Alabama's talented wide receiving corps is making improvements with every down.
Last year, the team saw freshman Calvin Ridley step into the number one role as a freshman and became a sensation. Right behind him was sophomore ArDarius Stewart and graduate transfer Richard Mullaney. Stewart came on later in the season to solidify his spot as the number two wide receiver.
This season, Alabama returns a key player from injury at the position in Robert Foster. Foster tore his rotator cuff on a deep route in Alabama's loss to Ole Miss in September. Along with Foster, Alabama locked up Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter, who went for 1,000 yards last year.
Alabama uses a predominantly three-wide receiver system under Kiffin, as the Tide have traditionally done under Saban. One standard downs, Ridley, Stewart and Mullaney filled those three slots last year. However, with the arrival of Dieter, the return of Foster, and plenty of young talent on the the roster, Alabama has an interesting competition brewing for the second and third receiver sports:
Stewart is the obvious choice for the second spot at the receiver position. Commanding that position for most of the year, he caught 63 balls for 700 yards and four touchdowns. Stewart really came into his own during the Tennessee game, making multiple impressive grabs, including one on the sidelines that helped Alabama march for the winning score.
Stewart both possesses the ability to make catches over the sideline and to leap up into the air to make grabs. In fact, one of his best attributes is the ability to soar over defenders to make grabs. As the fastest returning receiver, he also has great acceleration that benefits him in the screen game (which we all know Kiffin is a big fan of.)
Where is downfall lies is in his hands. While he can and does make spectacular catches, Stewart has been plagued by inattention and dropped balls. The knock on Stewart the past two seasons has been his consistency. Last season was no different, as he had erratic performances for the first half of the year. Then again, most of the offense struggled for the first half of the season. And, since the passing game went through Calvin Ridley, it was hard for Stewart to break out. However, he made plays when the team needed him to the most.
Foster earned a position in the starting receiver rotation before going down with an injury in the Ole Miss. In his first few games, he showed all the tools to be a good receiver in this system. In his first start, he was able to haul in four catches for 50 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown. On that play in particular, Foster showed great route running, an ability to cross over the middle of the field, and then the speed and acceleration to find his way into the end zone.
Foster looked to be one of the more talented guys in last year's class of receivers, but the big question for him is going to be if he can return from injury with the same physical skill set as he did before. Foster certainly showed glimpses of the potential he has at the position, but he is still a question mark after the injury.
Dieter is the most interesting out of the three, because of the circumstances of his arrival. As a graduate transfer, he is this year's Richard Mullaney in the sense that he will be coming and looking to make immediate impact in his final year of college football. Dieter has enjoyed a successful career thus far, with last season seeing his greatest production. In 2015, he caught 94 passes for 1033 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Dieter undoubtedly has the size to play the position. At 6'3", and weighing 207 pounds, he has enough strength to fight off defenders. He possesses enough speed to separate himself from corners, running a mid 4.5 40. In his one matchup against an SEC opponent, the 2015 season opener versus Tennessee, Dieter had seven catches for 133 yards and a touchdown.
Dieter also pulled off one of the better catches of the entire year, hauling in a one handed touchdown with a defender draped all over him. He fought off the defender with his right hand and reached up to make the catch while his momentum was carrying him out of bounds.
That catch shows just what Dieter can bring to the table for Alabama this season. His ability to make tough catches in traffic is something he will need to do to give this offense even more production. Whether he can come in and make impact with this talented corps is a mystery at this point.
Given the creativity of Lane Kiffin, and Alabama's slow transition to a spread offense, you have to thing the Tide will find a way to get all three guys involved. My is on Stewart and Foster locking down the 2/3 WR spots because they are familiar faces for Kiffin. He knows what skill set he is getting out of both in a three-man rotation. Familiarity may not be enough for either necessarily win or keep a full-time starting job, though. It would not be surprising to see Dieter take either position, similar to what Mullaney did as he unseated several veterans to claim the slot. While all three will get time on the field and produce for the offense, Stewart looks to be the clear number two guy. The greater battle would appear to be between Foster and Dieter, with both nipping at Stewart's heels -- and at one another -- all season.
Matthew Speakman is our newest football contributor at Roll 'Bama Roll. As you noticed during National Signing Day, he stepped up and did a yeoman's job for us when news was coming fast and heavy. You can follow Matt on Twitter at: @speakmanmc. Again, welcome aboard. - E