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This Year's Model: The '07 Passing Game and DBs

Last year's offense found a leader in starter John Parker Wilson after the perceived strength of the offense, the ground game, faltered early and often. Though there were some growing pains for the sophomore, he acquitted himself well, and I'll let the official bio speak for itself:

Started all 12 games for the Crimson Tide. He finished the season with a passing efficiency of 128.92, completing 198-of-346 passes for 2,539 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He threw for over 200 yards in the first seven games of the season, setting a new school record, and finished with a school record nine 200-yard games. He had six games with two or more touchdown passes and threw at least one touchdown pass in nine contests. Wilson also recorded 76 carries for 73 yards with a long of 27. He finished the season ranked in the top-five of most single season passing categories at Alabama. He set the school record for passing yards and pass attempts, tied the record for touchdowns and finished third in completions.

Accomplishing all that with a porous o-line and inept play calling has made more than one Tide fan excited about the QB's development under new QB coach and OC Major Applewhite and his potential at running a spread offense more akin to what he grew up with at Hoover than the pro-set the Shula staff ran. With an improved o-line and considerable upgrades on the coaching staff, Wilson has the potential to re-write the school record book again this season. Backing him up on Saturday is Greg McElroy, a redshirt freshman who switched his commitment to Alabama from Texas Tech after the '05 Cotton Bowl win for the Tide. McElroy led the second team offense during the A-Day scrimmage, completing 14 of 33 for 139 yards and 1 TD. Both of them have an impressive stable of wideouts to throw to, and the TEs look to get more involved in the offense this year.

All five receivers that caught a pass for the Tide last year return, giving this unit plenty of talent and experience. Leading receivers DJ Hall and Keith Brown both return this season, though Brown will sit Saturday for a violation of team rules. Hall caught 62 last year for 1056 yards and 5 TDs, earning 2nd Team All-SEC honors last season. He is only 153 yards shy of Ozzie Newsome's school record for career receptions, and 26 catches away from topping Freddie Milons's all time receptions record. Starting in Brown's place on Saturday is sophomore Mike McCoy, a true sophomore who played only 8 snaps last season. McCoy has earned considerable praise for his play making abilities over fall camp. Matt Caddell, Nikita Stover, Will Oakley, and Earl Alexander, all listed as backups behind Hall and McCoy, also look to get plenty of playing time in the three and four wide receiver sets we'll see this season. Caddell, a senior listead at second string behind Hall, looks to finish his college career strong after getting on the field more at the end of last season and tallying 16 catches for 150 yards and two scores. Listed behind McCoy is Nikita Stover, who caught 12 for 192 yards and two scores, and Will Oakley, who caught 18 for 223 yards.

Lining up at TE on Saturday are Nick Walker, Travis McCall, and Preston Dial. The TEs weren't utilized particularly well in the passing game last season but, as OTS pointed out on his old blog, a lot of that was their own fault. Nick Walker, in particular, is expected to make big contributions by the new staff. Saban considers both Walker and McCall co-starters considering their individual strengths give the coaching staff plenty of options to work with in different situations.

Since the clock has run out on me, I'll defer to OTS's already excellent look at the Alabama DBs over at his old blog:

The pass defense, however, could be a major problem.

For whatever reason, people have this idea that our pass defense in 2006 was good, but that simply is not true, and the advanced statistics made that harsh truth blatantly obvious. Nevertheless, a lot of people believe that notion, and a corollary of that false belief is that our pass defense, particularly with the addition of Saban and his expert tutelage, should be good in 2007.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely to be that easy considering we must replace two starters from a secondary that wasn't particularly good to begin with.

Simeon Castille returns at cornerback, and he should have a good season. Aside from Castille, however, things are uncertain at best. Opposite Castille, no one in particular has stepped up to take the second cornerback spot. All in all, it seems to be a three-way battle between Kareem Jackson, Lionell Mitchell, and Marquis Johnson. Each player brings his a different skill set to the table, but at the moment none of them have stood out and taken the job. Moreover, the scary part is that Jackson and Johnson have never played any meaningful snaps, and Mitchell has only seen time as a nickel corner. It's all just one big question mark as to who starts opposite Simeon Castille.

The safety position, though, is a much bigger concern.

Rashad Johnson and Marcus Carter seem to be the likely starters, and honestly that's not a particularly good thing.

Johnson plays hard, but it's difficult to see him becoming more than just a replacement-level player. He is a former walk-on, and honestly his specialty may very well be special teams more than anything else. As mentioned earlier, he plays hard, but generally speaking there was just little-to-no production from him in 2006. Despite playing over 400 snaps, he registered only 26 tackles, no sacks, no interceptions, and no passes broken up. The Tennessee game provides a great example: despite Ainge throwing almost 50 passes and Johnson playing 60 snaps, he ended up with only two tackles (one solo, one assist), and no passes defensed of any kind. He seems like a good kid and a tough player, but there's just not much production to speak of from him.

Marcus Carter, while highly touted out of high school, is probably one of the worst safeties in the conference, and honestly he would be on the bench at most other SEC schools. He saw little meaningful playing time in 2004 and 2005, was terrible a year ago in 2006 as a part-time starter, and he looked just as bad at the A-Day game. He struggles in run support (see Keiland William's 38-yard touchdown run in the LSU game), plays with hesitance, and is poor in terms of pass coverage.

The harsh truth of the matter is that neither of these two guys are particularly good, and neither of them are "winning" starting jobs, so to speak. In reality, it's just that no one better has came along to beat them out, unfortunately. Honestly, we greatly need some other players to step up at safety. Michael Ricks could have probably started almost immediately, but he did not qualify. Justin Woodall is incredibly talented, but at the moment he still has not been able to crack the starting lineup. Corey Reamer has good size, but he's never been healthy, and doesn't seem to be contending for any meaningful playing time. Moreover, after knee surgery, his speed is a concern, which was probably one reason Saban experimented with him at linebacker in the Spring. Chris Lett could perhaps do it, but he hasn't practiced all Fall from complications with diabetes, so he is almost certainly going to redshirt. The truth is, if most practice reports are to be believed, Saban and company have tried a lot of different combinations at safety, and to this point nothing seems to be working particularly well.

All told, there are just a lot of problems regarding both safety positions, and unless someone else steps up over the next couple of weeks, those problems are likely to manifest themselves in a bad way once the regular season begins. With Carter and Johnson as the starters, at best they are serviceable players, and at worst they are major liabilities.

The truth be told, Saban will need to work his magic on these guys in terms of fundamentals, and also create a good bit of pressure on the quarterback for the Crimson Tide secondary to play near where most people think it will.