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Hope For the Best: Fresno State

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In this case, hope for the best simply means reps for the young players and no more injuries…

Fresno State v UNLV
Fresno State QB Chason Virgil will try to generate some offense against a steely Alabama defense.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When top-ranked Alabama opened the season last weekend against then-number three Florida State, everyone expected a rough-and-tumble, throwback football affair. After all, both coaches are known for instituting a physical, hard-hitting mindset amongst their players, and both teams are stocked with top-flight talent.

While Alabama went on to win the game handily after pulling away in the second half, there was a rather unexpected, wholly unwelcome outcome that settled upon the Crimson Tide fanbase afterwards. Instead of the jubilation that generally follows such a win, there were questions. There were critical injuries to key players. The offense that everyone thought would be dramatically improved over last year’s edition struggled to gain consistent momentum against a game Nole defense. How often does a two-touchdown win feel, in some small way, like a defeat?

Though Alabama won the scoreboard, both teams lost in regard to their rosters. Florida State’s clear starter at quarterback, Deondre Francois, was lost for the season after a tackle by Tallahassee native and Tide safety Ronnie Harrison. While that loss will change the course of the highly-touted Seminoles’ season, Alabama’s losses may have been even more painful. The Tide announced Monday that starting Jack linebacker Christian Miller, expected to have a break-out year as the Tide’s premier pass rush specialist, would miss the remainder of the season with a bicep tear. Likewise, his back-up Terrell Lewis was proclaimed a loss for the season with a ligament issue in his elbow that required surgery. The Tide also lost its starting Sam linebacker in Anfernee Jennings. Though the duration of his recovery is unknown, what is known is that the ferocious ‘backer tweeted earlier this week that he had undergone surgery for an unspecified injury, and that the road to recovery was beginning. Finally, the Tide’s versatile star linebacker Rashaan Evans will miss an undisclosed amount of time with a groin pull.

The strength of the Tide’s defense, its linebacking corps, will now depend largely on a patchwork of young players who, though talented, are untested. Shaun Dion Hamilton, himself only just returning from a season ending injury in 2016, looked like an All-American against Florida State. With a web of bit players and youngsters stepping forward to replace the wounded from the first contest, Alabama will need Hamilton to continue that effort in the weeks to come while the players around him grow into their roles and gel.

While Saban stresses that no opponent can be underestimated, Fresno State will present Alabama with the closest thing to such a sure win that they’ll see in the early part of the season. After opening against a snarling beast from the east, Bama will face something less from the west in the Bulldog squad coming off a season in which they logged a single victory. The Bulldogs were largely inept offensively, and their defense was only marginally better. Defensively, they are worst at what the Tide does best, as Alabama is expected to run roughshod over and through a Bulldog rush defense that simply can’t do much to resist.

The outcome of this game is not in question. Nevertheless, there are many questions that need answering, and fast. Will Alabama show the supposed improvement in the passing game that many crowed about in the offseason? It wasn’t necessarily evident to the casual observer against FSU’s star-studded secondary. Can the Tide’s offensive line maintain the right balance between protecting the passer and grading a way for Bama’s elite stable of backs? Again, Florida State’s front seven is excellent, but the Crimson Tide struggled to gain momentum on the ground in the opener, and pass rushers were free in the backfield far too often. Maybe most importantly, can the Tide find a new corps of leaders to shoulder the responsibility of additional playing time at linebacker? The up-and-comers are talented without doubt, but can they play at the high level demanded by their coach with consistency?

These questions and more await…let’s take a closer look.

The Alabama offense against the Fresno State defense

This match-up, in general, is a huge mismatch. While it’s hard to imagine, it may even be more of a mismatch than the Bama defense, already in mid-season form, against Fresno’s anemic offense. Alabama’s skill position talent is the cream of the crop nationally. Fresno State’s defense, on the other hand, is stocked with players who would likely have a hard time cracking the two-deep at an SEC school.

Regarding specifics, the picture is even more bleak for the Bulldog defense, which ranked in the bottom third of most major defensive categories last season. Little has changed, as the team graduated its two leading tacklers, and has a secondary that replaces three out of four starters from the previous season. Up front, the Bulldogs have size and some experience at the tackle position with senior Malik Forrester (6-1, 295 pounds) and Nathan Madsen (6-4, 300 pounds), but they are extremely light by Power-5 standards on the edges, with two sub-250-pound ends in seniors Robert Stanley (6-3, 250 pounds) and Tobenna Okeke (6-3, 245 pounds).

Arguably their best defensive player, junior Sam linebacker James Bailey (6-1, 225 pounds) is a hitter to be sure, but he’s not accustomed to taking on running backs who outweigh him (as Bama’s Bo Scarbrough, at 235 pounds, does). The other linebackers, sophomore Mike LB Jeffrey Allison ((6-0, 250 pounds) and senior Sam LB Justin Green (6-4, 210 pounds) are former reserves who have earned starting roles this season. There’s no doubt they’ve never faced the likes of the Bama backs and blockers.

This will provide a good exercise for an Alabama running game that was staccato at best against a game FSU defense last week. Since the outcome of this game is likely known prior to kickoff, OC Brian Daboll can allow his line to focus on building cohesiveness while getting some of the younger backs reps against a live-fire opponent. Alabama’s won’t show any tricks against the Bulldogs. They’ll simply line up, bang away, fine-tune blocking schemes, and help the line build themselves into a unit that can dominate defensive lines in both phases of the offensive game.

Alabama made a few mistakes against the Noles’ elite pass rush last week, though few of them cost the Tide dearly. Too many times, there were speedy, fleet-footed ends running free towards Hurts, forcing him from the pocket and creating the seeming anxiety that stunted the Tide passing attack towards the end of last season. If Hurts is going to be expected to command the pocket, and that’s something many hope he will grow into this season, he’s going to need for that pocket to remain somewhat intact. It’s not fair to ask him to take a sack, or criticize him for flushing out of the pocket when the heat is on…that’s exactly why he is the starter. He should extend plays when the line loses its footing. It’s now on the offensive line to figure out what needs to happen to keep that protective bubble around their still-young quarterback, so that he can develop the pocket awareness and decrease in the speed of the game that will allow him to thrive.

While Alabama has work to do in the passing game from a blocking standpoint, Hurts will need to continue to grow into his role as well. After the end of last season, the game against FSU showed marked improvement in a few areas. No, Hurts is not running through his check downs on every play. He’s still locking on his primary receiver a little too often. He did flush the pocket a little prematurely at times (and who could blame him with the leakage up front that forced him to flee a little more than the coaching staff would have hoped.) But he did a lot more things right than he did at the end of last season. He is growing. He is rolling to buy time, and looking downfield instead of darting at the first sign of a free rusher. He actually looked a corner off once or twice last week. Anyone who expected Hurts to become Drew Brees or Andrew Luck over the last six months may need to check his or her expectations.

The offensive line will have a great chance to make progress this week, and as they do, the same rate of progress should be expected from Hurts. The inconsistent play up front does impact Hurts’ play, but as it improves, so should his performances. That should be evident this week against Fresno’s pass defense, as they are extremely young and outclassed by Bama’s talent. Even if they were seasoned, they’d have a hard time keeping up with the likes of Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs. That’s too much sugar for a dime to expect from a young, limited Fresno D, and Alabama should see strides made in the air.

Of even greater concern for the Tide offense was the inability of the O line at times to create movement up front against Florida State’s D. Again, the Noles have an excellent defense with elite talent operating out of a tricky scheme. But the Tide will face other top defenses later in the season, and for Alabama’s offense, everything is built off the run. Alabama’s struggled a little too much up front to create a consistent level of performance, and that’s something Saban expects out of his men. The O line must find a way to become dominant up front. The talent is there, to be sure. This unit has been together since the spring for the first time in several years. Last week’s inconsistent performance in run blocking may have merely been a function of FSU’s ability. This week, Alabama should absolutely blow the light Fresno line off the ball and open lanes a tanker could drive through. If that happens, it’s a good indicator that the running game is on the right track. If not, that would be cause for great concern against a running defense that ranked 123rd out of 128 teams last season, allowing an average of over 200 yards per game on the ground.

All that said, don’t expect to see any of the starting units finish the game this week, as the chasm between the programs is great and the score will get out of hand. Scarbrough and Damien Harris may get a few carries to stay sharp, but the oft-dinged duo shouldn’t play in the second half. Najee Harris should see some time, with possible appearances from Brian Robinson as well. At receiver, Ridley and Foster likely won’t play a ton, but the newcomers Jeudy and Ruggs may put on a fireworks show with Tua Tagovailoa. Even along the line, this game should give the Tide a chance to flex its depth muscles and get some reps for players who won’t see the field often this season.

It’s easy to conceive that Alabama will score enough to cover the spread, even though Saban doesn’t run up the score on anybody. Even with the reserves in place, the Fresno D is so limited in depth that it’s difficult to imagine that after a half of dealing with Bama’s star-studded offense, they will have much left in the tank. It could get ugly, even if Saban stays his hand. Expect to see a lot of Bama’s depth, and a lot of points scored while the Tide offense polished off the burrs of the opening week offensive performance.

The Alabama defense versus the Fresno State offense

This is another mismatch, as despite head coach Jeff Tedford’s reputation as a quarterback guru, the offense from the San Joaquin Valley has not yet come far enough to do battle with the likes of the Alabama defense. Alabama’s defense, though wounded after last week’s rash of injuries, is still a formidable enemy for any offense to combat, especially given the relative ineptitude of the Bulldogs on that side of the ball (they ranked 121st in total offense and 120th in rush offense a year ago.)

Is there reason to believe things will be better for the Bulldogs against Alabama’s defense this weekend. The answer is a resounding no. Even if Fresno has improved, it won’t be evident against a ferocious Alabama defense with an arsenal of deadly weapons with which to dispatch its opponents. Alabama can stop the run. They can kill spread offenses. The secondary is loaded and angry after the way last season ended. Fresno is merely one of any other roughly 100 teams that would have trouble crossing the 50 against the Alabama defense.

But try, they must, no matter how futile the cause. Tedford is known for being an offensive specialist, though the numbers don’t yet illustrate his acumen. His roster will see some growing pains this year, with new faces in a lot of key positions. Fortunately for him, however, he does return redshirt sophomore QB Chason Virgil (6-1, 190 pounds), though it may not matter too terribly much against the Tide’s defense. Alabama made FSU’s Francois look like a JV quarterback in the second half of the opener, with lockdown play in the secondary and exotic pressures from every conceivable angle that would be enough to rattle any college signal-caller’s cage.

The Bulldog offense is not tiny, as one may imagine from a program squarely outside of the Power-5 tier. For example, the Bulldogs’ top receiving threat, junior Keesean Johnson, is 6-2 and 202 pounds. Fellow receiver Da’Mari Scott comes in at 6-1, 212-pound. Those are big guys on the edges, and they will offer the Bama secondary some quality work…that is if the Fresno O line can keep Virgil upright long enough to get a pass loose. That will be the challenge. The Bulldog offensive line is made up of good-sized men (the average weight along the five O linemen is 313 pounds, which is pretty solid for a school like Fresno. They may have good size, but they are largely inexperienced, with only a single returning starter on the O line. Will they be able to parlay that size into an impenetrable pocket against the likes of Alabama’s pass rush? Not likely.

That said, Alabama will need some pass rushers to step up this week in the wake of the injuries to Miller, Jennings, and Lewis. It could be argued that that trio represents the best pass rushing threats the Tide would field this year, and now all three of them are unavailable. Add Evans to that list, as though he had moved inside this season, remained a weapon on the edge in certain personnel packages. The need for development of talent will be a season-long theme, however, as new players will need to step into the fray, garner meaningful experience, and parlay their potential in practical effort at the OLB positions.

Chances are, thanks to great versatility at the linebacker position and regular cross-training across the platoon, Alabama will be fine despite the injuries. One never wants to lose players of the caliber of the ones the Tide lost, but if it had to happen to any unit, linebacker is probably where the pain is most mitigated. Hamilton looked better and more explosive than before his injury, as he was dominant against Florida State. Alongside him on the inside, expect to see some rotating combination of Keith Holcombe, Mack Wilson, and Dylan Moses to provide depth at ILB. That said, any of these players could also see impromptu tryouts at OLB against Fresno State, just so the coaching staff can get an idea of who has a natural penchant for rushing the passer around end.

There is also a diversity of talent wealth already accustomed to the Jack and Sam positions, and Bama will lean on those guys and get them quality reps that can only make for a stronger unit eventually. Mekhi Brown, Jamey Mosley, and Ben Davis, can all hold down the fort outside, and freshmen Chris Allen and Vandarius Cowan are sure to get looks as well as the staff examines each combination and what it brings to the table. Finally, rumor has it that five-star freshman defensive lineman Labryan Ray has seen time working with the outside linebackers this week, and though his 290-pound frame is much larger than the typical Jack ‘backer, he could become an option there as well.

Even with the rebuilt linebacking rotation, don’t expect Alabama to struggle against the run. Between Da’Ron Payne and the rest of the defensive line, and a freakishly athletic assortment of linebackers, Fresno State has little to no chance of gaining more yards on the ground than Florida State. Also, their starting running back is true freshman Ronnie Rivers, who comes into the game at 5-8, 165 pounds. His back-up, Dejonte O’Neal, is 5-7, 170 pounds. Converted linebacker Josh Hokit has more size at 6-1, 220 pounds, but with a struggling line, the chances of any of those backs making hay against Bama are infinitesimally low.

Passing will also be fraught with peril for the ailing Bulldog offense. The Tide secondary is legit, whether Trevon Diggs or Levi Wallace gets the start at the corner opposite Anthony Averett. Diggs had growing pains against FSU’s lengthy receivers in the first half of the opener, but Wallace’s veteran leadership allowed him to steady the ship and provide an excellent complement to Averett’s top-shelf play on the other side. Diggs has the talent, and will develop in time. But it’s good to know that Wallace can be counted on to perform at a high level, as he did against the Noles in the second half.

The safeties are the best in the nation, clearly. There’s not even a reasonable argument to be made to the contrary. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Harrison proved why they will likely be first round picks in next year’s NFL Draft, and Jones likely won’t make it past the fourth round himself. With Jones likely to be out with a minor injury this week, Deionte Thompson may get the most meaningful playing time of his career at Alabama.

Even without Jones on the field, throwing into the teeth of the Tide secondary is a fool’s errand. It’s particularly lethal when that secondary play is coupled with what will be a ton of exotic blitz looks and unconventional pressure vectors from five-star athletes. Florida State, which had a much more talented roster than this week’s FSU (Fresno), couldn’t solve the Tide defensive puzzle, even after the aforementioned injuries. There’s no chance that Fresno will be able to do better. It will be a wonder if they cross over midfield at all.

Special Teams

Alabama’s special teams are a hot and cold affair these days. The place-kicking game is largely a dumpster fire. The unit, comprised of Andy Pappanastos on short kicks and J.K. Scott on longer ones, went 3-for-5, with a pair of ugly misses against FSU. It’s frustrating to watch, quite honestly, especially when the punting game is on lock (with Scott’s lone shank aside). Scott continues to be the most lethal punter in the nation, and he flipped the field and allowed Bama to play its patented Anacondaball. He pinned the Noles’ above-average return game twice inside the 10, and that is a beautiful thing for aficionados of Saban’s brand of field generaliship.

The balance of special teams play was nothing short of fantastic. Quite honestly, the Tide special teamers completely changed the complexion of last Saturday’s game: they blocked kicks, they caused fumbles, they generated turnovers. It was a thing of beauty, and without those big plays, the game could have taken a very different course. It was a testament to the importance of attention to detail on special teams, and fortunately, Alabama is on the right side of that equation.

Fresno doesn’t have much to report in terms of special teams. Senior Jimmy Camacho is the starting place-kicker, but he is a first-time starter apparently, with no stats the previous year. Sophomore Blake Kusick handles punting duties, and he had a pedestrian 38.3-yard average a year ago. Kicks are returned by WR De’Mari Scott, while punts are handled by running back Dejonte O’Neal (5-7, 170 pounds).

The outcome on the scoreboard is a foregone conclusion in this one, as the Tide should have little issue trouncing the hapless Bulldogs. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t intrigue, as Tide fans will get their first glimpse at the adjustments the coaching staff has made in the wake of what was certainly the most important game of the early season.

Alabama must find a solid rotation of situational players at outside linebacker, and the game against Fresno State marks the first waypoint on that journey. The Tide has talent to spare, and it’s just a matter of gaining confidence and learning the new roles for players who are highly-acclaimed and immensely talented.

Likewise, the Tide will need its running game to head into the conference schedule banging on all cylinders, and this week’s game provides a perfect opportunity to work out the kinks and make sure that all parties - coordinator, line, quarterback, and ball carriers - are on the same page moving forward. It’s not that they were lacking against Florida State, but many would agree it could have been smoother and more fluid. In other words, the Tide running game is still a Ferrari… the bearings just need a little grease. That will likely remedy itself with experience, and again, that path begins this Saturday.

Finally, the Tide can ill-afford further injuries on defense. It is critical that Alabama maintains the healthy roster it has now while maintaining the effective aggressiveness that is the fuel in the Tide’s engine. If Alabama can hold the rope while younger players grow into their new roles, then the team, top to bottom, will ultimately be the better for it.

Three goals: work on polishing the offensive performance that was good enough to beat the third-ranked team in the country, get plenty of reps for the younger and inexperienced players, and emerge without any further injuries. Hope for the best…