With this last installment, we finally come to the end of the series introducing you to each of the incoming freshmen for the class of 2017.
You’ve all likely heard at this point that the most important position in the state of Alabama’s political structure is the starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide. Well, Jalen Hurts has that distinction for now, but there are two new candidates joining the scene this year.
That said, the Crimson Tide has truly made it’s legacy in the run game, both in the past and in the Saban era. The school’s two Heisman trophy winners have both been running backs, and the pressure is just as high for these ball carriers as it is for the ball-throwers.
I will mention SPARQ and Z-scores in this article as a method of quantifying athleticism, so if you don’t know what that means, check out the little box below:
For continuity within this series, I will always use 247sports.com ‘s composite rankings for a player’s star rating and national and state rankings. All heights, weights, and other athletic tests come from espn.com, who integrates their data with that of Nike’s Combine results.
Rated as a dual-threat QB, Tua brings pretty impressive athleticism to the table, though it doesn’t necessarily show up in his 40-yard dash. Instead, his short area explosiveness and acceleration for his size is what really separates him from many quarterbacks out there.
Going forward, his height (or lack thereof) will likely be one of the biggest talking points for his detractors. Also, he is a lefty.
In his techniques, Tua is an odd blend of the footwork and throwing motion of an older generation of QBs while operating in a spread-option style of play. He has quick, jerky feet when dropping back and moving in the pocket, and throws more with his lower body than with pure arm strength. These aren’t really good or bad per se, but definitely look out of place next to a more deliberate and smooth mover in Jalen Hurts.
Tua has the velocity on his throws to really thread needles across the middle on even intermediate level passes, and can get pretty good distance on his deep balls. He usually puts a lot of spin on his passes, which can make them a little easier for a receiver to catch, as the ball will spin into their gloves.
He’s exceptional at dodging defenders in the pocket and scrambling around to find another receiver. There’s a reason he’s been repeatedly compared to Russell Wilson and Randall Cunningham in the media (and I would add Doug Flutie as an even better comparison). He’s got the explosiveness and fleetness-of-foot to escape any hairy situation, and can turn what should have been a sack into a big play.
Like most any other high school QB in this day and age, he comes from a spread-option offense, where his responsibility is typically to look for the primary receiver, and if covered, run. For his credit, Tagovailoa is more likely to scramble and then look for another receiver than to just take off running, but I’d still like to see more confidence in stepping up in the pocket and progressing to the next read rather than bailing out backwards.
I’m also not totally sold on his ball placement, as he tends to throw a little bit behind his receiver, especially on drags and other horizontal routes. On deeper, vertical routes, his throws tend to rainbow a little, rather than taking a more laser-like trajectory (though that isn’t necessarily bad, if he has the arm strength to get the distance with a fast receiver... Think Blake Sims and Amari Cooper).
He’s a lefty. If the receivers aren’t used to the ball spinning in the opposite direction, we could see more drops. And the offensive line will have to block a little differently.
Many are already crowning Tua as the next coming and believe he’ll unseat Jalen Hurts as the starter. I don’t believe that Nick Saban wants a 4th year in a row with a new quarterback, so I think Hurts will resume his role. Tua will obviously be the second best QB on the team, but will he be the primary back-up? Saban may try to redshirt the Hawaiian to give him an extra year buffer to be a starter after Hurts leaves the team.
Though all four of his tests are very similar numbers to Tagovailoa’s, Mac Jones is nearly 35 pounds lighter than the Hawaiian, which drops his SPARQ score significantly (though he’s still a pretty athletic QB overall).
Though listed as a pro-style passer, Jones actually ran a wing-T offense in high school.
Quick releases and selling play-fakes is Mac’s name to fame. When it comes to executing a convincing play-action and quickly getting a screen out to a wide receiver waiting past the hash marks, he’s one of the best you’re ever going to see.
He’s also got great touch on outside throws such as corner routes, fades, and wheels, letting receivers cradle in his soft throws without ever breaking stride. His footwork is solid, if unspectacular, and he can make medium range throws while rolling out either to the left or right.
He short arms most of his throws, which severely limits any ball velocity or distance he might otherwise have the arm to accomplish. When throwing across the middle, his ball often hangs in the air and takes forever to reach his target. I also did not see any throws over about 30 yards from the LOS from him, so I have to assume that the deep ball is not a strength.
I also can’t speak for his pocket presence, as the nature of his offense was that of quick-hitting screens and play-fakes that kept defensive linemen from ever coming close to him. Maybe he can operate in the pocket under fire, or maybe he’ll freak out. I just can’t know for sure.
I actually think that Jones will end up getting the bulk of any mop-up duty this year while Saban redshirts Tagovailoa. Ultimately, though, I think Jones was signed to be depth, and little more. That said, I’ll be cheering for him to prove me wrong.
As sort of an update, Brian Robinson recently ran a 4.41 forty during Alabama’s spring practices after he enrolled, making him the fastest running back on the team. So it seems he’s matured some athletically since participating in the Nike combine last summer.
It is my belief that Robinson is probably the most underrated player in this class. He’s big, powerful, fast, and agile.
He’s got a long stride that lends to his exceptional breakaway speed, especially for someone his size. He has a built upper body and runs with a forward lean, so any defenders aiming to hit him high or bring him down with arm tackles will bounce off or get run through.
And while you may think he’s just a size/speed combo guy, he’s got surprisingly light feet and can hop step through a hole or break some ankles in the open field. He’s at his best on stretch plays where he can build up a head of steam around the corner and down the sideline.
He is a bit top heavy, so defenders going for his legs can be fairly successful. It also somewhat limits his effectiveness up the middle, as he needs a little space to get up to full speed and really be able to use his size to his advantage.
His ability in the passing game, both as a blocker and a receiver, is untested and unknown. Whether he can develop there will go a long way towards determining how soon he gets playing time.
I think he redshirts this year. With Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs, and B.J. Emmons all returning, plus the addition of Najee Harris, I would guess that Saban will aim to get an extra year of eligibility on Robinson to keep his services around a little longer after the others start to leave.
The crown jewel of this recruiting class, Harris was the #1 overall recruit in the nation by the opinion of more than one recruiting service. Athletically, he actually didn’t test all that well for someone of his lofty status, with only his twenty-yard shuttle really being impressive.
In some cases, it just goes to show that there is more to football than pure athleticism.
He’s one of the best recruits that Nick Saban has ever brought in for a reason. Najee Harris can do just about everything, and he does it all well.
Hurdle over defenders going low? No problem. Truck a defender going high? Check. Break some ankles in the open field? Sure thing.
And the list keeps on going. Through all of it though, his incredible balance and lower body power and flexibility is what really sets him apart. No matter how he gets hit or what kind of physics defying cuts he tries, he’s always going to stay on his feet and keep fighting for yards.
He has the footwork to pull off any move in the books, be it a cut, stutter, high-step, hop-step, spin, or a full out juke. He’s powerful enough to truck someone head on, or stiff arm a man to the ground from the side.
And past his running skills, he’s a well rounded player overall. He smoothly transitions the ball to either hand to keep it away from the defender, which is a rare quality even up to the NFL level, and should do wonders for preventing fumbles. He’s a willing and stalwart pass blocker.
Oh, and he plays receiver sometimes too. Throw him a fade in the endzone and he can box out two defensive backs to win a jump ball.
Combine all that with exceptional patience behind the line of scrimmage and the explosiveness to plant his foot and attack the hole as soon as it appears, and, well, that’s why he’s the best recruit in the class.
Um. He doesn’t have ridiculous breakaway speed and another gear to really pull away from faster defenders.
That’s about it.
Though Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, and Josh Jacobs all return from last season’s rushing effort (all of whom proved more than capable of being a starter), Najee Harris will find a way onto the field. He’s too good not to.
He may not be a major contributor this year due to the depth ahead of him, but I’d expect him to be in national conversations sooner, rather than later.