Report card: Alabama’s second half a copy – almost – of the first half

By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Nov. 28, 2011

 

The 2011 season gave us a rare opportunity: Because the quality of teams Alabama played in the second half of the year was highly comparable to the first half of the year, a look at Alabama’s second-half report card is not encumbered by a schedule that got substantially tougher as the season progressed.

 

In the second half of the year, Alabama recorded its only loss (against LSU), but also put up decisive wins over SEC bowl teams Mississippi State and Auburn. Here’s a look at how Alabama progressed from the first half of the 2011 season to the second half.

 

Quarterbacks: B (first-half grade: B+)

Like Greg McElroy in 2010, A.J. McCarron hit a rough patch around the middle of the season. McCarron’s low point came at the wrong time – against LSU – but in his defense, LSU hasn’t made things easy for any opposing quarterback. The fact is, McCarron was passable in every game he played, and even his lesser performances (LSU, Mississippi State) were good enough to win games. McCarron finished the regular season on a high note against Auburn, looking sharp in his decision-making and his downfield passing with the exception of one play, a fumble that Auburn recovered for a touchdown. McCarron held the ball too long and did not show good pocket awareness on the play. Other than that, there are few complaints for a sophomore in his first year as a starter. As for backup Phillip Sims, he barely played in the second half of the year and really only served as a human handoff when he did play.

 

Running backs: A+ (first-half grade: A+)

The only negative to talk about is something that was out of Eddie Lacy’s control: turf toe. Other than Lacy being slowed by one of football’s most feared “minor” injuries, the Crimson Tide finished the second half just as it did the first half – by dominating all other running back groups. Trent Richardson may be on his way to a Heisman Trophy as a result of his play down the stretch. Even against LSU, Richardson accounted more than 100 total yards, and against Auburn, he dominated the game. Lacy looked good when he could push off his injured foot. Third-stringer Jalston Fowler continued to be a bright spot and proved he’ll be a key part of the 2012 Alabama offense. Blake Sims only saw significant action in one second-half game – against Ole Miss – but he delighted Alabama fans with what he was able to show off in that game.

 

Wide receivers: B (first-half grade: B)

Virtually any improvement made within this group came from two sources, Darius Hanks and the tight end position. Hanks, who missed the first two games of the year, showed out against LSU before getting hurt on the opening drive of the Mississippi State game. When he’s healthy, the entire offense works much better than when he’s not in the game. The tight ends, particularly H-back Brad Smelley, put forth a solid second-half-of-the-season effort. Smelley’s performance against Auburn out-Lutzenkirchen’ed the Tigers’ Phillip Lutzenkirchen. However, things weren’t rosy across the board. Michael Williams allowed a LSU defensive back to steal away a would-be touchdown on a ball he absolutely should have caught. Chris Underwood disappeared from the pass pattern, while reserve H-back Brandon Lewis disappeared entirely. At receiver, Kevin Norwood finally made an impact but has been slowed by an ankle injury, while Kenny Bell has run hot and cold. DeAndrew White had a disappointing second half, but Brandon Gibson came on later in the year. As for the Tide’s top target, Marquis Maze, he was valuable on shorter routes but struggled to get open on deeper passes once Alabama started playing some of the SEC’s better secondaries. In all, this group was a wash from the first half.

 

Offensive line: A- (first-half grade: B+)

Injuries – and their aftereffects – are the only things that kept this grade from rising higher. After a checkered start to the year, Alabama’s offensive line steadily improved throughout the season, especially in run-blocking. And oddly enough, it was an injury that might have started the improvement process. Right guard Anthony Steen was knocked out of the lineup around midseason, and senior Alfred McCullough replaced him. McCullough played well enough to hold the right guard job after Steen returned, and his level of play down the stretch has been one of the bigger stories of the Tide’s second half. Left guard Chance Warmack has developed into a steady force, and veteran William Vlachos – aside from a tough game against LSU – finally looked like the player he was in 2009. Right tackle D.J. Fluker continues to have issues against the quickest rush ends, but for the most part he played a solid second half. Barrett Jones was the story for the second half, however, and not for the right reasons. Ankle and hip injuries slowed him, and he’s still not 100 percent and might not be 100 percent before the year is out. McCullough did the best he could at left tackle in Jones’ absence, but there’s no question the line works better when Jones is at tackle and McCullough at right guard.

 

Coaching/playcalling: B+ (first-half grade: A)

Giving out an “A” grade when there’s a loss to LSU on the board simply can’t be justified. Alabama’s playcalling in the second half of the year has vacillated between great (Auburn) and just OK (Mississippi State, LSU), but for the most part has been passable or better.

 

OFFENSE OVERALL: A- (first-half grade: A-)

Even though this grade tied the one Alabama received in the first half, this is actually an improvement over recent years, when Alabama lost ground in the second half. A grade of A-minus represents progress, and a team that is improving down the stretch, when the rigors of an SEC schedule begin to take their toll on a team’s depth chart. A better performance against LSU would have cinched it.

 

Defensive line: B+ (first-half grade: B)

Here’s the big question: How much weight does one give to the Georgia Southern game, a game in which Alabama played without Josh Chapman, Nick Gentry and (for the vast majority of the game) Jesse Williams? On one hand, Alabama yielded nearly 300 yards rushing to the Eagles. On the other hand, this same defensive line knocked out Auburn, kept Mississippi State bottled up and got better at pressuring opposing quarterbacks as the season went along. And we’d be remiss, too, if we didn’t acknowledge Brandon Ivory for finally stabilizing things against Georgia Southern after Williams had left the game for good. The truth is, this is probably an A-minus grade without the GSU game in the mix, but one also can’t completely overlook the breakdowns Alabama suffered in that game.

 

Linebackers: A+ (first-half grade: A+)

Like the running back category, there simply is no other way to grade the best linebacker group in the business. Special mention needs to go to senior strongside backer Jerrell Harris, who improved his play more than, perhaps, any other Alabama player since the 2010 season. Injuries have done a number to the middle linebacker position, shared by C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson, but one of the two has managed to stay healthy enough every week to keep the ship afloat. Jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw hasn’t been as dynamic as in the first half, but he’s been solid, and he’s had to play more snaps thanks to Alex Watkins’ broken arm. Dont’a Hightower, meanwhile, has been outstanding throughout the year. This group has managed to play through adversity and keep the lid on every opposing offense it’s faced.

 

Defensive backs: A (first-half grade: A+)

For the most part, the defensive backfield has played a great second half, closing especially strong against Auburn. But a couple of missed plays came at very inopportune moments against LSU, not to mention a rough outing against Ole Miss and lack of decent run containment – usually a strength of this unit – against Georgia Southern. Like defensive line and linebacker, injuries played a part here, but Alabama was able to seamlessly transition from Will Lowery to Vinnie Sunseri at dime safety without much fuss. This one is teetering on another A-plus grade, but comes up just short.

 

Coaching/playcalling: A (first-half grade: A+)

Mostly due to the failures of the run defense against Georgia Southern, someone’s grade had to take the fall. Having said that, this is still the top defense in the country. More troubling than the Georgia Southern affair, though, is the continued difficulty has with stopping mobile quarterbacks – namely, LSU’s Jordan Jefferson. Alabama yielded only 9 points to LSU, but mistakes in stopping Jefferson led both to a late-first-half field goal drive and the winning drive in overtime. The Georgia Southern debacle is a completely different animal, one that was made worse – to no fault of the coaches – by multiple injuries and suspensions. But continuing to run Undra Billingsley and Jeoffrey Pagan out there despite both looking lost on multiple occasions is one of those head-scratcher moments.

 

DEFENSE OVERALL: A (first-half grade: A)

The defense didn’t improve much in the second half, but it didn’t need to. Alabama got better up front and developed some depth, which should prove useful if the Crimson Tide gets its second shot at LSU, as expected. This grade hovers on A-plus territory and probably would have landed there had the Georgia Southern experience not occurred.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS OVERALL: D (first-half grade: B-)

There is no way to describe this other than a complete wheels-coming-off crash landing into the side of a mountain. Return specialist Marquis Maze has been largely neutralized. Punter Cody Mandell and short-yardage kicker Jeremy Shelley have been acceptable – Shelley, arguably, has been a weapon from in close – but kickoffs and kickoff coverage have become an unmitigated disaster. On top of that, long field-goal kicking has become almost an automatic miss. Cade Foster, who is both the kickoff specialist and the long kicker, has to be questioning himself. But he’s also been “helped” on kickoffs by a coverage unit that has suddenly forgotten the concept of lane discipline. Special-teams failures directly led to the LSU loss and made the Mississippi State, Georgia Southern and Auburn victories closer than they should have been. Were it not for Shelley’s dependability inside 40 yards and Mandell developing the ability to deliver repeatable 40-yard fair-catch generators, this one would be in “F” territory.

 

OVERALL: B (first-half grade: A-)

This demonstrates the effect poor special teams can have on a team’s grade. There are only three grades in this figure, and one of them is a D. As a result, Alabama can again deal with the fact that it regressed in the second half of a season. Still, most of these problems center on one game: LSU. And given that the vast majority of any negativity is concentrated into the special teams area, it’s easy to step things up in the postseason than would be the case if Alabama, say, was stumbling on defense at this time. To improve this grade at this point in the season, though, would require Alabama to either find a new long kicker/kickoff specialist, spend extra time on its kickoff coverage or both. Given that it isn’t likely a walk-on will suddenly emerge who can nail kickoffs automatically through the back of the end zone, the best chance for improvement here is to rediscover the world of good kickoff coverage. Also, fans can take comfort in knowing that the offense and defense held serve from the first half of the year, something that hasn’t happened in recent seasons.

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