The 2021 Alabama Crimson Tide featured perhaps as many high profile flops on the sidelines as any of the Saban era. And they were legion; take your pick of:
- Doug Marrone’s historic failures with the offensive line
It 104 tackles for loss would be the 3rd worst in the nation, outpaced only by Southern Miss and Kent State. It was an offensive line that played soft, played undisciplined, drew too many penalties, could not find continuity, could not stay healthy, and would repeatedly fail to open holes in the running game, as Alabama fielded its second worst rushing attack of the last 15 years. It was a line that did Bryce Young no favors trying to learn his position, repeatedly placing Alabama in 3rd down after 3rd down, and surrendering 41 sacks (120th in the country) — by far the worst of the Saban years.
- Drew Svoboda’s hit-or-miss Special Teams that had the worst overall return game we’ve ever seen — only the demigod speed of Jameson Williams keeping Alabama from being at the bottom of the nation in practically every category. And punting? Yeesh.
Jameson Williams was the return game. He took 10 of Alabama’s 19 kick returns, averaged over 35 yards per touch, and netted two scores. The other 9 kicks were fielded by five separate players (primarily No. 18). And, aside from Billboard’s one return for 17 yards, not a single player hit above 13.0 yards per return. If you wanted to bury Alabama deep, you kicked to Slade Bolden — and teams did.
I’m not sure if this was coaching or personnel, but it must be corrected. Not every player has to be a breakout threat, but the median KR average in college football last season was 20.4 yards per attempt — the Tide were awful, outside of JaMo.
Punt returns were scarce better. In many ways, they were worse. In 10 of Alabama’s games, the Tide would finish with 10 yards or fewer. It was ranked 65th in KRA only because Jamo had 117 yards against Mercer and 71 against New Mexico State. Every other return netted a total of 83 yards — on 22 attempts. Non-Williams returns placed Alabama 118th in the country: the only Big 5 teams that were worse were Nebraska (3-9) and Georgia Tech (3-9). Overall, Alabama would finish with the 74th overall punt return efficiency, despite being second in the country in TDs (2), and having the nation’s leading punt return man...by 16 yards.
- Jay Valai’s innovative DB strategy of not contesting 50-50 balls.
Is it the 63rd-ranked pass efficiency defense?
Or the fact that Alabama surrendered 25 passing scores — the 8th worst in the country?
Was it the fact that only 9 teams allowed more yards than Alabama through the air?
How about DBs surrendering the 5th most completions of anyone in the country?
That Alabama was 50th in yards per game allowed?
In games against ranked opponents, Alabama had just two INTs — and they both came in one contest. The rest of those tilts, they surrendered 10 passing scores. A 5:1 TD/INT ratio is not winning football.
Perhaps it’s that Alabama was 90th in the country in completion percentage allowed, with their opponents completing nearly 64% of their passes?
In retrospect, it was a small miracle Alabama got as far as they did. Saban recognized that too, and many folks were “encouraged to seek other opportunities” almost as soon as the charter jet touched back down in Tuscaloosa.
But, it is oddly those failures that make me most excited about the staff in 2022. Many fans would barely recognize any or very few names on the new Tide directory — at least not as coaches. And that’s fair. For the most part, it is a youthful group of outstanding recruiters who may be even better on the sidelines than in the living room. And these were hires not calculated for a radical rethink either — the hires have been tailored around tweaking things that Alabama needs this season, not burning the whole thing down and starting anew with a five-year plan.
“Win now” seems to be the mantra in Tuscaloosa. And that is not only a fair expectation, but ought to be the goal this season, despite ‘Bama’s question marks.
Gone is Jay Valai, and replacing him is 40-year-old Travaris Robinson, who was hired to mentor the cornerbacks as well as bring aboard a quality SEC veteran coach with defensive coordinator-level experience. I described Travaris as a home run hire, and he has already been just that (despite his Barner past).
Robinson has been instrumental in gaining the commitment of Jahlil Hurley (5-star CB, No. 2 CB) and the nation’s No. 1 safety, 5-star Caleb Downs. Expect his units to contest passes a lot more than Valai’s did, and the DBs will be far more physical throughout the coverage phase.
Coleman Hutzler special teams are “a beautiful fit for Nick Saban’s philosophy, and one that ticks off all the areas in which Alabama has been the flakiest of late, but which still maintains those things that the Tide does well: Preventing returns, hang-time punting that still gets distance, improved kick and punt returning.”
Hutzler’s recruiting for ‘Bama remains to be seen — he also specializes in coaching and crootin’ edge players, a role he will handle at Alabama as well. He hauled in seven blue-chip Linebackers at South Carolina and Texas, and nailed down the 5-star, consensus No. 1 DT for the Gamecocks in 2020. There’s no reason to think that Coleman will not have success in Tuscaloosa.
Eric Wolford, the offensive line specialist, a man with a 25-year body of work in college and the NFL creating physical, nasty units. We called him the Manball Mercenary, and that is as apt a description as any. He’s a rehab specialist to his core. He comes in, quickly fixes problems, and teams improve. For instance:
At Kentucky, the Wildcats improved by a half YPC and added an additional 8 TDs to the fine job the outstanding 2020 team had done up front. But it his work at South Carolina that was simply brilliant and which is probably the better comparison here. The Gamecocks went from averaging 3.6-ish YPC prior to Wolford’s arrival, to leaping up almost a full yard per carry, and finishing 5th in the SEC in YPC. For his USCe career, the ‘Cocks netted 4.61 YPC. That may seem unimpressive, but one must look at where USC came from to see the improvement.
Wolford’s impact was particularly noticed in keeping the Gamecocks ahead of the chains and giving their mediocre quarterbacks clean jerseys. In 2016, South Carolina had allowed an SEC-worst 41 sacks. In 2017, after Holman was hired, the ‘Cocks allowed just 25, and were in the top 5- or 6 of Pass Pro every season.
Tackles for loss also improved. In three of four seasons at USC, the Gamecocks were in the top half of the conference, and nowhere was the jump more pronounced than in Season One: 2016 USC had 102 TFL, the year before he was hired. In 2017, USCe had just 73. By Season 3, USC had jumped all the way to third in the conference in prventing negative plays — just 60 TFL.
He’s not been shabby on the recruiting trail either, and particularly for a coach known for short stints. In just seven months, Wolford has already secured the commitment of two blue-chip offensive linemen for the Tide, including the No. 1 player in Europe and Buckeye-lean T Olaus Alinen, as well as T Wilkin Formby. He was also the co-recruiter with Joe Cox for 4-star Georgia Athlete, Martavious Collins.
Not a bad start indeed.
Then there’s a guy I’ve raved about for seven months now, new TE coach Joe Cox:
It is a thin body of work, to be sure. But it is also a promising one; a young career marked by very good identification of raw talent, development of the roster, a lack of favoritism to upperclassmen, and increased productivity in run and pass schemes.
Glad to see that I’m not alone in that assessment. Just yesterday, Nick Saban had this to say:
“Coach Cox is probably one of the brightest young guys that we’ve seen in a while, so we’re glad to have him on the staff,” Saban said.
It was an extension of a thought Saban offered in March after Cox’s first practice with Alabama.
“I think Joe Cox is one of the bright young guys,” Saban said March 11. “I’ve been very impressed with his knowledge, and I think he’s going to help us.”
Recruiting? Check. Cox has already nabbed 4-star ATH Martavious Collins and poached away OSU’s longest-standing recruit, 4-star TE Ty Lockwood.
Cox in some ways is very much like Holmon Wiggins and Pete Golding: Young coaches who have been given the chance to shine and have made the most of their opportunities. It remains to be seen if Joe is in that same category, but keep an eye on him. I suspect if Coach Wiggins moves on — and, face it, we are working on borrowed time here before he gets a P5 OC job or a G5 comes calling for their vacancy — then Cox will be in line for a very fat raise and a promotion of some sort.
That takes us to Pete Golding, a man who we now 100% enthusiastically endorse. It took him a few years to spread his wings, but he has gotten better almost each and every game as a playcaller and pre-game tactician.
I would also note something interesting about Golding. A few years ago, I speculated that he was being brought on board to help usher Alabama into a permanent 4-2-5 scheme. Brent wrote a follow up on this a few months as well, specifically about the Star position. For fun, go search the Alabama Crimson Tide on Wiki and see the defensive scheme that is now listed on the site: Yep, a 4-2-5...and that edit came from a University of Alabama-owned IP address.
We’re already there, folks: the 3-4 is part of the package, but this is a full-on 4-2-5 defense now...it is Pete’s defense. Nowhere did Pete’s group shine as much as they did in the Front Seven — and a player in the middle like Henry To’oto’o was the piece that had been missing for a long while.
The result of having a healthy leader in the middle is that alongside Alabama’s stellar defensive line, the Tide fielded a front-seven that was every bit as good as (and in some ways better than) their much-touted rivals in Athens: Alabama led the nation in sacks, with 35.5 of them coming from the linebacker positions.
Alabama surrendered an absurd 2.66 YPC this year, and it wasn’t just production against scrubs. Against teams with winning records? 3.15. In SEC play? 2.95. In the SECCG and Playoffs? 3.76. Even in losses, it was very tough to move the ball on the ground. Alabama surrendered just 4.67 YPC in Georgia II, and before Mathis’s injury, UGA was averaging closer to 3.25 YPC. And bad teams had no shot. Teams at or below .500 average hit just 1.96 YPC.
In fact, only twice did Alabama surrender 4 or more YPC — at Florida, and in the CFPCG. Not even the ground-first Aggies came near 4 YPC in their upset win. Alabama also led the nation in tackles for loss. with 64 of the Tide’s 121 coming from the starting four linebackers.
Imagine giving that guy a functional secondary? This could actually be the first healthy, talented defense, with significant experience on all three-levels, that Alabama has had since 2016.
Now...all Pete needs to work on is guys tackling better and players communicating better, which have been constant bugaboos since Baldy went to Knoxville
to pimp out the Missus for a few rolls of quarters and Quarter-Pounders.
For Alabama, Pete Golding has been a lightning rod for years. Personally, I love his scheme, and I think he typically does a good job of adjusting to his opponents. However his defenses now have a 3-year history of poor communication and inconsistent tackling.— Brent Taylor (@btbama22) October 24, 2021
Robert Gillespie returns for his second year. We’ll give him a mulligan for last season’s awful results simply because everyone was banged up all year, B-Rob has far more heart than native talent, and the ‘backs were trying to make chicken salad out of the chicken shit offensive line play. You can’t fault the recruiting though, that’s for sure. Four blue-chip RBs already, including 5-star, No. 1 Richard Young — and threw in 5-star, No. 2 edge rusher Jihaad Campbell for good measure. The former Gator is a monster talking to mama in the kitchen.
Freddie Roach returns for his second year coaching the D-Line. Last year was an outrageous success; the Tide had its best overall performance up front since 2016.
Long-time veteran DC / madman Charles Kelly again returns to coach the safeties. The Tide had problems in the secondary last season, but the safeties weren’t one of them. His steady presence and long-time experience as a coordinator has only helped Pete round into form.
Newly-minted Assistant Head Coach Holmon Wiggins is back for a 4th year coaching receivers, and it feels weird to call last season underacheivement, but it was, despite having two 1100-yard guys on the outside and a Biletnikoff finalist. That was not Wiggins’ fault though: too many guys further down the roster were not ready to be the next-man-up, and had serious issues between the brains (three pass-catchers that have transferred are either already in the doghouse or have been released by their next team). Lost opportunities, not poor coaching, defined 2021. Not everyone can be the Rydeouts, sure. But not everyone can have Twitter-hands and cockfingers either. The dropoff from the top two was vast.
There were many criticisms to be had in 2021, and what doesn’t show up in the stats is as telling as what does. B’OB looked like an NFL coach last season far too often — and by my reckoning, that’s not a compliment: lack of rhythm and game-flow; Texas A&M; not riding the hot hand; an offense that is boom or bust and not consistently explosive. Still, it would be unfair to lay the entirety of an inconsistent offense at his feet. But, those are being addressed this offseason with an offense that is designed to move quicker, get the ball out of Bryce’s hands quicker, and put players in space for chunk plays — no excuses in 2022.
Still, results are what matters, eh? And Bill O’Brien now joins Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin as former Tide OCs that have mentored a Heisman winning quarterback in their career.
That is a sentence I literally never thought I would type.
Some old codger named Nick Saban is back for his 16th ride in Tuscaloosa too. I guess he’s alright if winning is your thing.
Thus stands the 2022-2023 Alabama coaching staff, and it is a nice mix of young and old, technicians and recruiters, ambitious guys forging elite careers and others happy to be an elite part of a dynasty. I’m excited about this group, and I think you should be too.
Dynasty ain’t dead, Pawwwwl.
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