Ed. Note: This is the third of a four-part What to Watch on A-Day series leading up to the game. Yesterday, we covered Three Questions on Offense and the Freshmen Defensive Line.
Friday at 9:00 a.m. Central, on our sister Roll ‘Bama Roll Podcast: Episode 10, we’ll pick up other areas to watch this weekend, including the inside linebackers, the second team QBs, and safeties. That will be a don’t-miss episode. Roll Tide - E
It seems like more years than not, Spring in Tuscaloosa becomes that proverbial Forrest Gump box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get with the offense.
Last season, following the departure of OC Brian Daboll to the Buffalo Bills, we were very curious what kind of offense Mike Locksley would run. We had some educated guesses based on his work with Illinois. And, we thought it would be a very aggressive vertical scheme given the personnel. He had the nation’s best offense to work with: generational talent at quarterback, dynamic sophomore wideouts, and a deep running back corps where every RB could also contribute to the passing game.
We weren’t let down either. Far from hiding pocket aces, Locks called and went all-in on national television to announce that this would an offense that would air it out downfield.
Saturday, we get to play the same guessing game. It has been a long, long time since Steve Sarkisian has had this much talent on-hand in the college game with as many options at his disposal: a similarly talented offensive group returns; he has reportedly added more RPOs to the mix; and the tempo is variable.
One criticism of Sarkisian that Tide fans carry over from Clemson-’Bama II was not using the running backs. Has Sark found a way to distribute the ball to all his playmakers? It could be that getting snaps for the backups and developing a quarterback depth chart is of far more pressing concern on Saturday. So, let’s see if he shows his hand at all and we can extrapolate to the 2019 season, or if Sark plays it close to the vest.
New Position Coaches Making an Impact
Brent Key’s offensive lines were more physical units than those of now-Oregon coach Mario Cristobal. However, after taking a job as run game coordinator at Georgia Tech, the Tide found itself looking to maintain the technical consistency Key brought to the line. Enter ex-Rutgers coach Kyle Flood. There are three new starters in 2019, and this unit is built to maul more than the Pierschbacher and Williams duo, but we should be able to see what Flood’s pro experience means to the offense.
Coach Holmon Wiggins takes over for the very productive Josh Gattis. It’s hard to argue with Gattis’ results either — it’s not just the numbers the wideouts posted, and they were impressive: five players with 40+ catches, all five with 16+ ypc, all five with 700+ yards receiving, 45 touchdown catches, and the school’s second Biletnikoff trophy. Some was natural talent, true; but even more were the technical skills Gattis coached. Coach Wiggins was very popular at Memphis and Virginia Tech, and he has also produced NFL and all-conference wideouts. Will the precise route-running and separation we saw last year be replicated in 2019 and beyond — particularly with the next crop of young wideouts (Metchie, Williams, etc)?
Coach Charles Huff has developed a Heisman Trophy-winning transcendent talent at running back, and with even less talent at ‘State, mentored a physical ground-first offense. Some of Huff’s most impressive work is in how he integrates backs into the passing game. Keep an eye on the backs’ route-running and blocking this weekend. I suspect we see a modest but notable improvement in execution in the passing game.
On defense, an unsung hero of the Spring has been new Safeties coach Charles Kelly. He has reportedly improved the positioning, reads, and overall skill level of the safeties. Let’s see if there’s an improvement in fundamental play by the guys in centerfield.
Sal Sunseri returns to Tuscaloosa to shepherd a ferocious outside linebacking unit. There is a lot of natural skill within the group, and significant depth, but little proven returning production. Can Sal get the unit back to its historic 2015-2017 production as well as begin to sort out a depth chart?
Coach Baker will have more talent on the defensive line than he has ever seen in his professional career. There are over half a dozen players that can have the impact of Jeffrey Simmons or Montez Sweat. Let’s see how Baker rotates a d-line group that rolls a legitimate ten-deep...and whether Alabama’s linemen can generate the spectacular results Baker produced in Starkville.
It’s Golding’s Defense Now
No more training wheels on Saban’s defense; no more tutoring of Coach Lupoi; no more split responsibilities.
This is emphatically Pete Golding’s defense now.
With a healthier, deeper roster, and with a defense where the proven strength is on the outside, Golding should have the ability to call more aggressive game plans than we saw last year. Should. But, will he? Of equal concern is playing to the group’s strength: 2018 featured a passive defense that did not play particularly well sitting back; it often seemed as though the playcalling worked against the skills of the players. How Golding uses the players’ strengths to improve the defense may be more important than simply scheming by the book.