We’ve been here before.
Three games into a young season, and Alabama is sitting at 3-0, results that would make most fan bases giddy with anticipation, but seems to do nothing but cause concern inside the Alabama fan base.
It’s not that Alabama is winning right now, it’s how.
Some brave (or misguided) soul with a press pass on his shirt may very well raise his hand this week and ask Nick Saban a question about offensive output or style points as Alabama gets ready to welcome Vanderbilt for both teams’ SEC opener. Whether Saban brushes it off, or ignites the poor fella’s hair with his words of response, is yet to be seen.
There have been plenty of times in the Nick Saban era where Alabama’s second or third game of the season marked one of its sloppiest points. Fans were no doubt hoping Alabama would do to Louisiana-Monroe what it did to Utah State in the opener, jumping out to a huge lead off the backs of a high-functioning offense before shutting down the machine late in the game. This was especially important given how Bama needed every break and every bit of grit it had to defeat a Texas team that this week couldn’t put away UTSA until late.
It was not to be. After the first drive played out more or less on that script, Alabama spent most of the rest of the first half looking very average on offense, if not worse. Bryce Young ended up getting picked twice, and Alabama needed 21 points from the defense and special teams to make the final score look pretty.
Saban may or may not care about that. But he probably does to some extent, because Alabama has done something in these first three games never before seen from a Saban-led Alabama team: It has emptied the bench while the game was still competitive, giving a host of different players a shot at multiple positions, declaring job competitions to be still ongoing.
At wide receiver, Alabama typically plays five or six in its A-rotation. This year? Try nine already, and neither JoJo Earle nor Tyler Harrell has yet to make an appearance. Traeshon Holden, Jermaine Burton, Kobe Prentice, Ja’Corey Brooks, Isaiah Bond, Kendrick Law, Christian Leary, Thaiu Jones-Bell and Emmanuel Henderson have all run routes, although Leary and Jones-Bell seem to have fallen back a bit from the others. Aaron Anderson is also yet to see the field due to injury, and he was no worse than even with Law and Bond before he got hurt. Shazz Preston got his first game action of the season today as well.
Deontae Lawson is actually rotating at inside linebacker; only the fact that Jaylen Moody has played even better has kept Lawson second-team. Bama has rotated four cornerbacks regularly (Ga’Quincy McKinstry, Khyree Jackson, Terrion Arnold, Eli Ricks) and added three more to the mix today (Jahquez Robinson, Antonio Kite, Earl Little).
But perhaps the most curious has been the offensive line rotation. By this time, Alabama usually has the depth chart static. The tackle positions have been claimed by Tyler Steen and J.C. Latham, but the other three are a dance card. Darrian Dalcourt has played the lion’s share of the snaps at center, but Seth McLaughlin is lurking. At guard, even veteran Emil Ekiyor’s job isn’t completely safe, and Javion Cohen, Kendall Randolph and Tyler Booker are all at his heels and are also vying for the left guard spot.
It’s not often you observe a leopard in the process of changing his spots, especially when the leopard is named Saban and has such a history of successfully hunting down championships. Maybe it’s part of a larger strategy to recruit in this era of NIL by giving more players a chance to show value to their sponsors.
Or maybe it’s a way to keep everyone hungry for work. To borrow a term from journalism, Saban is afflicting the comfortable.
Whatever the reason, it’s something Alabama apparently needs to continue to do, because for most of three quarters today, offensive output was average at the very best and horrendous at times given the level of competition the Crimson Tide was facing. Alabama didn’t cross the 400-yard mark in total offense until late in the game, then quickly crossed the 500-yard mark as well, as Louisiana-Monroe was exhausted.
The SEC opener with Vanderbilt probably won’t tell Alabama much, either. Vanderbilt has made significant progress on offense and can score against middle-of-the-road teams, but that’s not what Alabama is. The problem the Commodores have right now is the inability to stop anyone. SEC or not, Alabama is likely to dominate the flow of the game no matter who starts or plays.
After that? Get back to us in a week. Regardless of how long it took Arkansas to quit sleepwalking today against former coach Bobby Petrino, the Razorbacks will be a tough out for Alabama. And then comes the meat of the SEC schedule; Alabama won’t get another easy game until Austin Peay comes to town.
There is to be no woe-is-us rending of garments coming out of the game. It wouldn’t be defensible to do so. But there’s also no blind worshiping of the Alabama offense as it currently stands. By Saban’s own admission, job competition continues at several spots, and the offensive line especially has work to do.
But it’s a lot easier to do it when you’re 3-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-ULM:
1. Special teams made the biggest difference, posting a record-setting performance. If it felt like Alabama might be threatening some school records today, it was. The Crimson Tide rolled up 262 yards of punt return yardage, scoring twice. It returned one kickoff for 57 yards and added 25 yards and another touchdown on an interception return. If Terry Bowden cares anything about covering kicks – and we assume he does – he’s going to be seeing this game film in his nightmares for months. The punt Alabama blocked, was blocked in the film room.
Alabama knew ULM had a weakness in its protection scheme to the long snapper’s strong side, and exploited it, shifting into a strategic block well before the snap. Alabama probably could have done the deed a couple more times, but instead chose to set up returns – and Ga’Quincy McKinstry had no problem participating in that strategy.
We’ve been fooled by Alabama’s special teams plenty over the years – they look like worldbeaters one week, and the bottom of the conference barrel the next – but the kicking positions have been solidified, snap/hold has been consistent, and now the return game is kicking in. Alabama needs to work on kickoff coverage a bit but we can’t complain at all about what we saw Saturday.
2. Balance isn’t just an offensive word. Alabama’s defense has displayed almost an equal affinity for disrupting running games and passing attacks. Bama held Louisiana-Monroe to 91 yards passing and 78 yards rushing, an oddity in modern football where even the most overmatched opponents eventually do enough to hit the century mark in one of the two categories over the course of a game. But this wasn’t just a ULM thing.
Once Alabama went with Terrion Arnold at corner last week in relief of Khyree Jackson, the pass defense seems to have stabilized at a level commensurate with the run defense. Alabama is using more 3-man fronts than it did a year ago, where the base defense more or less turned into a 2-4-5 sub alignment with OLBs Will Anderson and Dallas Turner playing up. This season, there’s a lot more of Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe on the field at the same time along with – increasingly so, to the point he started against ULM – true freshman NT Jaheim Oatis.
At the linebacker level, WLB Jaylen Moody has been far more consistent than Christian Harris was at this point a year ago. Harris really turned up the heat in the second half of the 2021 season, though, and Moody has his work cut out for him to keep pace, but fans worried he would be a downgrade from Harris have so far found their fears to be unfounded. His aggressiveness and ability to fill a hole in run defense make him valuable to the scheme.
Vanderbilt’s offense may be (gulp) the best Alabama has faced so far – Texas has ten times the talent Vandy has access to, but the Commodores deserve credit for their production – so we’ll see how things go next week. Right now, we feel good about it.
3. The coaches are throwing the kitchen sink at the wide receiver problem. It’s unfair to lay this at any one player’s feet, especially since the guy we’re about to talk about had a sure touchdown if Bryce Young hadn’t been a bit erratic early in the game, but Jermaine Burton needs help. Perhaps Tyler Harrell is that guy, maybe it’s JoJo Earle, but Burton is seeing too many doubles and has yet to be able to establish himself as a weapon. Conversely, Traeshon Holden seems to have gone to the top of the heap and he’s done nothing thus far to dissuade Bryce Young from throwing to him. The question is whether these two can get consistent production when facing a secondary like LSU’s or Georgia’s, or even Vanderbilt’s or Arkansas’.
Against Texas A&M, the answer was no, until Alabama used tempo to create some windows. ULM has one of the worst secondaries Alabama is likely to see, and Burton ended the day with just one catch. The fact Alabama trotted out 10 different receivers in this game (the nine we mentioned up top, plus walk-on Bret Bolin when the game was out of hand) points to an almost desperate attempt to find someone who can either get consistent separation, or who can be enough of a threat to loosen the grip teams have on Burton and to a lesser extent Holden.
The return of TE Cameron Latu has been a positive, and Amari Niblack’s impact in the passing game could be something to watch. But after three games, Alabama’s leading receiver in terms of touches has been RB Jahmyr Gibbs, and that’s not really how Alabama’s offense is built.
4. If freshman Tyler Booker is about to land a starting job, the impact could be significant. There was no doubt that Alabama’s offensive line was better against ULM with Booker on the field rather than off it. Kendall Randolph actually started at Y tight end for Alabama in this game rather than left guard, shifting Cameron Latu to H and benching Robbie Ouzts in the process, while Javion Cohen got the call at left guard. Booker, though, rotated with both Cohen and (surprisingly, really) senior RG Emil Ekiyor Jr. Cohen was probably Bama’s second-best offensive lineman for much of 2021, with the exception of only Evan Neal, an eventual top-10 draft pick this past April.
But the time Cohen missed away from football this summer seems to have had a clear effect on his stamina and conditioning, and there’s no telling when he’ll be fully back to his old self. Booker, on the other hand, already looks like a veteran lineman, both in build and in level of play.
On the list of things we thought we’d see in 2022, a true freshman, erstwhile tackle prospect unseating one of two solid, veteran offensive guards was not one of them. Cohen should eventually regain his former status; it just might not be this year. But given Bama’s newfound propensity to play more players and swap them during games, Booker’s time may be now.
5. Bryce Young had a bad day. The playcalling didn’t help. Young’s two interceptions were solidly on him. Even though Ja’Corey Brooks got a hand on one of them, the ball was almost two steps behind Brooks and Brooks made somewhat of an uncommon effort even to get a paw on the ball. There were other instances of accuracy issues – we’ve already talked about the whiff on the deep pass to Burton – which makes it all the more astounding that Young completed 72.2 percent of his passes, averaged 13.1 yards per attempt and threw 3 touchdowns on just 18 attempts. Young also added a fourth touchdown on the ground. If that’s what a bad day looks like, we should all be so terrible. However, Alabama again didn’t exactly give him the best deck of cards to play.
It’s very likely, yes, that Alabama called this game as vanilla as possible, because Bama could have sat the entire first team and still have won this game by four or five scores. We’ve seen, time and again in 2022, that tempo is the offense’s friend. Alabama used it to great effect to get a fifth touchdown heading into halftime, on a pass to Amari Niblack. It was tempo that allowed Alabama to get around Texas last week. Will we see it more against the tougher teams on the schedule? If we don’t, there should probably be questions raised as to why.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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