By Jess Nicholas
Aug. 31, 2016
In most of his seasons in Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban has preferred to schedule a quality opponent for Alabama’s first game of the season. This time, he may have outdone himself.
There are tons of questions surrounding the Southern California program; the Trojans have what amounts to an all-new coaching staff, they’re coming off crippling NCAA probation and the PAC-12 is suddenly wide open for the taking. Even in a year when Alabama wasn’t rebuilding its defensive line or breaking in a new starting quarterback, this game would be challenging. As it stands, thanks to the talent on hand at USC, Alabama is facing perhaps its toughest opening-day assignment of the Nick Saban era.
Like most teams, USC has moved to what amounts to a three-wide, one-back pro-style attack as its base, although, like Alabama, the Trojans will frequently use multiple position groupings to get two tight ends or an H-back on the field. Tee Martin, the Trojans’ offensive coordinator, is well-known to the Saban staff. He’ll be charged with bringing better balance to this group, which ranked 31st in passing offense in 2015 but only 70th in rushing offense, perhaps one of the reasons USC finished 8-6. Alabama will utilize its own variant of the pro-style attack, one that may get away from the downfield passing game a bit depending on which quarterback is in the game.
The Trojans settled on Max Browne as their starter a week ago. Browne, who Alabama recruited heavily, got limited work in 2015, throwing 12 passes. He did not attempt a run, and USC would probably prefer it if he didn’t attempt many this year, either. Browne is a big-arm talent but the lack of experience will be a factor against a defense as stout and fast as Alabama’s.
Redshirt freshman Sam Darnold has been tabbed as the backup. This has surreal synergy with what’s going on at Alabama, where 2015 backup Cooper Bateman and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett are more likely to play against Southern Cal, although true freshman Jalen Hurts has been in the mix all of spring and fall. Nick Saban’s initial depth chart was as intriguing as it was cryptic, and the consensus is that both Bateman and Barnett will play while Hurts sits.
The actual text of the depth chart, however, doesn’t make it clear. Reports from observers at practice this week pointed to a more balanced workload between at least Bateman and Barnett, so Barnett starting shouldn’t surprise anyone. At this point, given the deflection, Hurts starting would probably rate as a significant surprise. The safest bet on the board is that Bateman, the most elder of the quarterbacks, gets significant snaps to show what he can do.
In a comparison of skills, Bateman has the weakest arm of the three but lands in the middle on the mobility scale, and given that he was once grouped with the Tide’s receivers a year ago, being in the middle of the mobility scale means he can still fly relative to most quarterbacks. In the spring, Bateman was the steadiest and showed the best knowledge of the offense, while Hurts was the most dynamic. Barnett coupled play that was sometimes dynamic with an unfortunately high turnover rate, although his knowledge of the playbook was better than that of Hurts.
If you’re not confused yet, bet on Bateman to start and Barnett to play early in the game. As for who wins this comparison, we’ll take Southern Cal simply because the Trojans seem more committed to their course of action. Advantage: Southern Cal
Alabama suddenly went from having no depth at running back to having a surplus. New co-starters Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris had strong offseasons, particularly Harris, who improved exponentially from the end of 2015 to spring 2016. In the fall, the two were joined by B.J. Emmons and Joshua Jacobs. All four backs may play in this game, and not just that, but all four may play in situations that actually matter. Derrick Gore, a walk-on, could be playing on scholarship at most schools and rounds out the depth chart.
Alabama won’t use a fullback this year, or at least, hasn’t identified one yet, so look for tight ends to play the H-back role rather than a bruiser like the beloved (and graduated) Michael Nysewander. Southern Cal counters with a potent 1-2 punch of senior Justin Davis and sophomore Ronald Jones II. The two combined for 1,889 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2015 but as noted before, Southern Cal sometimes sputtered in the running game.
Of interest here is the lack of bulk on either Davis and Jones; both hover just at the 200-pound mark on taller (6’0”+) frames, which is not the typical SEC power back’s form. Dominick Davis rounds out the top group, and he’s smaller than either Jones or Justin Davis. Reuben Peters is around if USC needs a fullback. This makes for a hard call: Does one take the established production of Southern Cal’s running backs, or go with the superior prototypes that Alabama has? By a nose, the Trojans have it. Advantage: Southern Cal
USC’s top receiver is also a member of the all-name team, JuJu Smith-Schuster. He’s also probably a member of several all-star teams, thanks to his 2015 stats: 89 catches, 1,454 yards, 16.3 avg., 10 touchdowns. That’s good in anyone’s book, SEC or not. Smith-Schuster’s reception totals more than doubled the next-highest Trojan on the list, Steven Mitchell Jr., who also returns. Now’s when Southern Cal figures out whether Smith-Schuster, Mitchell and crew are as good as advertised, or whether their stats were the byproduct of quarterback Cody Kessler’s talent.
Darreus Rogers and Adoree Jackson are also back, meaning virtually all of Southern Cal’s production through the air returns. This is a deep unit, fast and scary. The Trojans also boast a solid tight end in Taylor McNamara, backed up by another veteran, Tyler Petite.
This will be the best receiver unit Alabama faces in 2016 other than its own. Fortunately, Alabama also returns the bulk of its 2015 team, led by Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart. Slot receiver Richard Mullaney has moved on to the pros, but Alabama brings back Robert Foster, lost at midseason to a shoulder injury, and Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter, who is seen as an upgrade over Mullaney. Cameron Sims had what could be called a monster spring, and adds depth along with Derek Kief, Raheem Falkins and a talented true freshman, T.J. Simmons.
At tight end, Alabama will have the dynamic O.J. Howard on one side and emerging talent Hale Hentges on the other. H-back Miller Forristall was another strong spring performer. In short, this is good on good, and is also the closest comparison on the board. Give it to Alabama based simply on more ability in its down-the-depth-chart players. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama will have three new starters, but the lack of panic is noticeable. Cam Robinson returns at left tackle and Ross Pierschbacher returns to start, probably at right guard rather than left this time. Bradley Bozeman, who has racked up spot starts in relief of injured players in the past, appears to have won the center’s job.
Lester Cotton moves from tackle to left guard, where he is best described in analogies from the animal kingdom, while true freshman Jonah Williams will start at right tackle. Ordinarily a true freshman starting on the offensive line is cause for concern, but Williams looked like a seasoned veteran in the spring, and Alabama has made starting true freshman tackles somewhat of a recent tradition (Cyrus Kouandjio, Cam Robinson, etc.).
Southern Cal’s offensive line – coached by Alabama alum Neil Callaway – hopes to turn around a unit that was a problem for much of 2015. Southern Cal ranked 105th in sacks allowed in addition to its mediocre ranking in rushing offense. Unfortunately for Callaway, he’ll have to do it without key personnel in the first game. Veteran left tackle Chad Wheeler is out with a foot injury, meaning reserve right tackle Chuma Edoga will have to take the slot.
Two former Alabama recruits, Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivo, will start at the guard positions, with Toa Lobendahn at center. Zach Banner gets the right tackle assignment. This group has the potential to be stout, and everyone has experience. There’s also decent depth, particularly up the middle. But USC was weak at the tackles to begin with, and Wheeler being out improves nothing. Advantage: Alabama
Both teams will use variants of the 3-4 over/under look that Nick Saban has effectively made the most sought-after defensive system in the college ranks. Southern Cal has work to do, though, before it can claim to have something equivalent. The Trojans were mediocre against the run in 2015 (41st) and deplorable against the pass (93rd pass defense, 97th pass efficiency defense). Worse yet, their two most productive linemen aren’t back for 2016.
New defensive Clancy Pendergast has been here before and returns after a year-long stint with the San Francisco 49ers. He has a good reputation but he needs more talent to work with. Alabama counters with a group that is strong in the linebacker and defensive back groups but has depth questions aplenty up front.
Malik Dorton and Rasheem Green will get the task of pressuring quarterbacks from the defensive end spots. Green was a rotational player in 2015, and while tackle production was OK, he recorded only a half-sack and no QB pressures. Those numbers obviously have to go up or USC is toast. The story is similar inside; Noah Jefferson moves from a backup’s role to a starting job. Jefferson had 23 tackles last year but none came behind the line. Dorton is essentially a complete greenhorn.
Two of the three main reserves are freshmen. Sophomore tackle Jacob Daniel, who saw sparse work in 2015, is the only one with relevant experience. Christian Rector and will back up the ends, with help from Kevin Scott.
Alabama will counter with Daron Payne in the middle flanked by Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen. Allen was somewhat a surprise returning starter, as he was considered a legitimate prospect for the top half of last April’s NFL Draft. Tomlinson has been one of Alabama’s key cogs against spread teams, but now gets his own starting role. Payne is an emerging star in the middle. Depth, however, is razor-thin. A lot depends on the status of true freshman Raekwon Davis, whose monstrous frame would make him an instant contributor. His eligibility is tied up at the NCAA Clearinghouse. Coaches thought earlier in fall camp that he would be a shoo-in to play, but now it looks like it will be a last-minute call.
If Davis is out, Josh Frazier will back up the nosetackle spot, while Da’Shawn Hand figures to be the key backup at both end positions. Dakota Ball, who came to Alabama as a tackle, was moved to tight end and now has gone back over to defensive end, has had a phenomenal fall camp after getting only sporadic work in the spring. He’ll be called upon to play meaningful snaps.
Junior college transfer Jamal King has been slow to make an impact, but he’s probably the best of the deep reserves, a pack that also includes O.J. Smith and Johnny Dwight. Despite Alabama’s depth concerns, the Crimson Tide looks like a Pro Bowl roster compared to the problems USC is facing. Advantage: Alabama
Uchenna Nwosu and Oluwole Betiku are fighting for the strongside linebacker spot, which like Alabama’s SLB position, comes off the field in passing downs – and play-by-play announcers across the country rejoice. Cameron Smith returns at middle linebacker; while he was not a force behind the line (just 1 TFL and 1 sack), he picked off three passes and amassed a total of 122 yards on the ensuing returns. He also broke up 3 passes and defended 6 others, so expect him to be active against Alabama’s backs and tight ends.
Weakside linebacker Osa Masina is suspended pending some serious off-field allegations against him, so either Quinton Powell or Michael Hutchings will replace him for this game. Hutchings is a senior with three letters of experience, but most of his production has come either on special teams or off-peak times during games. Porter Gustin and Jabari Ruffin will rotate at what amounts to USC’s version of the Jack linebacker spot. Gustin was very effective in limited opportunities; Alabama will have to account for him at all times.
Alabama counters with Shaun Dion Hamilton and Reuben Foster inside, while Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson start at the outside linebacker spots. Depth for Alabama is almost endless. The electric Rashaan Evans has been dinged up toward the end of fall camp, but Mack Wilson, Ben Davis and Keith Holcombe are also available there. Christian Miller will back up Anderson along with Jamey Mosley, the younger brother of C.J. Mosley, who just won a scholarship over the last month. Anfernee Jennings and dynamic freshman Terrell Hall will see action at Jack. Again, Alabama is strong at a spot where USC is having issues. Advantage: Alabama
Adoree Jackson does double duty for the Trojans; not only is he an important part of the wide receiver rotation, but he’s also a starting cornerback. Iman Marshall showed great promise as a true freshman for USC and will start on the other side. After that, things get a bit spooky for the Trojans thanks to injuries. John Plattenburg was set to start at one of the safety positions, but he’s still in concussion protocol and is questionable for the game. Leon McQuay III will probably start in his place. Chris Hawkins will start at the other safety spot, but his backup, Marvell Tell, will be slowed by a hamstring injury.
Reserve cornerback Isaiah Langley is listed as questionable due to disciplinary reasons. Jonathan Lockett may have to back up both corner positions. Another reserve defensive back, Ykili Ross, has been dinged up. Alabama lost two presumptive contributors in fall camp when Maurice Smith and Kendall Sheffield elected to transfer unexpectedly. But what Alabama is left with is the core of its successful 2015 campaign.
Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick will start at corner in base, although Fitzpatrick will play his familiar Star role in nickel. Anthony Averett becomes the new corner in Alabama’s three-corner nickel mix, replacing the departed Cyrus Jones. Eddie Jackson returns for his senior season at strong safety, while Ronnie Harrison moves from dime safety up to a starting job.
True freshmen Shyheim Carter and Trayvon Diggs will likely find roles this season at corner, while the Crimson Tide must develop a reserve safety from either Deionte Thompson or Laurence Jones. Jared Mayden, Aaron Robinson and walk-on Levi Wallace are other possibilities for now, at least until Tony Brown returns from suspension. Keaton Anderson has worked at both linebacker and safety. Even while Alabama puts together the pieces for its 2016 defense, looking back at the production issues USC faced last year coupled with injury woes, the Tide comes out on top. Advantage: Alabama
Everything is new at USC, where former kickoff man Matt Boermeester now becomes the primary kicker, and Chris Tilbey takes over at punter. Both have well-regarded resumes, but they’ll need to prove it under live fire first. Alabama counters with one of the best punters in the country, J.K. Scott, and a veteran placekicker, Adam Griffith, who often battles spurts of inconsistency.
If this were a comparison of return units from 2015, Alabama would lead strongly, but USC now holds the edge in experience as Alabama seeks to replace Cyrus Jones with some combination of Calvin Ridley, Trayvon Diggs, Xavian Marks and Gehrig Dieter. Longtime Alabama special teams coach Bobby Williams also retired over the offseason, so there will may be a transition period as well. Despite Griffith’s accuracy concerns, the presence of Scott at punter alone gives Alabama a slight edge here. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in six categories, Southern Cal in two. Alabama also holds the edge in both OL-DL matchups.
So where’s the concern? USC is close in the special teams category, in a virtual tie at wide receiver and it’s highly unlikely the Trojans struggle so badly again in the secondary given the overall talent on their bench. Simply put, people are expecting a turnaround.
On the other hand, the head coaching “search” that led to the promotion of Clay Helton as head coach had the feeling of a move made out of comfort rather than because Helton was viewed as the next great young coach. Expecting USC’s staff to outcoach Alabama would be the gambling equivalent of drawing to an inside straight: It’s probably not going to happen.
Where Alabama is vulnerable is under center on offense, and if depth becomes an issue on the defensive line. Alabama might have an answer for the first but very likely does not have an answer for the second.
As is almost always the case in openers, these questions can only be answered after someone turns the lights on and lets the teams on the field. If the game plays to type, Alabama should come out the victor.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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