The common wisdom going into the 2010 season is that Alabama's offense is going to be loaded, and the concerns should focus on replacing the defensive veterans who have moved on. But that shorthand view overlooks the loss on one key player on the offense - tight end Colin Peek.
Late last year, in anticipation of the National Championship game, a blogger whose football acumen I trust quite a bit, Burnt Orange Nation's Peter Bean, decided to sit down and watch the SEC title game between the Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators. His stated intention was to glean a bit of understanding about what his beloved Texas Longhorns were about to face in Pasadena. Bean had this to say about Tide tight end Colin Peek:
If I had to pinpoint a key to the Alabama offense, I might single out the tight end #84, Colin Peek, who is adequate as a rush blocker and excellent as a pass receiver. Peek's release off the line is quick, and he's devastating either finding holes in zone coverages or -- if you try to stick him with a linebacker in man -- getting enough separation, with good body position, to be a good option for the quarterback.
And Bean posted that before he got to see the touchdown catch that put Peek on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Overall, Bean's assessment Peek sounds just about right to me. It wasn't that Peek was truly great at any one thing in his position but that he was really good at so many of them. Opposing defenses might counter one aspect of his game quite well, but then fall prey to another.
Peek came to Alabama by way of Georgia Tech. After a season on the sideline due to transfer rules he emerged as the Crimson Tide's No. 4 receiver in 2009 with 26 receptions for a total of 313 yards. But it wasn't the amount of receptions that mattered nearly as much as the quality of those catches.
Fifteen of Peek's receptions last year -- almost 58% -- were for first downs. Even more importantly, five of those catches that moved the chains came on third down, the most for any player on the team. And one of his three touchdowns was on a third down play as well.
When Greg McElroy needed someone to be there in the worst way, more often than not, the guy who came through was wearing No. 84. And its probably not coincidental that the games that Peek didn't play - Tennessee and LSU - were right in the middle of McElroy's mid-season slump.
Yet Peek's importance to the offense was much more than you can see in his stat line. He was solid rush blocker on the edge allowing the running backs that much more of a chance to do all the fantastic things we all Ooh-ed and Ahh-ed over when Sportscenter ran the replays on their Saturday night recaps.
Another good example of what Peek brought to the offense. Take another look at that screen play to Mark Ingram during SEC Championship where the Heisman Trophy winner-to-be trucks down the field for 69 yards.
Beautiful, isn't it?
Now watch it again and keep an eye on Peek who starts out on the left side of the line. He runs his decoy route and then, after the pass is made, he heads all the way back to the other side of the field and makes that last block that allows Ingram to almost double his yardage on the play.
This kind of commitment is what excited pro teams about him despite the knocks on his physical skills. While Peek wasn't drafted last April, he got a phone call from the Atlanta Falcons soon after. He's now in Flowery Branch, Georgia battling for a spot in the roster and the pundits think hes got a great chance to make it. Couldn't happen to a better guy.
But, back in Tuscaloosa, the question now is who is going to replace him in 2010?
First in line is likely to be Michael Williams (6-6, 270-pounds) who actually got on a field a bit last season but his A-Day effort didn't exactly inspire. He's got the tools and the size to become the asset to the offense Peek provided but that's likely going to take a bit of time to develop.
The slot role is likely to fall to 6-3, 227-lb, Brad Smelley, who probably weighs more than that now due to Coach Cochran's loving care but still is not likely to be the bruiser Peek was. Smelley has a bit more data in his stat sheet but his propensity for accumulating flags on kick returns earned him OTS's ire in the past.
In more of an H-back role will be senior 6-3, 237-pound Preston Dial. His stat sheet doesn't give a heck of a lot to go on but his on field play has oscillated between achingly unremarkable or absolutely harrowing. The hope is he's ready for a big step forward his senior season.
Whichever one of these guys steps up it's still going to be a tough transition to match what Peek provided for the offense. It seems likely there are going to be quite a few times this season when Greg McElroy is going to look for that safety valve when things get hairy on third and long... and it just ain't gonna be there.
I want to offer a big thanks to OTS for helping me out with this entry. - kleph.