While all of the attention this off-season seems to be revolving around the quarterback position, there is another question that has been somewhat overlooked by many: who is the new quarterback going to be targeting? The A-Day Game showed off a couple of guys who have cemented their spots near the top of the depth chart, but how effective will they be at their individual positions when the real games start? Nick Saban, Lane Kiffin, and receivers coach Billy Napier have their hands full in trying to replace almost all of the production from last season's passing attack, including Heisman finalist Amari Cooper. To put it simply: there isn't a single, easy way to do it. However, Alabama has really stocked the cupboard with a ton of highly-touted players. In a recurring theme this season, what the receiving corps lack in experience, they make up for in raw talent and ability. Moreover, Alabama has a strong set of players that fit perfectly into many different receiving roles. The 2015 Alabama passing attack may surprise many onlookers.
The Passing Game
When the offense lines up, it may surprise a few folks out there that the receivers aren't just lined up all around the field wherever they want to be. There are specific positions that each individual player must dedicate hundreds of hours learning and developing to fit their role. The general terms for each spot in a typical three-wide set of receivers are the split end, the flanker, and the slot. The split end, also known as the "X" receiver, is typically the wide receiver furthest away from the tight end (or whoever is lined up in the "H" position). The important thing to note about the split end is that he is usually the seventh guy on the line of scrimmage, which the rules require. When the split end is on the line, he is locked in, meaning that he cannot be put into motion just before the snap. The split end also typically gets locked up in press man coverage, so this receiver needs to be strong enough to fight through a cornerback trying to jam him at the line. The "X" receiver will also need the quickness to separate himself from the corner, as the corner will be isolated on the receiver on most routes going upfield.
The flanker, or "Z" receiver, is the other primary receiver on the outside. However, the flanker will be lined up off the line of scrimmage, which allows him to avoid physical press coverage from the snap. The flanker can also be put into motion before the snap, which is an extremely useful tool when trying to read a defense. Typically, the flanker lines up on the other side of the formation of the split end, although that is not always the case. The flanker will still be going up against a cornerback from the opposing team, but there are a bunch of different ways to get the flanker open, without necessarily relying heavily on the player's physical abilities. A popular route for a flanker is to put him in motion and then have him run a crossing route across the middle of the defense, either trying to use his quickness to beat the corner in man, or find an open spot between zone coverages.
The slot, or "Y", receiver, is unique because this receiver will be lined up inside of either the "X" or "Z" position. The slot receiver is typically a smaller, quicker player who has the ability to really turn on the jets. The slot receiver will typically find himself in a favorable match-up, either against a linebacker who can't run with him, a safety who lacks good man coverage abilities, or a nickelback that frequently doesn't have the same capabilities as the outside corners do. Arguably the most important attribute of the slot receiver is his ability to find open space in between zones, as the defense will throw a lot of zone coverages his way. Occasionally, the "H" receiver will be a fourth wide receiver that acts as a second slot receiver, but Alabama doesn't use this look that often.
Something to keep in mind is that most modern offenses utilize wide receivers in a variety of roles, meaning that a particular player won't always be in the same position - a flanker is often lined up and used at the split-end position. For example, part of what made Cooper so unstoppable was his ability to play every wide receiver position on the field. That said, most of Alabama's players in 2015 will likely specialize in a certain role.
Kiffin and the offensive staff may have lost all of their experience at split end, but having two former 5-star recruits man this spot in 2015 won't keep too many of the coaches up at night. The starting nod here will go to redshirt sophomore Robert Foster, who has been somewhat of a disappointment early in his career. Foster hasn't been able to see much playing time, but that's expected to change this upcoming fall. He has really shown out in the A-Day Game the last two years.
The above video is from the 2014 spring game, but it displays Foster's raw abilities very well. Foster fights off the press coverage from Tony Brown, shows enough burst to separate himself from the track star cornerback, finds the ball, and brings in a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch. The split end needs to be able to stretch the field vertically, especially coming off of play action, and Foster has shown that he has the ability to do so. The split end also needs to be able to separate from defenders on hitch and comeback routes as well, and Foster has often used his 6'2, 200 pound frame to do just that.
Behind Foster, the newest five-star stud, Calvin Ridley, is expected to work his way into the rotation. Ridley has the size/speed combination that NFL scouts will drool over one day, and he has the tools to make big time contributions early. Junior Raheem Falkins will also get some reps at the "X" position.
The flanker position has probably the most flexibility and big-gain potential on the field. Sophomore ArDarius Stewart was starting to come into his own in his freshman season before being sidelined for the year with a knee injury. Stewart could very well be the big time play-maker that the Crimson Tide will need from the receiving corps, as he has great top-line speed, smooth and precise route-running ability, and a knack for getting loose in space. His hands have also been very steady, and he doesn't suffer from the drops that have afflicted even Alabama's greatest wideouts.
Western Carolina does a terrible job of defending Stewart in the above video, but one can still see what will allow Stewart to excel this upcoming season. Stewart runs an in route beautifully between the zones (which ends up not being that difficult with the busted coverage by the Catamounts), and makes a great catch on a ball that was thrown behind him by Blake Sims. Stewart also shows off his acceleration when he makes his move to the inside, a key characteristic for any receiver who is looking to create separation. The flanker position runs many in and out routes, so it is encouraging to see the quick burst Stewart displays. Post routes that stretch the field are incredibly important for the "Z" receiver, and Stewart showed off his ability to be a home-run threat in the A-Day game this past April when he torched Maurice Smith for a long touchdown on 4th-and-10.
Speaking of home-run threats, there isn't a better one on the Alabama roster than running back Kenyan Drake. The flanker spot is where Drake will spend a lot of time out-wide this upcoming season, as Kiffin and company are looking to utilize him in a number of ways. Let's just say he's got the tools for the position.
Cam Sims, another former five-star coming out of high school, is a player that would have fit into the flanker role perfectly, but an ACL tear this spring may prevent him from seeing any significant playing time this fall. It's a shame really, because Sims was starting to really find his niche late last season. If he can make a very speedy recovery, he would be a welcome extra option for the Tide. But, with the Tide's depth at the wide receiver position, it may not even be necessary to rush Sims back on the field.
It feels like Chris Black has been around forever, but it's finally his time to really step up for Alabama. The redshirt junior has the makings of an outstanding slot receiver, and he will be given the lion's share of the reps at the position.
Black had a career day against Western Carolina, and this particular catch stands out as a prime example of how he will be used in 2015. Lined up in the slot, Black runs a slant route and does a great job of finding the open gap in between the zones. Sims puts it right on the money and Black brings it in with a nice grab. As mentioned previously, the slot receiver sees a lot of zone looks. In order to be successful at this position, the receiver has to have a feel for where he needs to be. Black will also get plenty of work on screens, as he is not only a quick, explosive receiver, but he's also the most proven blocker of the group. Expect Kiffin to move him around to help spring big plays in the short-to-intermediate passing game.
Derek Kief and Parker Barrineau will be the primary back-ups in the slot, but expect Stewart, Drake, and even OJ Howard to play between the line and the outside receiver as well.
The Crimson Tide receiving corps will definitely be unproven going into the 2015 season, but there is a high ceiling for this group of wideouts. Between Foster, Stewart, Black, and Ridley, Alabama has a group of guys with the kind of tools that can really make a difference for the Tide this upcoming season. Stewart in particular seems primed for a huge season. His ability to both stretch the field and create separation in the short-to-intermediate passing game will drive defenders mad. Toss in guys like Drake and Howard who can play multiple positions on the field, and Alabama will not lack for options. Whoever wins the quarterback job (and it seems like that race is down to Jake Coker and David Cornwell) will have very high-caliber players to get the ball to.