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The Five Biggest Disappointments of 2007: #5 - Rushing Offense

Before the start of the season, Alabama's offense was predicted to be a strength for the team. An offensive line returning intact, anchored by Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell and coached by veteran line coach Joe Pendry, a bright young play caller in Major Applewhite, a returning starter at QB, and a talented and deep receiving corp. The biggest question mark was the backfield, which returned the second leading rusher from '06, the little used Jimmy Johns. But there was plenty of reason to believe Alabama's ground attack would be a formidable one. New coach Nick Saban was known to prefer two back systems over using a featured back, something the Tide had done for ages, and there was a stable of rushing talent for him to choose from. Unfortunately, the Tide's ground attack never took off. Alabama finished 60th in the nation and in the bottom half of the conference in rushing offense, averaging only 149.23 yards per game and a terrible 3.96 yard per carry.

So what went wrong? Generally speaking, what happend to the Tide is what usually happens to any team that struggles in any given facet of the game: injuries and personnel issues. Jimmy Johns, the leading returning rusher, was moved to fullback before the start of the season. I personally was excited at the prospect of Johns at FB; He's not a pure rusher (watching him run is actually quite amusing), but he's athletic and tough, and could excel as an H-back type player, lead blocking for a tailback, running routes out of the backfield and carrying the ball in short yardage and goal line situations. Unfortunately for him, he was a fullback (and not even the starting FB) in what turned out to be a spread offense that rarely uses one, and his only significant contribution to the ground game was an ill timed fumble in the red zone against ULM that killed a promising scoring drive and helped cement a Warhawk victory. He was subsequently moved to linebacker, a position where he should finally excel for the Tide.

But what about the rest of the running backs? In the spring, Johns competed with no less than five other capable backs for playing time. Glen Coffee was a fellow power runner, while Roy Upchurch was a blend of both power and speed and was generally considered the most physically gifted of the running backs. Both Terry Grant and Jamar Taylor were smaller speed backs, and Mississippi State transfer Jonathan Lowe was making a name for himself on special teams as a kick returner and found himself getting significant carries by the end of the season. Of course, we all know how that all worked out. Jamar Taylor transferred to South Florida to be closer to his family before the start of the season and never played a down for the Tide. Glen Coffee, despite a promising start to the season, developed fumblitis against Ole Miss and wound up sitting for most of the second half of the season after his involvement in the textbook scandal was revealed shortly before the Tennessee Game. Roy Upchurch, probably the most physically talented of the bunch, was never able to work himself into the rotation until injuries and suspensions provide him an opportunity for some carries. And Grant? Well, that's the biggest disappointment of all.

It started out so well...

Much hype was made over Terry Grant, the diminutive back from Mississippi that wowed the coaching staff and anyone who saw him in practice with his shiftiness and agility. He wound up leading all rushers with 891 yards on the season, 5.0 ypc, and 8 TDs, but injury issues hindered what could have been a phenomenal season for Grant. He didn't play in the Iron Bowl or the Independence Bowl with a hip pointer (and there have been whispers that his injury is actually the far more serious Sports Hernia suffered by Ken Darby a few years back), and was limited to only nine carries against Florida State and three against Houston. I would also posit that Grant was misused by the coaching staff, forcing him to run power plays between the tackles despite being a small back that excelled on plays designed to bounce to the outside (screens, tosses, counters, etc). The lack of a lead blocker and continual shuffling of the offensive line didn't help him either, and Glen Coffee's suspension left Grant without the power back he needed to compliment his running style.

Apparently I'm not the only disatisfied with the Tide's rushing this season, as the coaching staff is currently recruting several running backs in an attempt to upgrade that position and get more production on the ground. While bringing in fresh legs is never a bad idea, I believe we have several kids (Grant and Upchurch definitely) that can shine for the Tide next season after another spring and fall and a far more coherent offensive line to run behind, and am definitely of the opinion that Applewhite needs to re-evaluate how he's utilizing his personnel next season.