way. Young backs sometimes struggle with that.
Earl Alexander still hasn't quite taken on the sizeable role that he would almost certainly like to have in the offense, but he's getting there. He has developed into one of Bama's better blocking receivers, and that's given him a ton of playing time. The fact that he only has three receptions for 31 yards has had more to do with the play calling when he's been on the field than it does with anything he's done poorly.
Teams will quickly identify Earl as being a part of Bama's "run package", and that's when Greg McElroy and Jim McElwain will have to make them pay. Thankfully Earl appears to be healthy, and he's caught all three balls that have been thrown his way.
I hate to use the word "disappointment" when talking about any player on a team that has played as well as Alabama has in 2009. But, so far, Brad Smelley has been a bit of that word. To be fair, I probably had my expectations raised a little too high by seven catches for 98 yards in limited time last year. The fact that so many different guys have caught passes is going to mean a few less for other guys.
Bama also hasn't played as many two tight end sets as they did in 2008. Throw in the fact that Preston Dial looks like he might have taken over the starting H-back spot, and you get a guy whose numbers aren't where I thought they'd be. That's more a failure of my expectations than a failure on Brad's part, though.
Having said that, the big reason that Dial has passed him is that Brad has been poor at blocking. I kind of expected that, given the fact that he had played receiver and quarterback in high school, it was reasonable to think that he might struggle to pick up that aspect of the tight end position. Dial has been playing tight end his entire football career, and he's just simply better at that part of the game - a lot better.
Brad has still managed to catch three passes for 12 yards, so it's not like he's been completely absent from things. Averaging one catch per game is no disgrace. Dial has only caught one pass in his extra time on the field, though it did go for 19 yards.
After going all of 2008 without catching a pass, Terry Grant already has two receptions for 29 yards this season. He's also spent some practice time at wide receiver, and he's shifted out wide a couple of times from the running back position. If the Tide can get its entire running back group healthy, I expect that Terry will get more reps at receiver, and I'm guessing he'll get more passes thrown his way.
Remember those routes I was talking about wanting to see Marquis Maze run? Grant is ideal for that type of thing. Get him matched up on a lineback and run him on a crossing route... he took one of thos about 80 yards in the A-Day game. He needs a lot of space to run in, because he still struggles to make guys miss, but I expect we'll see the coaching staff make use of his hybrid running back and wide receiver skills as he spends more time at the receiver position.
Brandon Gibson and Michael Bowman have one reception each - for 21 and seven yards respectively. It's the first reception for each guy, and hopefully not the last. I know that's not much in terms of analysis for those guys, but the reality is that they really haven't played beyond mop-up duty.
I will be interested in seeing how the dynamic of this group changes with Julio back in the lineup. The last two games has to have helped some guys develop confidence, and certainly it has helped build Greg McElroy's confidence in them. Now we'll get to see how they fare with the top guy back in the lineup.
To this point, though, I think you'd have to be thrilled at the way the group as a whole has played. By my judge there have only been two dropped passes, and they were both by Julio. With SEC play beginning, it's now time to see if those guys can build on their early success and make teams pay for doubling Julio.
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