By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Aug. 31, 2013
If you had Christion Jones in your pool for Breakout Player of 2013, please come forward to claim your prize.
Not so fast, Jones family.
Jones is a solid player for Alabama and has been for a couple of years, but it’s safe to say few were expecting the junior wideout to take over the game against Virginia Tech. It’s a good thing he did, because without Jones’ two special teams touchdowns on this day, Virginia Tech wouldn’t have been admitting defeat and running out the clock late in the game behind its backup quarterback.
Alabama has looked choppy in openers before, including the last time these two teams met in Atlanta. But Alabama is playing a different game than Virginia Tech or approximately 110 other Division-IA programs are in 2013: Alabama is shooting for a national championship, and the product Alabama put on the field Saturday will have to improve by leaps and bounds to avoid being upset along the way.
Alabama’s offense looked, quite frankly, inept. Aside from a couple of outstanding individual plays from running back T.J. Yeldon and one long pass play by A.J. McCarron to – who else? – Christion Jones, the Tide offense was badly out of sorts for most of the game.
It all started up front, as Alabama’s offensive line suffered breakdown after breakdown. Some of the struggles were no doubt caused by a Virginia Tech defensive line that has more than one future NFL player on it, but Alabama will see just as good later in the year, if not better. The maddening thing about the offensive line’s struggles in this game were that the breakdowns came from every position, including left tackle and right guard.
The biggest issues, though, came from the positions manned by new starters Arie Kouandjio (who was pulled in the second half for Kellen Williams; line play improved slightly after the move), Ryan Kelly and Austin Shepherd. A handful of “lookout” blocks caused McCarron to start throwing off-balance, and too quickly in the route. Alabama’s receivers did McCarron few favors, failing to dig him out of trouble on any one of a handful of borderline throws.
There’s a statistic called “STAT,” appropriately enough, which stands for “Snap To Affect Time.” It also goes by the name “snap-to-contact,” but contact isn’t always needed to affect throws.
The measurement deals with the amount of time from the snap of the football to when the quarterback is first touched, or forced to alter his position in the pocket significantly. Acceptable times are around 2.25-2.50 seconds. Anything over 3 seconds is considered ample time; anything around 2 seconds or under is considered troublesome, as it both affects a quarterback’s confidence and keeps receivers from having the time to make a second move to get open downfield.
TideFans.com didn’t keep a running live tally from the start, but we’ll hazard a guess that McCarron was below the danger line on half or more of his attempts. In 2012, it was rare to see McCarron deal with STAT times under 2.25 seconds more two or three times per game.
If Alabama had traded good run blocking for mediocre pass blocking, that would have lessened the damage somewhat. But the Tide didn’t do that, either. Alabama’s running backs found themselves having to make their first evasive move 3-4 yards deep in the backfield on virtually every other carry. Aside from a couple of nice gains from Altee Tenpenny as the clock was being run out in the fourth quarter, none of Alabama’s backups were able to show anything.
Fortunately, the defense showed up to play, and its reputation apparently preceded it, as Virginia Tech’s wide receivers as much as handed the ball over to the Alabama defense on each pass attempt. The misfires in the Hokie passing game led to punts, which led to Christion Jones, which led to an Alabama victory.
Nick Saban lamented after the game that Alabama is off next week without an opponent against which it can work out the kinks. Texas A&M, Alabama’s Week 3 opponent, does face such a team, and it will be interesting to see whether the Aggies can find improvement for their defense, which had about as many breakdowns as did Alabama’s offense. If Texas A&M improves a lot and Alabama fails to match, the Tide’s title run could be over before it really gets started.
Unless, of course, Christion Jones repeats his Superman act.
Here’s the Five Point Breakdown for Virginia Tech:
1. Offensive line mistakes must stop. This one is obvious, but we’re not just talking about talent or experience issues. We’re talking about holding penalties from the Tide’s best lineman, Cyrus Kouandjio (although it bears mentioning that Big Ten officials called this game and are often notably tighter about line holding calls than are SEC officials); bad kickout angles from RT Austin Shepherd; and failing to finish blocks on inside running plays. These weren’t the only problems, but they were the most egregious. A particularly troubling trend was the inability to properly set up blocks on screen passes, which goes on the running backs as well as the line, but one of the band-aid fixes for erratic line play is a good screen game. Alabama has to get one or the other, fast.
2. Special teams superb, but we’ve heard this song before. Aside from a continuing trend of not being able to kick off into the end zone, there was nothing to complain about here. Alabama covered all but one punt well, Cody Mandell boomed punt after punt all day long, new snapper Cole Mazza was sharp, and we’ve already talked about Christion Jones. Now comes the hard part – repeating the performance. Alabama’s special teams were often strong in 2012 – and then as soon as we praised them in this space, they would fall apart the next week.
3. Some positions still up for grabs. We’ll see going forward whether Kellen Williams permanently takes over for Arie Kouandjio at left guard; it’s well known that the coaches would like to find somewhere for Williams, a fifth-year senior, to play. But the Williams-Kouandjio fight isn’t the only one. The backup running back position appears wide open. Jalston Fowler had an uneven debut at both tailback and H-back. Dee Hart struggled to pick up inside yards, as expected. Derrick Henry got badly lost on a couple of pass-blocking assignments. Altee Tenpenny might get the job by default – and then there’s the issue of Kenyan Drake, who didn’t dress for the game. At corner, John Fulton came out of the game fairly early in favor of Cyrus Jones, and there was no immediate word on whether Fulton was hurt. A whole slew of backup positions are still being decided.
4. Several veterans taking big steps forward. Ed Stinson has developed from a slender Jack linebacker (and a guy who dropped a fake field goal pass as a freshman) into a full-grown man at defensive end. Stinson was easy to spot Saturday, because whichever offensive lineman was matched up against him at the time was usually seen taking two or three unplanned steps backwards immediately at the snap. But there was also improvement from junior safety Vinnie Sunseri in coverage (more fluid, confident) along with contributions from senior reserve linebacker Tana Patrick (moving better than we’ve ever seen him) and one of the year’s best feel-good stories, oft-injured junior safety Jarrick Williams, who started at Star in place of the suspended Geno Smith and showed he could contribute. The aforementioned Kellen Williams, who has never played significant snaps up to this point, seemed to stabilize the offensive line when he entered. It was also nice to see backup QB Blake Sims enter earlier than in previous years – which probably says as much about the coaches’ lack of confidence in the line’s ability to keep McCarron free from contact as it does their confidence in Sims’ improvement as a quarterback.
5. Defensive line does good job keeping POA control. We’ve already called Stinson’s name, but the rest of the defensive line did a good job of keeping short STAT numbers on Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas while at the same time holding point-of-attack. Although Virginia Tech did have a back go over 100 yards rushing (Trey Edmunds, 20 carries for 134 yards and 1 touchdown), 77 of those yards came on a single play on which two assignments were simultaneously busted. Aside from that one play, the Hokies never developed any type of ground game respectable enough to keep Alabama from crashing its outside linebackers in on top of Thomas – who, despite being sacked just once thanks to his size and power, still saw way too much of Xzavier Dickson, Stinson and Adrian Hubbard in his grille. Brandon Ivory did a fine job stabilizing the middle, while Dalvin Tomlinson and A’Shawn Robinson had strong freshman debuts. Darren Lake also contributed nicely as Ivory’s backup.