I had initially planned to evaluate each unit individually, but with the season upon us, it looks like the offense and defense are going to have to double up. Thankfully, Coach Saban surprised us all by releasing a depth chart for the Western Carolina game, so no guessing as to who will start and who the backups are (at least not until next week).
The Offensive Line
The o-line was rightfully maligned last season, opening a scant 3.5 ypc for the backfield and giving up 28 sacks. John Parker Wilson's mobility aided that last number, since defenders were routinely in the backfield chasing him down. Worse, opposing defenses were typically able to get pressure on the QB last season by rushing only the four down linemen and dropping everyone else into coverage, 'causing the offense to falter on key passing downs. Former line coach Bob Connelly, a holdover from the shortlived Mike Price staff now at UCLA, installed a zone blocking scheme fit more for a spread offense than the pro-style sets Shula favored, but the days of zone blocking and pulling guards every play are apparently a thing of the past:
Granted, everyone already knows the unit worked hard during the offseason, with each lineman becoming leaner and stronger than ever, but another major difference fans will immediately notice is that pulling guards are no longer a Crimson Tide staple.
"I don't think it is, we don't pull as much as we used to," Davis said. "Every spot on the offensive line is important, but it's a different kind of playing -- a different type of game we're playing now."
Alabama expects to be more physical on the line, yet that doesn't mean the "track shoes" notion is on the shelf. Far from it.
"Quickness is the key," Davis said. "Still powerful, but being quick is more important than strength."
With a new, physical mentality, this unit has the chance to return the power run element that the Tide lacked last season to the offense. The much-jeered jumbo package wasn't so much ineffective because everyone in the stadium knew what play was coming; it was the inability of the linemen to knock the opposing defenders back that ultimately doomed those plays to failure. Luckily for the Tide offense, new line coach Joe Pendry is a veteran who will fit his blocking schemes to the offense being run for a change, while five starters return with a group of talented new faces who have emerged to play a considerable role on the line.
Starting at LT on Saturday is Freshmen All-SEC selection Andre Smith. The first offensive lineman named Mr. Football in Alabama, Smith was the number one o-line recruit coming out of high school and he secured the starting job at LT as a true freshman, starting all 13 games and playing more snaps (800) than any other member of the team. While he was athletic enough to do this...
...at around 360, he slimmed down to 333 after the grueling strength and conditioning program installed upon Saban's arrival. Backing him up will be the former starter at RT, Chris Capps. Rightly or wrongly, Capps bore the brunt of last season's criticism, especially after giving up consecutive sacks in the Iron Bowl that resulted in two Auburn TDs. Though he started all 13 last year, he split time with Kyle Tatum, who graduated last year. The senior lost his starting job in the fall, though, and has been moved to LT in reserve.
At LG is senior Justin Britt. The third Britt brother to start on the o-line at Alabama, Justin made the move from the d-line last season and will continue to start this year. A two way player in high school, Britt played in 11 of 13 his freshman year and 10 of 11 as a sophomore before making the move to the offense last season, where he started every game. He was one of only six players last season to play more than 700 snaps. His backup will be Evan Cardwell a sophomore who saw action in all 13 games last year as a center during two minute drills and crucial downs while starter Antoine Caldwell would move to RG.
And speaking of Caldwell, the 2nd Team All-SEC Selection returns looking to continue his 24 game starting streak. As a redshirt freshman in '05, Caldwell started all 11 regular season contests at LG, earning Rivals.com Freshman of the Week honors after the blowout win over Florida, and was moved to center in place of the injured JB Closner for the Cotton Bowl. He started all 13 games last year in that role, and, as mentioned above, moved around on the line on crucial downs. His backup this Saturday will be William Vlachos, a true freshman out of Mountain Brook High School. A three star prospect rated as the #9 center in America by Rivals, Vlachos fought his way into the rotation with a solid fall camp.
At RG, Marlon Davis has passed BJ Stabler for the starting job this weekend, while Stabler sits at backup at RT. During his freshman year, Davis saw limited action, playing in four games, but eventually earned three starts last year against FIU, LSU, and Auburn while playing in 11 games over the course of the season. His backup is Patrick Crump, another true freshman out of Hoover High School, who was rated the #20 guard prospect in American by Rivals.
Finally, Mike Johnson, a redshirt sophomore who saw 132 snaps in 13 games last season, has battled his way into the starting lineup over returning starter Chris Capps and former starting guard BJ Stabler.
This unit has the talent, coaching, experience, and, finally, depth to go from one of the worst in the league to one of the best this season.
The Defensive Line
The other side of the ball didn't receive quite as much scorn as their offensive counterparts, but there were more than a few disgruntled rumblings as the usually stout Alabama run defense wound up seventh in the league, allowing an average of 4 ypc and 124.6 ypg, and dead last in sacks with a measley 13 for 100 yards. Both lines were hit hard by NCAA probation and it's scholarship limits but, while the o-line was adressed in Shula's '05/'06 recruiting class, the defensive front seven continued to dwindle, forcing beloved former DC Joe Kines to run a hybrid nickel/3-3-5 defense designed to play to the strength of his defense, the secondary. That scheme, coupled with a dearth of experienced players, allowed more than one opponenet to run all over the Tide.
|For example, our inability to stop the "inside trout" likely cost us the Independence Bowl.|
New coach Nick Saban has installed a 3-4 defense, but he's also hinted that a lack of depth in the front seven will likely mean more nickel coverage than he typically runs throughout the year. Key for this type of defense is the play of the line. Like last year, they'll be expected to draw multiple blocks and open gaps for blitzing linebackers more than they will to stop the run and pressure the QB, but they will be a verastile group, with ends expected to move inside and play tackle on plays where the "Jack" linebacker, a hybrid LB/DE, lines up as a rush end. Starting at end against Western Carolina are Wallace Gilberry and Bobby Greenwood. Gilberry will primarily play as a rush end after leading the team with 3.5 sacks and 10 QB hurries last year. A senior who earned Freshman All-SEC honors in 2004, he saw his sack production drop after he recorded 6.5 in '04 with only 1.5 in '05 and 3.5 last year. His production should increase this year, though, while Greenwood, who also earned Freshman All-SEC Honors (but in '05) recorded 2.5 sacks himself last year. He'll be expected to move inside when the Jack LB plays end. Backing both of them up are Milton Talbert, a sophomore who has yet to see the field, Brandon Deadrick, a sophomore who played in six contests last year but only recorded two stops, and Luther Davis, a highly touted true freshman ranked as the #25 DT in America out of high school.
NG is a new position for Alabama now that we'll be running the 3-4, so it's only fitting that a new arrival to the defense should man it. Brian Motley, a two way player in high school, spent last year as a third string center before the new staff decided to try him out at tackle the day before spring practice began. He's drawn considerable praise at that position, and will start on Saturday despite playing with a cast after surgery to repair a broken bone in his hand. This is a dangerously thing position though, as he's backed up by redshirt freshman Lorenzo Washington, and not much else. True freshman Josh Chapman is in the middle of an eligibility scandal involving changed grades that likely means he won't see the field this season, while fellow true freshman Alfred McCullough is the last man on the depth chart. Even though this is a position of vital importance for the new defensive schemes, it's the thinnest on the roster.
Update [2007-8-29 0:20:50 by Todd]:
Well, Motley's out, so that bumps Washington up to starter at NG, and McCullough the lone backup. This is not good.