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Jumbo Package: The Tide handled college football’s new Week 5 “free agency” perfectly

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And that leadership begins at the top

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<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">Texas A&amp;M v Alabama

Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Is there any more interesting corporate relationship in college football than the symbiosis between Alabama and ESPN? Alabama has been the absolute beneficiary of ESPN’s desire to drive ratings, while also manufacturing its own visibility by both being excellent and by having the most media-friendly (and savvy) program in collegiate athletics.

Inside the fascinating relationship between ESPN and Alabama | AL.com

“There is a want for Alabama,” said Lee Fitting, ESPN vice president of production. “There is an intrigue about Alabama. People like success. People like seeing really good teams lose. And people like learning about really good teams. When a team rates, it’s like, ‘Why not do more? Why not try to put more of their games in high-profile spots? Why not try to do access-type series and feature stories and interviews on that?’ The viewers want it. We should be doing more of it.”

Didn’t realize it was almost basketball season, did you? Oh, but it is.

Alabama fans are rightly depressed about the loss of Young Bull and his exile to LeBron-less Cleveland. And, a critical injury to Diante Wood has already started the Tide in a hole. Still, there is plenty of returning firepower on the roster (five-star Tevin Mack, Donta Hall), as well as incoming five-star Kira Lewis.

First look at 5-star recruit Kira Lewis’ at Alabama practice | AL.com

Speaking after practice, Alabama coach Avery Johnson said they weren’t going to rush the point guard while noting he won’t turn 18 until next season. But he has the talent.
Sophomore John Petty said he has speed similar to Sexton, a lottery pick who is now a rookie with the Cleveland Cavs.

And it’s time for the talented sophomores, John Petty and Herbert Jones, to take the next step.

Alabama expecting big things from Herbert Jones, John Petty

“They need to take that next step and level and grow,” fourth-year head coach Avery Johnson said. “They’ve got to get in better shape, better conditioning.
“Herb, obviously, can take another step offensively shooting the ball, being that playmaker. He’s one of the best defenders in the country. I think he’ll be All-SEC Defensive Team. And Petty, got to continue to improve shot selection, taking care of the ball on offense, but at the same time, being very competitive on the defensive end.

Here’s Coach Johnson’s first post-practice media appearance

Even with the loss of Colin Sexton, this could be a better overall team than Alabama’s 2017-18 squad, which saw the Tide return to the NCAA tournament. I’m not going to preview the season or the roster, and cut in on everyone else’s preferred workload, but be aware that it is almost time to start polishing off your squeaky hoops Gump and #BuckleUp.

Nick Saban is very pleased with Alabama’s pass rush so far. We were pretty high on the defensive line going into 2018, but I don’t think anyone expected Quinnen Williams to morph into an unblockable beast and make everyone around him so much better — notwithstanding the numbers, Raekwon Davis is terrorizing people. And Isaiah Buggs is making bank with each passing week. Undoubtedly, their emergence has made the renewed secondary a much better unit:

Judging Alabama pass rush with Nick Saban’s standards | AL.com

-- On the pass rush production: “There’s an element of coverage that I think is very important in that, too. Sometimes when you cover people well, it’s a better opportunity to get pressure on the quarterback. And sometimes when you get good pressure on the quarterback, it covers up some flaws you have in the coverage. All these things go hand in hand. But if we’re going to be good, I think we’ve got to be able to do both well.”

An improbable star of the A&M game, and possessor of glorious hair, Alabama tight end Hale Hentges was named as the Tide’s 6th semifinalist for the CLASS award since 2012:

Alabama’s Hale Hentges Named a Senior CLASS Award Semifinalist - Alabama Athletics

An acronym for Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School, the Senior CLASS Award focuses on the total student-athlete and encourages students to use their platform in athletics to make a positive impact as leaders in their communities.
Hentges joins former Crimson Tide stars Barrett Jones (2012), AJ McCarron, (2013), Reggie Ragland (2015), O.J. Howard (2016) and JK Scott (2017) as the sixth UA player to be named a semifinalist under head coach Nick Saban.

One area that has underproduced has been the offensive line. In many respects it has been downright disappointing. PFF has diagnosed the issue and it begins with Alex Leatherwood’s struggles. While not singling him out, needless to say, Nick Saban has noticed:

Former 5-star recruit trying to find his way in new role for Alabama | AL.com

Through four games, Leatherwood has earned the lowest grade at run blocking among the Tide’s starting offensive linemen, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

Alabama has particularly produced disappointing results running through the B and C gaps on the right side, with its ball carriers averaging three yards before contact -- almost a third of a yard less than it has netted through the same holes left of center. This is not doomsday-level stuff, of course. But the state of the ground game has been called into question after Alabama managed to net 109 rushing yards on 28 carries in a 45-23 victory over Texas A&M last Saturday.

”We struggled to run the ball effectively with any consistency,” Saban said afterwards. “That’s something we need to work on.”

That, of course, has meant the Alabama passing game is the dynamic unit on the field — and Locksley’s playcalling has been mostly top-shelf:

Nick Saban dishes on Alabama passing game, redshirt rule, Mike Locksley | AL.com

Saban thinks Mike Locksley is doing a “good job” as offensive coordinator. “I think he’s a good play-caller. He does a good job of organizing things for the offensive staff. I think we really have a good offensive staff, and I think all those guys work well together and they do a good job. His leadership has probably contributed to that in a very positive way. We’ve been productive. I think we have things that he’d be the first to tell you that we’d like to do better on offense and we’re going to continue to try to improve in those areas.”

One downside of the Tide’s media relationship and Alabama’s high profile nature as college football’s overlord has been tempering the expectations of players and getting them to continuing to improve. When blue stars realize they’re beginning all over again as scrubs and have to claw and fight for playing time, it’s an incredible balancing act to not destroy their confidence while also getting them to buy-in.

What Nick Saban said in final press conference of UL-L week

“It’s almost unfair in a way. I know that seems probably unreasonable for me to say, but a lot of these guys get a lot of positive self-gratification from the attention that they get, and that’s great. But when it sets an expectation and a standard for what they think they ought to be able to accomplish and how soon they should be able to do that and they lose the focus on ‘What do I have to do to be a good player rather than be frustrated that I’m not playing?’ Because those things don’t work in a very positive way for someone.

”And I think when you have tremendously high expectations for when you come in and you’re not focused on what you need to do to be a good player, learn your position so you can be a complete player at your position, then you struggle and you have issues and you get frustrated because you feel like you’re not meeting the standard and the expectation that somebody else created for you. It takes a lot of maturity for guys to do that.

That has to be difficult. Most of these players are among the Top 150 or so athletes in the country when they sign; most are in the Top 5 at their position, if not the best. To go from constant praise for a decade to then being busted down to a buck sergeant, so to speak, requires a lot of ego management and an impressive arsenal of coaching tactics to rebuild them under The Process.

#GumpToAStandard

There are a whole lot of takes floating around that go something like this: Kelly Bryant struggled against Alabama and Tua Tagovailoa is awesome; perforce to win the playoffs, Clemson needs to start Trevor Lawrence, even if it means jettisoning Kelly Bryant.

Could Kelly Bryant’s Transfer Change Clemson Chances Against Bama

With the new redshirt rule allowing players four games before they decide to redshirt for the season has finally made headlines with Clemson’s quarterback Kelly Bryant deciding he will sit out the remainder of his senior season and transfer. Bryant led the Tigers to the College Football Playoffs last season before losing to the Alabama Crimson Tide. How does his transfer change Clemson chances in the playoffs and can they still compete with the Crimson Tide if they make it to the final four teams at the end of the season?

Clemson quarterback change Alabama influence

[Despite Swinney’s statements to the contrary...] To counter what Alabama now has at quarterback, it does not make much sense for Clemson to stick with Bryant in the long term. Even if we forget what happened in their semifinal matchup in the Sugar Bowl a year ago (124 yards passing, 19 yards rushing, two interceptions), Bryant does not have the arm Lawrence has, and therefore his ability to open up the passing game is more limited.

I mean, it’s not the worst analysis, but it seems superficial. First, Bryant’s limitations as a passer were clear last season before the Tigers even faced Alabama, notably in a road loss to Syracuse. Second, it glosses over the fact that Lawrence was outstanding against a very bad Georgia Tech secondary, but that he has been really wobbly at other times. Without Bryant moving the ball effectively down the stretch in College Station, A&M wins that game. Despite throwing a perfect ball on his first snap, Lawrence looked overwhelmed by the moment.

And, Clemson’s weaknesses run deeper than at quarterback in any event. As Josh noted to me over text the other day, the Tigers last few classes have signed four cornerbacks in total, an inexcusably miserly number in the pass-first era. And the ones they start haven’t played to the standard that reflects their star-value — ignoring the raw yards surrendered, where Clemson’s pass defense is 8th, the Tigers rank a miserable 108th in QBR: teams can move the ball on them. The offense is a big-play machine, but that shows up in its inability to manufacture drives, and you can lay that at the feet of a 5’10” scatback as the primary ball carrier. Even with a schedule that has Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern, Aggie and Furman, the Tigers are just 28th in scoring. And on and on.

So, no, Bryant isn’t the reason the Tigers won’t win the CFP National Championship this year. Trevor Lawrence starting doesn’t make that more likely. And, even absent Alabama from that field, there are several easily defensible reasons to think they wouldn’t either. It’s the right decision, of course. If the future is now, there’s little sense in delaying the inevitable and wasting the NFL defensive line talent. But, this seems much more a move for 2019 and beyond. I distrust Dabo’s proclamations, but in this case, when he says it’s not about Alabama, it’s probably really not about Alabama.

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">Arkansas State v Alabama

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Given the way that KB/TL was handled, with Bryant forgoing a redshirt and leaving the team immediately — and dropping some harsh words for Clemson on his way out the door, we should all be very grateful for the way that Nick Saban, Tua Tagovailoa, and Jalen Hurts have handled the situation in our own back yard.

After Clemson’s Kelly Bryant transfer news, SEC coaches asked about redshirt rule | AL.com

That doesn’t mean that he’s a happy about how the rule has operated so far; to contrary, chalk him up as an opponent based on the unintended consequences.

And, for his part, Jalen Hurts has handled this just as well. Saban commended his professionalism yesterday with a whole lot of empathy for the Junior:

Saban admires Jalen Hurts’ professional approach to QB situation

“I think Jalen has been very, very professional about the way he’s handled the situation he’s in,” Saban said. “I’ve said it’s a unique situation. Nobody’s ever been in this situation before -- won 26 games here and now all of the sudden, somebody else is playing. But what he has done is he’s worked every day to try to get better. He’s focusing on improving and the value that he can get from this season because we’re going to play him as much as we possibly can.

“He deserves to play. He’s a good player. And there may be a time in the future where he becomes the guy if something happens. So, we’re not hoping for that narrative, certainly, but I think it speaks volumes of his character to stick with his teammates, be a part of this team, finish the season. And I’ve always said how much respect I have for both the guys. But Jalen has -- and how you handle things when you’re in a difficult situation, I think, speaks volumes of who you are.

Alabama coach Nick Saban wary of new redshirt transfer rule: ‘It’s a pretty slippery slope’ - CBSSports.com

Saban appears to think that players shouldn’t be able to just up and leave.

”It’s a little bit of a slippery slope when players start to decide whether they’re going to play or not,” he said. “I’m not saying there aren’t some circumstances out there where it’s not beneficial to the player to save a year so that he could play in another circumstance. But those things should probably be mutually agreed upon.

”But it is what it is. I think the intent of the rule was to help the development of young players. This is sort of an unintended consequence probably of the rule which in some cases might help a player.”

It has helped that Hurts and Tua are tight, and that Tagovailoa’s family has been all class throughout this as well...despite some understandable frustration by all parties.

Most of Coach Saban’s SEC presser yesterday was straighforward coachspeak. There was something a bit disconcerting buried in there however:

Nick Saban talks up Jalen Hurts and Alabama’s ESPN relationship | AL.com

Saban said the vast majority of players are committed to getting better. A select group, however, isn’t.

It was a point he expanded on in his typically focused, but stream-of-consciousness, style:

Alabama Coach Nick Saban May Be Seeing Progress

Saban recalled he “talked about identifying some of the things that we need to do to improve, and everybody sort of identifying what they need to do to improve individually, collectively as units, each group as well as each unit – what we need to do to try to improve (as a team).

“I think the question every day that you can ask yourself as a player is ‘Did I get better today?’ ‘Did I have the focus, the mental energy?’ ‘Did I finish plays?’ ‘Did I do things the way I was supposed to do them so that it gives me the opportunity to get better?’”

Okay, so four or five questions, but his point was made.

Might this explain the shuffling we’ve seen in the defensive backfield with some of veterans (like Jared Mayden) falling completely off the map? Is this part of Ben Davis’ problem getting on the field? Or, is this really a function of having such a young team?

What’re your thoughts?