By Jess Nicholas,
Sept. 2, 2014
Prior to meeting West Virginia in the opener, Alabama didn’t know what it had at the quarterback position.
Now, Florida Atlantic doesn’t know what it has, either.
An injury has likely claimed starter Jaquez Johnson, but if Johnson doesn’t play Saturday, Florida Atlantic’s already-slim chances of winning this game go out the window. Johnson’s dual-threat makeup and leadership skills make him the only real threat the Owls have on offense. Without him, FAU is toast – and the Owls seem to realize this, as despite the fact Johnson has a shoulder injury and Florida Atlantic needs him healthy for its Conference USA schedule, he has been upgraded to “probable” for the Alabama game.
But even with Johnson available for much of the opener against Nebraska, Florida Atlantic was routed, 55-7, and showed a complete lack of competitiveness. Alabama, meanwhile, is coming off a solid win over West Virginia that was far from perfect, but held promise for the future provided Alabama makes improvements on defense.
Florida Atlantic is a spread team, three wideouts and one back, but he only thing the Owls did in the opener was spread around the incompetency. The Owls only ran up 200 total yards of offense against Nebraska, good for 115th overall after opening week. The game plan is to let Johnson be a playmaker at quarterback, but Florida Atlantic doesn’t have the talent around him necessary for him to thrive. Alabama counters with its multiple pro-style attack. Even with limitations in the deep passing game, Alabama eclipsed the 500-yard mark against West Virginia and probably didn’t go all that deep in the playbook.
Jacquez Johnson, who came to Florida Atlantic from junior college, has a lot in common with Alabama’s Blake Sims in terms of size and bulk. Both are around 6’1”, but Johnson is heavier at nearly 230 pounds. Johnson is an accomplished runner, rolling up 772 yards in his first season at FAU in 2013, but still isn’t terribly sharp as a passer. Like many read-option quarterbacks, he’s at his best when the play breaks down and he can freestyle. Johnson only got off 12 passes last week before the shoulder injury hit, making him questionable to start this week. If he can’t go, Greg Hankerson will. Hankerson was just 5-of-18 (27.8%) for 34 yards against Nebraska, and he isn’t the runner that Johnson is (6 carries, 4 yards for Hankerson vs. 4 for 19 for Johnson). Alabama counters with Blake Sims, although most believe Alabama will take the wraps off Jake Coker this week for more than just kneeling on the ball at the end of the game. Sims had a solid debut as Alabama’s starter last week, going 24-of-33 (72.7%) for 250 yards. Had Christion Jones not dropped a long pass and Sims gone over 300 yards last week, who knows what the fan board firestorm would have been like. FAU without Johnson might allow Alabama to get up by such a margin that Alec Morris gets in this game, too. Even with Johnson, Alabama still holds the edge here. Advantage: Alabama
This one almost doesn’t need analysis, but in fairness, Florida Atlantic has a respectable running back group, with Jay Warren the headliner. Warren was a part-timer in 2013, but at 6’0” and nearly 200 pounds, has enough size to go along with his above-slot speed. Scatback Henry Bussey and senior Tony Moore, who fills the big-back role. Moore, a team captain, has the look but not necessarily the skills to fill the role. If Jacquez Johnson is healthy, he’ll probably finish this game as the No. 1 or 2 rusher on the stat sheet. Alabama counters with the trio of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, who had solid debuts against West Virginia. Fullback Jalston Fowler also looked much improved as a blocker. Michael Nysewander will back up Fowler, while Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones will provide depth behind the running back trio. Corey McCarron is also available at fullback, and it’s a fairly safe bet that all the names listed above will play for Alabama. Advantage: Alabama
William Dukes nearly had a 1,000-yard receiving season two years ago. His production dropped off precipitously in 2013 and he’s not considered the team’s most important receiver now. But he is 6’4” and can go vertical. The top receiver is expected to be slot man Lucky Whitehead, who caught 5 passes against Nebraska (Dukes caught none), but averaged only 8.0 yards per catch. Jenson Stoshak rounds out the starting group; like Whitehead, he’ll do most of his damage close to the line of scrimmage. Tight end Alex DeLeon is probably underrated. Michael Harrop will back up DeLeon, while D.J. Juste, Marcus Cunningham and Derek Moise provide depth outside. Alabama will counter with Amari Cooper and Christion Jones, but DeAndrew White won’t be available for this game after suffering a shoulder injury against West Virginia. Either Robert Foster or true freshman Cameron Sims is expected to start in his place, although Chris Black, ArDarius Stewart, Raheem Falkins and Parker Barrineau will all likely play in this game. O.J. Howard continues to press Brian Vogler for work at tight end, while Dakota Ball serves as a short-yardage specialist and Malcolm Faciane provides depth. FAU might have more experience overall at the moment, especially with White out for Bama, but there’s no matching Amari Cooper. Advantage: Alabama
FAU has a depth problem on the line to the extent that the team’s depth chart lists only one player at left tackle, Reggie Bain. Bain, a true freshman, center Braden Lyons and right tackle Eric Minemyer are the veteran leaders of the group, with Mikingson Marsaille at right guard and freshman Jakobi Smith at left guard. This unit showed to be slightly better pass blockers than run blockers against Nebraska, but in reality, handles neither application particularly well. Alabama will counter with Ryan Kelly at center, flanked by tackles Austin Shepherd and Cam Robinson. Arie Kouandjio, who probably had his best game in an Alabama uniform against West Virginia, will start at left guard. Right guard is a mystery. Leon Brown and Alphonse Taylor split the position against the Mountaineers, but Brown was flagged for three penalties – although one appeared to be a blown call – and Taylor outplayed him in run blocking. Both will play in this game, however, with Dominick Jackson and Grant Hill offering depth at the tackles, Isaac Luatua and Ross Pierschbacher at guard and Bradley Bozeman at center. Alabama had a strong debut against WVU; expect more of the same in this game. Advantage: Alabama
Florida Atlantic runs a 4-3 base, but Nebraska had no problems either running or passing the ball in the opener. It’s purely a case of talent and depth for the Owls, which have not much in either category. Alabama continues to employ its multiple 3-4, over/under scheme, but results were mixed against West Virginia and it wasn’t all because Trey DePriest was suspended for that game. Both teams need to perform better, starting this week.
Trey Hendrickson and Haiden Nagel will start at the ends for Florida Atlantic; both are freshman and looked the part against the Cornhuskers. Robinson Eugene may see more time than Nagel, and would give FAU about 30 extra pounds of oomph from the position if he does. Juniors Brandin Bryant and Trevon Coley start in the middle, with Jeremy Faulk and Shalom Ogbonda providing depth there. Coley is the only player to hit the 300-pound mark, and he just barely does. Alabama started A’Shawn Robinson in the middle against West Virginia, with Jonathan Allen and D.J. Pettway starting on the ends. It remains to be seen whether that’s a permanent alignment, or whether Brandon Ivory reclaims his nosetackle position, which would push Robinson probably into Allen’s spot. Dalvin Tomlinson, Jarran Reed and Darren Lake are also expected to see time, as might Dee Liner, Korren Kirven and Anthony Orr. Both teams are still feeling out things as the season cranks up, but Alabama has far superior depth. Advantage: Alabama
Unless the return of Trey DePriest means more than people are expecting, Alabama could be in trouble once the meat of the schedule gets here. Outside, things are in good shape with Xzavier Dickson and Denzel Devall starting at Jack and strongside linebacker. The problems against West Virginia came in the middle, where neither Reuben Foster nor Reggie Ragland proved to be the answer in replacing C.J. Mosley. With DePriest back in the middle, Foster will slide into a backup role behind both positions. Shaun Dion Hamilton, Dillon Lee and Walker Jones add depth, as does Ryan Anderson, Rashaan Evans and Tim Williams. Florida Atlantic will start Robert Relf and Andrae Kirk as its primary linebackers. Even though this is a 4-3 base, it operates much like a 4-2-5, as the third starter, Anthony Hamilton, weighs just 190 pounds and is listed with the defensive backs on some depth charts. Grant Helm will back up Hamilton, while Freedom Whitfield and Nate Ozdemir will back up Relf and Kirk. David Lozandier will back up all three positions and could see more action than Hamilton at strongside linebacker due to Alabama’s rush-heavy gameplan. Other than Ozdemir, who goes 230-ish, there are no linebackers over 220 pounds. Expect Florida Atlantic to have plenty of matchup problems with Alabama’s bigger running backs. Advantage: Alabama
FAU will have to retool its starting lineup, as cornerback D’Joun Smith is listed as doubtful with a shoulder injury. If Smith can’t go, either Reggie Brown or Sharrod Neasman will get the call opposite Cre’Von LeBlanc. Damion Parms and Christian Milstead will start at the safeties, with Marc Mauro and possibly Lester Thomas getting work off the bench. Alabama’s opening effort was a mixed bag. Landon Collins was solid at strong safety and Nick Perry played surprisingly well at free safety, but Jarrick Williams will miss this game with a foot injury. That leaves Geno Smith, Jabriel Washington and Laurence Jones as the other options at safety. Look for Smith to get the majority of the work. At corner, Cyrus Jones played very well on the field side, but Bradley Sylve’s day on the boundary couldn’t have been much worse. Eddie Jackson and Maurice Smith will both see more action this week, and Tony Brown might make a debut there. Still, the star power of Collins, not to mention the health concerns for FAU’s best starter, tilts this towards the Crimson Tide. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s kicking debut couldn’t have gone much better. Adam Griffith hit all four of his field goals, three from beyond 40 yards, while the Tide ranks 3rd in net punting after Week 1 thanks to the cannon leg of J.K. Scott. The return and coverage units, though, had a tough day. Christion Jones was rendered ineffective as a return man, DeAndrew White will have to replaced on kick returns and the coverage team yielded a touchdown on a kickoff return. For Florida Atlantic, Greg Joseph missed his only kick attempt, but the punting from Dalton Schomp was more than solid, as FAU came out of the opener with Schomp ranking 10th nationally in gross punting. The Owls proved to be good kick returners and the kick coverage team was good, but punt coverage and punt returns could be better. This category is nearly a tossup at the moment, but Alabama gets a slight edge due to Griffith’s debut. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama controls all eight categories, although special teams could go either way. Alabama should strongly control both OL-DL matchups as well.
There isn’t much to be said otherwise. Alabama should win this game by a comfortable margin and play everyone it wants to play along the way. But there have been times games like this turn ugly, even for contenders. Alabama’s primary goal here will be to keep getting better; find out more about its inside linebackers, cornerbacks and quarterbacks; and prepare for the arrival of Florida in two weeks.