Last season, Alabama experienced a first, as Tide quarterback Bryce Young became the first UA signal-caller to hoist the Heisman Trophy, the fourth total for ‘Bama.
Impressively, the true sophomore was for all practical purposes playing as a freshman. He made seven appearances in 2021, but threw just 22 passes. Taking the helm of an Alabama offense that lost 89% of its starting production from the prior season, the first-time starter led the Tide to a somewhat-improbable SEC Championship and an appearance in the College Football Playoff Championship.
Along the way, Young garnered more hardware than the Heisman. The Unanimous All-American was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, the AP and Sporting News National Player of the Year, the winner of the Davey O’Brien and Manning Awards (given to the nation’s best quarterback), and he added a Maxwell Award for good measure.
So, with that sterling cv in tow, it seems odd that what stood out in equal measure to his moments of brilliance were Bryce’s growing pains. And, since this is a unit grade, we must also assess the quality of play from the ‘Bama backups.
So, where are these warts?
Let’s start with a mental exercise: If I gave you these stats would you say this person would win the Heisman: 4872 yards (2nd), 66.9% completion percentage (14th), 8.9 YPA (14th), 47 TDs (2nd), 7 INTs (T-92nd), YPG 324.8 (8th), QBR 7th.
Let’s add that this quarterback was just third in the conference in QBR, 11th in interceptions thrown among other league teams, 5th in conference completion percentage, 4th in YPA, and took the most sacks of any quarterback in major college football?
What if I told you this player completed less than 60% of his passes against the zone, one of every six passes under pressure was a 50-50 ball, and that he barely completed a third of all passes beyond 20 yards?
Would that player win your mental Heisman? Probably not, right?
But that’s Bryce Young.
Bryce Young was easily the least accurate starter Alabama has had since Jalen Hurts.
Last season, he completed just 2/3rds of his passes (66.9%) — the lowest for a ‘Bama starter since 2017, when Jalen Hurts completed 61% of his throws. Before that? You have to go back to 2007, when John Parker Wilson was running for his life behind a bad line and an unsteady running game (holy shit, déjà rêvé).
There were many reasons for that stat. Drops by wide receivers were certainly a factor, and especially as the Tide got further into its depth chart. And so what the line. But much of Byrce’s stat line was the product of simple execution errors. Young’s early-season deep ball accuracy was especially a concern, and it took most of a season for that aspect of his game to be wrinkled out. On throws over 20 yards, Young “improved” by year’s end hit 36% of his deep shot. It was so bad early, in fact, that coming out of the LSU game, he had completed just 10 such throws all season.
By contrast, Tagovailoa and Jones hit between 49% — 59% of their deep balls.
Throws Under Duress
When under pressure, his accuracy was worse. That is to be expected, sure. But he was far worse: Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa both flirted with close to 74% accuracy for a career when under pressure. Bryce Young had just a 63.45% adjusted accuracy — with 189 of his total throws being deemed “inaccurate”.
Of those inaccurate throws, 91 were wide receiver drops or miscommunication (and that is by far the highest number since the 2006 Crimson Tide team, and almost double of any Saban team in the last decade). That leaves almost 100 tosses that were off the mark. But, what’s striking about those 100 throws that were solely on him? 16.9% were categorized as “toss ups”.
There is a reason that Young had the most interceptions by a ‘Bama quarterback since Jalen Hurts’ 2016 season, and they were mostly his willingness to fling contested balls into coverage to a wide receiving corps determined to drop them.
Early Season Zone Recognition
The final area of concern was Young’s early season zone recognition, and it led to much hesitancy, where he simply would not get the ball off in time or would read the zone late and throw an easily-contest pass. Throughout much of the season, Bryce’s deep balls were off, but it was that early-year inability to quickly read his keys that was most worrying.
On zone throws for the year, Bryce completed just 59.4% of his throws. Both Tagovailoa and Jones were closer to 77% accuracy.
As with the deep ball, however, there is some reason for optimism here. Just as Young’s deep ball accuracy improved down the stretch, so too did his read-and-recognition on zone plays.
While he was still a split-second slower than we’d like to see, Young went from completing 39% of his zone throws in the first half of the year to completing 72% down the stretch. Even in zone throws against Georgia, where he was under pressure on 83% of his attempts, he was 3 of 7. Not great, no. But given where he started, that offensive line, a backup WR corps, the drops, and that defense he faced, closing in on 50% may have been the most impressive stat of the night.
Clearly, this is an area where reps have only helped. He’s a smart player, but getting to game speed against NFL-style defenses is not a skill that everyone can come off the bench and just perform flawlessly.
Last season, many of us were baffled as to why Sarkisian did not play Young more. Statistically speaking, the 2020 Alabama Crimson Tide were the best football team of all-time, and there were blowouts a’plenty. Bryce should have gotten reps.
The same could not be said for the cardiac 2021 Tide, who were involved in four games decided by a single score, and another three that were still competitive going into the fourth. As a result, Tide backups simply did not see much work. And, of the ones who did, the most seasoned player has now taken his talents elsewhere: Paul Tyson had 16 of Alabama backups 24 attempts. The next man up, Jalen Milroe, has some promise if not the polish, going 3 of 7 for 41 yards and a score. But he is a work in progress, to be sure.
While we all have hope for Milroe’s continued improvement, as well as the impressive talent of incoming freshman Ty Simpson, the plan is very much to keep Bryce upright and alive. Next-man-up has been good to ‘Bama, but this isn’t an area of proven strength for now.
Final Grade: B+
I know it may seem like nitpicking here. And, to many it is unfair to compare Bryce Young to Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa — after all, those two are the two highest rated passers in college football history, and Jones holds the single season QB efficiency record. But the comparison is a fair one.
Bryce Young is the highest rated recruit Alabama has ever signed. Period. The standard is Jones and Tua, whether inevitably so or by his hype: in productivity, in play-making, in bringing home a title. It is a bar that most cannot meet. However, it is also a hype that is only going to grow in his junior season, as he prepares for the NFL Draft and a campaign that could see him positioned to be Alabama’s first ever overall No. 1 pick (assuming that Evan Neal does not take that honor this season, or that Will Anderson Jr. does not do so next year).
So, to be that category of player — NFL starter, Alabama legend, champion, etc. — then there is much room for growth in the quarterback room. I’m not saying anything that Young would not say himself. It is about getting better every day; it is about playing to a standard; about minimizing mistakes, thinking faster, executing better. In short, it is about living up to what Bryce Young can be, not just what he has already accomplished, no matter how decorated that may be.
And in this respect, there is plenty of growth that Young has already shown; just as there is far more growth remaining to be had.
It would be remiss to say that while many of the 2021 errors were on Young, it was also an extraordinary season in terms of injuries to his receiving corps, an unsteady-to-downright-awful offensive line, and a completely revamped offensive coaching staff. It is to be hoped that changes in personnel and coaching, as well as some injury luck, will help Bryce round into the player that he can be. Because I’m equally certain that we’ve yet to see his true ceiling either.
Grade the 2021 Alabama Quarterbacks
This poll is closed
C-ish (I’m a troll)
Lower (I’m a Barner still mad as hell about the Iron Bowl_