A closer look at the ground game shows how Alabama patched the hole left by Najee Harris after two years as the primary option in the backfield.
First, the stats through three quarters paint a more accurate portrait of the performance. Alabama ran it on 16 of the 21 plays in the final period when it was clear the plan was to drain the clock on the ground. Those 16 carries netted just 17 yards for an average of 1.1 yards a pop as Alabama controlled possession for 13:07 of the final 15.
In the three previous quarters, the 22 carries averaged 5.9 yards a carry for 130 yards.
Brian Robinson was clearly the No. 1 but Jase McClellan saw action as early as the second possession. Robinson’s 12 carries and 60 yards were both team highs as McClellan’s nine attempts were next with 36 yards.
While Roydell Williams was the third back to enter, Trey Sanders’ 41 yards and eight carries were the Tide’s second-highest yield. Sanders also scored the only rushing touchdown on that lone 20-yard carry midway through the third quarter.
Alabama’s run game looked eerily similar to the start of 2019, when Najee Harris was getting his first shot to be the lead back after splitting time with Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs in 2017 and 2018. While the Tide got respectable yards out of it, none of the backs really flashed. I think a lot of that was more on the OL, and should improve as they get more practice together.
Williams arrived on Alabama’s campus earlier this summer, and he quickly impressed when he stepped on the practice field. When the Tide released its official depth chart ahead of the 2021 season, the Ohio State transfer was listed as Alabama’s starting Z wide receiver. In just a few, short months, Williams went from newcomer to a featured guy in the passing game.
“I would say it happened fast. It didn’t take a lot of time,” Williams said. “When you’re trying to do certain things, you get going with things. I feel like me and the guys fit in well. We became brothers quick. The first day I got here, we all linked up. Everybody showed me love, and everybody showed me love when they saw I committed to Bama on Instagram.
“Everything was pretty much simple. We just had to go to work.”
Returning starter John Metchie added, “Pretty quickly from when he got here and he kind of attacked it that way. And he’s kind of shown it and showed it to everybody the other day.”
You always wonder if a transfer coming in will mesh with the more established players. There’s often bound to be some animosity if the wrong personality comes in and takes some playing time.
By all accounts, though, Jameson Williams has quickly become one of the group and not an outsider. It’s a big reflection on his character, as well as the overall character of Alabama’s program.
Just a year ago, he was playing for Alabama’s rival and now he’s calling plays. It was a matter of building trust, he said.
“When you come in as a new transfer, it’s kind of a different thing,” To’o To’o said. “You’re not a freshman, but you’re kind of an upperclassman. But I took it the way — tried to get to know the guys, tried to build relationships with the guys because that’s the biggest thing. You come in here with a group, a team that’s been together and you’re the new guy, so I didn’t really come in with the mindset to be the defensive caller, to be the signal-caller.”
Similarly, Henry To’o To’o had a tough sell of coming in to unseat a 4th year veteran who’s been the “next man up” for years in Jaylen Moody. Again, he seems to have meshed with the team extremely well, and was absolutely stellar in the opener. Of course, Moody was also great when To’o To’o went out with injury. That kind of depth is a great problem to have.
With Chris Allen now out for the season, might we see occasional packages with Christian Harris moving to outside linebacker and To’o To’o and Moody manning the middle?
“It benefited me a lot,” said Branch in the first media availability of his Alabama career. “It allowed me to really know the scheme of the defense, really able to practice my technique and everything that I need to know, and fall camp has allowed me to play in a lot of positions. So I think that helped me a lot and seeing where everything needs to be.”
This past Saturday, Branch lined up at the Star position in the season opener against Miami with Jordan Battle and Malachi Moore manning the safety spots. He recorded five tackles, one tackle for loss and one pass breakup in the Crimson Tide’s 44-13 victory over the Hurricanes.
DeMarcco Hellams, who has been dealing with a sprained ankle, will soon return to the lineup, but Branch still figures to be a big part of Alabama’s secondary for the 2021 football season.
“We love Brian Branch, man,” Battle said. “He’s very versatile. He’s played the Star position, the cornerback position and the safety position. He has a great future ahead at ‘Bama, and he’s gonna continue to do great things. And I love his effort and everything he does.”
Branch is one of those guys that I’ve been super excited about ever since he first committed, and I spent all of 2020 wanting him to get more playing time.
With Hellams out last week, Malachi Moore moved to safety and Branch played Star full time. He blew up back-to-back screen passes at one point, which was an absolute joy to watch.
I remember watching his high school highlights and thinking he’d make a tremendous deep safety. I wonder how it would go if he played deep and Moore came back up to the line of scrimmage to play Star?
1. Evan Neal, OT, Alabama
But protecting the blindside of a quarterback making his first collegiate start against one of the better front 7s in college football is, you know, important, and Neal made sure Young wasn’t bothered Saturday afternoon. Pressures on Neal’s side? Zero. Rushing success rate on Neal’s side? 75%. These are the types of numbers that give Neal a chance to be the first SEC player drafted next spring — and why he tops the list of best players in the SEC as the league enters Week 2.
While I appreciate SDS having an Alabama player as the top player in the SEC, I have a few bones to pick here.
First, I love Evan Neal, and I think he could very well be a top-5 NFL pick in less than a year. However, he absolutely gave up at least one pressure on Saturday that I noticed.
Second, how are you gonna have a list like this and not include Will Anderson, who’s quite possibly the best player on Alabama’s team?
After the 2018 season, Hurts transferred from Alabama to Oklahoma.
“When I left Alabama, I wanted to leave the right way,” Hurts said during a Tuesday appearance on “The Dan Patrick Show.” “I wanted to get my degree. I wanted to graduate. I thought that was very important for me. I got that. And honestly, coach Saban, we talked, and he wasn’t the reason why I made the decision I made, but the fact that he was honest and gave me a helping hand with the process and stuff like that, he wanted to see me succeed and shine, and he encouraged me to go to the school with the best players, and that was Oklahoma. Considering what they had done with quarterbacks before me – Baker (Mayfield) and Kyler (Murray) – it all worked out the way it was supposed to.”
Keep doing us proud, Jalen. Oklahoma might have gotten a half-year rental, but you’ll always be one of our own. Now go out there and throw it to Smitty for 1500 yards this season.