It took until week four of the 2022 season for this Alabama team to put a complete game together and look like the overwhelming favorite it was coming into the season, but that’s exactly what happened last night. Yes, it was Vanderbilt and the point spread was 40 for a reason, but how you play matters far more than who you play. Or it should, anyway, and that is probably a battle the coaching staff deals with from time to time.
Not in this one, though.
After a bit of a slow start that saw the Tide punt on their first possession and allow a decent drive for a field goal on Vanderbilt’s second possession, Alabama put the hammer down and didn’t let up for the entire four quarters. All three phases of the game were elite on this night, and Bryce Young looked like a man who is headed back to New York at the end of the year.
A few impressions:
RPOs were a huge part of the game plan
Saban was asked after the game about a lack of balance in the first half, which saw the Tide pass the ball on about 80% of the snaps. As he mentioned, many of those passes were packaged plays where Bryce made the decision to throw based on his reads. Several resulted in explosive plays.
As Jordan Rodgers correctly pointed out last night, Young has more autonomy than just about anyone in the country when it comes to diagnosing the defense and getting to the right play. This is why he tends to run the play clock down at times if the defense is particularly adept at confusing his pre-snap reads. That wasn’t much of an issue against Vandy.
The wide receiver rotation seems to be sorted out
Saban mentioned at halftime that the coaching staff had been working Ja’Corey Brooks, Jermaine Burton and Traeshon Holden at all three receiver positions in order to gain flexibility, but this week moved them all to the outside and left them there in rotation. When Alabama was in three receiver sets, Kobe Prentice and Isaiah Bond rotated in the slot.
It certainly seemed to make a difference, as Brooks looked like the legit WR1 that he was billed to be coming out of high school, and Burton made as many explosive plays in one night as he has all season. Those two seem to have pulled ahead of Holden, though Traeshon did manage to snag a touchdown. My guess is that Prentice and Bond are likely just keeping JoJo Earle’s seat warm inside, and it will be interesting to see where Tyler Harrell fits as well. As well as Brooks and Burton played, neither has that type of top end speed to beat better corners down the field.
The offensive line answered the bell
It’s not that the offensive line has been poor this season, it just hasn’t been consistent. For one night, this group looked ready to dominate the SEC schedule. Jase McClellan and Jahmyr Gibbs both ran for more than 7 YPC and on several occasions Bryce Young had what seemed like all day to find an open receiver. Like everything else, the Vanderbilt qualifier applies, but it’s tough to do much better than they did last night.
Tyler Booker continues to find his way onto the field. Interestingly, he came into the game for Emil Ekiyor Jr. rather than Javion Cohen on one series and seemed to make an immediate impact. Saban mentioned last week that some younger players have been more physical than starters and that the competition is ongoing. Hopefully the fire has been lit.
Will Anderson’s impact is immeasurable
Anderson’s 2.5 sacks on the night couldn’t be surprising at this point, but he impacts the game even when he isn’t getting those. It’s clear that Vanderbilt’s protection scheme was built around sliding to Anderson’s side for most of the night, and they still couldn’t block him. Besides the sacks, Will stopped Vanderbilt QB AJ Swann on 4th-and-1. Just his presence on the field helps every other position on the defense.
Henry To’o To’o is Alabama’s best MLB since Reuben Foster
Will is far from the only great defender on this team, of course. Henry T came into this year healthy and experienced, and he looks like s superstar. Most notably, he read the gap on an early 3rd down running play and fired through for lost yardage. Not only does he have the instincts and speed to be a sideline-to-sideline linebacker, he consistently has the defensive front in the right call and properly aligned and is a sure tackler who loves to hit. You can’t oversell the importance of an alpha leader at that Mike position, and Alabama has just that.
Kool Aid and Terrion continue to grow at corner
Kool Aid McKinstry looks like a bona fide superstar as both a cover man and a punt returner at this point. The only thing that he could improve on is intercepting the ball when he has an opportunity, as he did on at least one occasion last night. That was a slant that he read perfectly and got the pass break-up, but he appeared to have time to pick it had he attempted to.
Terrion Arnold seems to have the other starting corner job locked down, and while he isn’t quite as polished as McKinstry he did a fine job overall. Both corners have tackled well. Eli Ricks got his chance later in the game and is clearly well behind both, which is a bit surprising considering his level of experience.
If this team wins a title, special teams will play a major role
McKinstry is a game changer at punt returner. He broke a long one last night that unfortunately ended in a fumble but fortunately did not result in a devastating knee injury like it very easily could have considering the awkward way he fell. Will Reichard continues to be an assassin.
This was the final dress rehearsal before the season starts in earnest next Saturday. The trip to Fayetteville is not going to be an easy one despite the Hogs’ loss to Texas A&M last night. It was good to see the Tide firing on all cylinders, which validated the coaches’ plans to mix, match and experiment through September. Other than a sprained ankle suffered by Byron Young, the team managed to emerge healthy and seems to have found something of an identity right on schedule.
Let the games begin.