A few thoughts from the early aftermath of Alabama's 48-7 victory over Kent State:
The continued injury luck has to be the most relieving takeaway from yesterday afternoon. Realistically teams in our position have far more to lose than gain in games of this nature, and from an injury perspective things couldn't have gone much better. A few players were dinged up throughout the contest, but there were no serious injuries suffered by anyone, and even better there were no reports of any minor injuries of any real concern. Say what you will about the overall performance yesterday afternoon, but at the very least we should have a healthy squad against Penn State, which was something we did not have a year ago.
The quarterback battle received much of the attention today, and rightly so. Both quarterbacks did some good things and some bad things, but clearly on the whole A.J. McCarron had the better day of the two. Does that result in more playing time for him next weekend, or will the three series strategy hold true for another week? Your guess is as good as mine at this point, but clearly McCarron bolstered his case yesterday afternoon. Having said that, though, even McCarron has room to improve and the play of both players left some desires unfulfilled. McCarron improved his positioning yesterday, but it's hard to see him winning the quarterback battle based upon the strength of that performance alone.
Turnovers, however, remain a major concern. McCarron and Sims each tossed two interceptions each, including one from Sims which was a de facto interception return for a touchdown, and 'Bama put the ball on the ground four more times. Fumble luck was fortunate yesterday (only one lost on four fumbles), but four interceptions and four fumbles against a quality opponent -- read Penn State -- is almost a guaranteed to yield a loss regardless of how much fumble luck you may experience. Beating Penn State will be exceedingly difficult unless the Tide does not improve over how it protected the football yesterday in the season opener. The same goes for Arkansas, LSU, and many others.
While the offense had some issues and never really seemed to develop a rhythm, the defense was nothing short of outstanding in a dominating performance against Kent State. The Golden Flashes managed only 90 yards of total offense off 70 plays, and the pass defense averaged roughly one yard per pass. Making matters better, 'Bama actually stopped the run with authority yesterday, as opposed to merely limiting the run, which was the case all throughout the 2010 season. The Kent State tailbacks averaged well under three yards per carry, and the longest run from scrimmage all afternoon was a mere six yards. Throw in a few sacks and you basically did it all... stopped the run, stopped the pass, pressured the passer. A bit more takeaways would have been nice, but that's clearly nitpicking given the overall play yesterday afternoon. Yes it was against a weak offense, admittedly, but any performance of this nature is highly impressive regardless of the quality of opponent.
The biggest disappointment of the day was easily the sluggish play of the offensive line. Pass protection was shaky at times, though at least somewhat serviceable, but the run game was again almost non-existent. Few holes were opened, strong surges against the defensive line were rare, and as a general rule the backs had to fight for every yard. Admittedly Kent State was a very stout run defense a year ago, but there was a lot of attrition in the offseason and in any event it's Kent State. Expect 'Bama to have some serious troubles offensively next week against Penn State unless the offensive line plays better, and given all of the shuffles that we saw up front today, clearly the staff has made no long-term decisions regarding personnel. I'll be blunt: If we legitimately expect to win a national championship, we need better offensive line play than we got today.
Want another disappointment? Try the lack of big plays, something of a surprise given the quality of the opponent and the presence of A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims. Jalston Fowler had one big run after the route was on, but aside from that he, Richardson, and Lacy generally had to earn their yards the hard way, and the passing game produced surprisingly few big plays. McCarron had a nice throw down the field to Maze on the post, but there were only two other passing plays that went for beyond twenty yards and both were on short routes (a crossing pattern to Maze and a screen to Lacy). The lack of the big plays in the running game is no real surprise given the continued issues up front, but the lack of big plays in the passing game is something of a surprise. With the speed of Maze and DeAndrew White, combined with big arms from McCarron and Sims, more firepower was expected.
The fresh talent on the defensive line did nothing but impress. Jesse Williams was a monster on the field yesterday, and looked nothing like the player we saw in the spring. Making matters better, he played from end to guard with effectiveness, and clearly his versatility is a major bonus. Likewise, Quinton Dial made several plays, including a few in the opposing backfield, and Jeoffrey Pagan looked solid in late action. Josh Chapman and Damion Square had good days in their own right, and on the whole the defensive line looked much stronger than most expected. If the offensive line was the biggest disappointment of the day, the defensive line has to be considered the most pleasant surprise.
True freshmen on the whole were highly impressive. Vinnie Sunseri and Trey DePriest were special teams standouts, and DePriest actually led the team in tackles in his UA debut. Cyrus Kouandjio will probably earn a starting job before the year is out, and Ha'sean Clinton-Dix did nothing to disappointment. Christion Jones, Xzavier Dickson, and Jeoffrey Pagan all saw action yesterday (positive signs for their development), and on the whole seven true freshmen played against Kent State. The 2011 recruiting class was highly regarded on National Signing Day and has done nothing to disappoint based upon the early returns this fall.
Eddie Lacy may have been the most impressive player offensively, and he showed signs of development. The fact that he was adding clear value as a receiver out of the backfield is a major positive in its own right, but beyond that he showcased better vision and improved ball security yesterday afternoon. Lacy arrived in Tuscaloosa as a very talented but raw player, and two years later it's clear that he is making significant progress towards becoming a complete back. Jalston Fowler did well in his own right, but Richardson and Lacy will see the bulk of the carries and baesd on what we saw yesterday from Lacy there should not be a great deal of drop-off when Richardson leaves the game.
The linebacker corps... well, watching them long enough would probably cure erectile dysfunction. Alabama may not have the raw star that it had in 2009 with Rolando McClain, but you would probably have to go back to the mid-to-late 1970's to find a unit with this much overall talent and depth. Dont'a Hightower looks fully recovered, Courtney Upshaw looks like an NFL player, Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley both played well, Jerrell Harris played his best football to date, and the back-ups didn't allow for any significant drop-off. It has been said many times by many people that the 3-4 is inherently a linebacker's defense, and accordingly Nick Saban has assembled almost a dream team linebacker corps to anchor his 3-4 scheme. The defense as a whole looks poised for a stellar season, and clearly the linebacker corps is the backbone of the unit.
Cody Mandell had a solid day punting, and Jeremy Shelly looked stellar as usual in short-range kicks. Marquis Maze had a muffed punt that was unsettling, but on the whole he was productive as a returner. Cade Foster, however, is a completely different story. Missing long field goals is one thing, but he's more than just missing; it's difficult to place a 54-yard try between the goal posts, but keeping it between the hash marks would be nice. As has often been the case with Foster during his time in Tuscaloosa, his long try yesterday barely ended up in the right zip code. With his inconsistencies on kick-offs and a new kicker being added in the 2012 recruiting class, odds are that Foster is nearing the end of his playing time in Tuscaloosa unless he significantly improves in the near future.
All in all, a solid day in Tuscaloosa, with injuries abiding and the victory coming with relative ease and without any real alarm. Certainly not a perfect performance by any stretch, and clearly there is considerable room for improvement on the offensive side of the ball. We looked like the quintessential Alabama team yesterday in one sense -- a ruthless defense inflicting cruel and unusual punishment mixed with an inconsistent, sluggish offense -- but more balance may be required as the season progresses and greater ball security is an absolute must. For better or for worse, we'll get a crystal clear idea of what this team is made of in six days.