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Initial Impressions: Tide proves to be more red than the Wolves

Alabama defeats Arkansas State 57-7

NCAA Football: Arkansas State at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

I apologize for the delay in getting this recap posted. Sometimes life, uh, gets in the way.

Anyway, this was about as good of a game as you could ask for, and if my Twitter sources are correct, it’s the first time since 1925 that Alabama has opened the season with back to back 50 point games. It’s one of those weird stats that someone who isn’t me has time to look up, but a fun little nugget nonetheless.

The story surround everything Alabama the last 9 months has been about the quarterbacks— a topic which I’ve generally tried to avoid just to be a break in the constant media attention and try to look at the other 75 or so contributors to the Alabama squad. So, I’ll get their performances out of the way first.

Tagovailoa, in his first game named the official starter, was just as explosive as we’ve come to expect. 13/19 for 228 yards and 4 touchdowns is some insane production on a limited number of passes (how’s he supposed to win the Heisman if he keeps getting the Tide so far ahead so fast and then getting pulled for the backups??). He wasn’t quite as sharp, accuracy-wise, early in the game as we’ve become accustomed to over the last couple of games— throwing one ball right to the chest of the defender and forcing his receivers to adjust to throws behind them on a few others.

But, when it came down to it, he cleaned up his placement after the first few drives and capped off his night with one of his best passes in Crimson to date when he moved around in the pocket to avoid a missed blitz and then threw a strike to the right side of the endzone that senior Derek Keif hauled in just before the defender closed on him.

The most impressive stat of it all is this one: in his first two games this season, Tua Tagovailoa is 10/10 for 187 yards and 4 touchdowns on third down. That is absolutely nuts.

Switching gears, many rumors started circling around this week that Hurts was going to redshirt the rest of the season unless Tua got hurt. That was likely dispelled today, as he came into the game for most of the second quarter and a good chunk of both the third and fourth quarters. Though nowhere near as explosive as Tua, he showed remarkable efficiency and mechanic improvement, going 7/9 for 93 yards and two touchdowns. His second touchdown throw might have been the best throw of his career so far. In the face of a blitzer coming full speed at him, he uncorked an absolute strike to Jerry Jeudy over a trailing defender in the endzone. He didn’t get happy feet and bail like we saw all last season, but stood tall and trusted his arm to make the throw— and the results were beautiful.

The running backs were stellar all day. Damien Harris took 12 carries for easy 61 yards before sitting the rest of the game for the younger backs. Most impressive was his work as a pass blocker— he picked up more than a couple blitzes in open space and even laid out one defender. He may not have gotten many carries, but this is one of those game films that’ll probably bump up his draft grade by a full round.

Najee Harris was absolutely unstoppable as he juked, trucked, and hurdled his way past every single defender on the team at least 4 times each for 135 yards on only 13 carries. He looked like the #1 overall recruit in the nation a year ago, and is going to be building all kinds of hype going forward if he keeps looking like that. I also noticed him pick up a couple of solid pass blocks as well. An encouraging sign, as Saban hinted that his minimal playing time last year was mostly due to a deficiency in that area.

Josh Jacobs was also impressive. He only totaled 27 yards on 8 touches, but he was a factor in both the passing and running games, and made at least one man miss every time he touched the ball. My favorite thing I saw all game was just how often Mike Locksley used dual HB sets— both shotgun and pistol— with Jacobs and one of the two Harris’s. I’ve been stumping for an offense that uses those formations as staple the last three seasons, and while Brian Daboll hinted at doing it, he ultimately just threw it out once or twice a game.

The sophomore trio of Jerry Jeudy, Devonte Smith, and Henry Ruggs III were absolutely unstoppable. All three can run precise routes, break tackles, catch consistently, and just flat-out outrun every defender. It really isn’t even fair. And freshman Jaylen Waddle is even tougher to tackle than all three of the above, though he may not be quite as consistent with his hands yet.

Derek Keif also seems to have carved out a little bit of a role for himself past just being a backup. He subbed in in the redzone with the starting offense a couple of times, and Tua has now thrown two endzone fade touchdowns to him since the end of last season. It’s nice to see the 5th year senior finally getting a little bit of real playing time and some impressive moments.

At tight end, Irv Smith Jr. is quickly showing that he’s the best receiving weapon at tight end since OJ Howard (and will likely get better stats, since we’re finally actually throwing to the TE’s). He’s not a bad blocker in the run game either, but did get smoked in pass protection. His co-starter, Hale Hentges, hasn’t been targeted in the passing game, but I haven’t noticed him mess up a block either.

The offensive line continues to show a lot of potential, but they haven’t totally jelled yet. Alex Leatherwood in particular missed his fair share of stunts and blitz pick-ups, while Ross Pierschbacher had a few issues holding his ground in the run game. Jonah Williams was excellent as usual, and Jedrick Wills seemed to play pretty well on the right side.

All in all, the offense looked about as perfect as you can ask for, other than a few minor quibbles about blitz pickups by the O-line.

Defensively, there’s still a little work that needs to be done. Nick Saban seems to still be experimenting in the secondary a little. It looks like the base scheme of choice is playing a single-high safety with Deionte Thompson playing deep center field while Xavier McKinney walks up into the box. Saivion Smith seems to have locked up the right side, and Trevon Diggs the left. However, Shyheim Carter may not be as set as the Star starter as I had thought. Soon after the Tide got up a few scores, he subbed out of the game. Diggs moved over to Star to take his place, and freshman Pat Surtain, Jr. came in at left corner.

Then a drive or two later, Carter came back in and replaced McKinney at safety.

So, I think we’re seeing a three way competition right now between McKinney, Carter, and Surtain, Jr. to determine the best two of the three for the chemistry in the secondary. And hey, that kind of competition really just means that the 6th DB is just as good as the others, so there isn’t a weak link in dime coverages.

I’ve been a little underwhelmed by the linebackers. Though I expected the depth to be weak (Loki and the injuries, man), Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses have seemed to have some real struggles with being in position and diagnosing plays. There’s no questioning their talent and athleticism (Moses ran down a receiver from behind last week, then hit the QB at about 50 mph on a blitz tonight), but they definitely have some work to do to clean up both pass coverage and run defense in the middle of the field.

At outside linebacker, Christian Miller has been largely invisible. Anfernee Jennings has done well collapsing pockets and keeping pressure on QBs, but his speed, or lack thereof, is a liability against offenses that stretch the field horizontally.

Along the defensive line, Quinnen Williams continues to be a one-man wrecking ball. You really can’t say enough about how well he’s performed so far. Raekwon Davis has also been tough to block, but hasn’t quite been able to finish on a lot of tackles/sacks. Isaiah Buggs has also played well, and displays great speed, even getting downfield to make tackles after the ball carrier managed to get past the LOS. The trio has been disruptive for sure, but they’ve also struggled a little to maintain their gaps in the running game, and we’ve seen a little more push up the middle from the opponent’s than we’ve become accustomed to seeing from a Nick Saban defensive line.

All that said, the Tide defense still only allowed 7 points, regardless of my nitpicking criticisms. The Red Wolves might have racked up more yards than we’re comfortable with, but the defense ultimately stiffened in the redzone and kept the points down. Plus, it’s easy to forget that this was one of, if not the best passing offense in the nation last year, and one of the most dangerous non-Power 5 teams in the country. Holding them to 7 points was an admirable job for a defense that’s still breaking in nearly 75% new starters.

Finally, special teams....

Austin Jones got benched after missing two more extra points. I don’t know what Tuscaloosa does to kickers, but the once-reliable grad transfer has absolutely melted down since arriving. Freshman Joseph Bulovas then came in and made 100% of his extra points, along with a 39-yard field goal; and you’d have thought he just won the Heisman from the crowd’s reaction. At this point, the bar has been set so low that all Buulovas has to do is be consistent on kicks under 40-yards and the fans will probably absolutely love him.

Punter Skylar DeLong also has been a bit of a disappointment as he didn’t hit a single punt over 40 yards on the day. He’s got exceptional accuracy, especially when trying to pin opponents in their own redzone, but he needs some work with Scott Cochran to build some leg strength.

All said, this was an absolute domination of a solid team that is sure to have the rest of the nation getting nervous already. Alabama’s been by far and away the best team over the last decade, and they’ve done it with a largely ineffective passing offense for much of that time. Suddenly, the best team in the nation also has a QB who’s making the game look easier than Madden on rookie settings and a slew of receivers who look unstoppable. Throw in the standard unrelenting stable of elite running backs and a Nick Saban defense, and, well, let’s just say this just might turn out to be a fun 2018.

Roll Tide!