2021 Final Grade: F
The 2021 Crimson Tide offensive line was, by every definition, “the historical flop” — it was a soft, poorly-coached and ill-disciplined group full of underachievers, busts, and players out of position, and bereft of leadership. It simply did nothing well: As a unit, it took the most OL penalties, surrendered the most TFL in Saban’s history, the second-worst YPC, and the second-most sacks. Outside of one game against a Georgia team that decided to lay off the pressure, it was as abysmal to watch as the stats indicate.
Because Alabama was simply terrible at opening holes on standard downs: just 2.65 YPC (86th in the nation). That resulted in Alabama being in must-make passing downs on 50.5% of all its third down attempts.
And what was the result of those attempts in obvious passing situations?
Alabama surrendered a sack on 9.4% of those snaps — 85th in the country, and 3rd worst in the SEC. Only Bryce Young’s uncanny accuracy on third down prevented the Tide from having a catastrophic offense, in short. And, even then, it played some very pedestrian teams very closely specifically because the offense couldn’t move the ball — and outright lost another.
What you saw on the field last year, and the numbers above, aren’t just the sheer number of throws; and, it wasn’t just the sheer number of games.
It was a holistic factory of sadness.
The Bottom Line
It was clear that Failson Marrone would not be back, and that the Tide would need to look for help in the Portal or among its younger players.
What a difference a year and three dudes make, huh?
Alabama found all of them in 2022.
- First, it hired rapid-rebuild specialist Eric Wolford to come in and kick asses like a one-legged man in a sack race.
- Second, Nick Saban went hat-in-hand to Nashville, and said to All-SEC Tackle Tyler Steen “Want to play in the NFL? Get to Tuscaloosa.” And get he did. Steen was the most critical piece in an offensive line that lacked toughness and discipline and communication the year before: Steen did all of those well.
- Third, the much-needed development of a younger player did emerge: and it came in the form of physically-imposing SO right tackle JC Latham. His nasty presence brought balance and some toughness to an OL that now had a defined strength: coaching and tackles. I honestly have no idea how Doug Moron looked at this guy in practice and couldn’t conclude he was one of the Tide’s five best. Latham started every game under Wolford.
What were the results? Nothing short of a renaissance.
- Alabama went from surrendering almost three sacks per game (dead last in the SEC, 120th nationally) per game all the way to 1.69 — that was good for 5th in the SEC and 47th nationally. But don’t fret: That is not too much higher than the Saban average of 19 per game at Alabama. We didn’t say the line was perfect, just that it was reborn into a much better unit.
- Alabama for the just the second time under Saban did not have a back average 5 YPC in 2021. In 2022, all-but one had at or above 5 YPC. Only Roydell was below 5 YPC, and his 4.61 YPC were both above the national average and offset by his use near the goal line. Alabama in fact led the SEC in YPC, 5.57 per carry — not too shabby for a passing team, huh?
- 3rd down conversions were still quite good: 46% (vs. the ungodly 52% of 2021). That was second just behind UGA. Though, as we would see in so many other metrics, when good teams lined up against them, the interior was simply just not there yet — UA dipped to 40% against SEC teams with winning records. And, against all teams with winning records, it was 20th, a steep departure from finishing 1st in 2021.
- Alabama went from 125th in TFL allowed, and 119th in TFL per-game, all the way to 40th: from 5th worst to a Top 1/3rd finish is simply remarkable. Even in its losses, the Tide OL performed very well: surrendering just eight to LSU and Tennessee, both on the road, both in the Top 10. Against SEC teams it was average: about 5.25 per game, but still average is also a remarkable improvement over where the Tide began. In 2021, it was 100th.
- Basically, across the board in surrendering negative plays, the Tide gave up 40% fewer this season over last.
- In opponent-adjusted efficiency, the Tide did even better: going from 51st on the ground, to 17th: an improvement of 66%.
- And, overall, Alabama improved from 8th in per-play efficiency, to 6th — despite the passing game and third down efficiency taking a step back, and despite new players and a new coach facing a far harder degree of difficulty.
But, again, pace. Baby steps.
This is a rebuild in progress, and lines are among the slowest groups to be retooled, often taking a few years of new coaching, as well an influx of talent. Michigan, for instance, had one of the worst major CFB lines for a decade. It took Harbaugh almost a full recruiting cycle to cultivate a nationally-feared unit. So, while you can tell how bad an OLC is from a precipitous decline in production, you can tell how good an OL coach is by his steady improvement. But it’s not an overnight process.
It still was tough sledding against good teams, showing that the Tide had a unit that is not quite fit for purpose, nor one that is nearly where it needs to be in imposing its will. It was 4th-7th in most of the effective rushing stats: yards-per in conference play, against ranked teams, against teams with winning records, and the like. And, as we saw almost across the board in defensive numbers, the line’s performance dropped off like a rock as the competition improved.
And, once again, there were simply too many damned penalties. Alabama for the second straight season surrendered over 100 penalties (103 vs. 107). In terms of snaps, UA was even more penalized than in 2021; and again it was the offensive line that drew the most hankies — especially the supremely disinterested Emil Ekiyor who half the season looked like he was mentally counting his NFL money. It was a performance that wound up costing him zeroes on draft day, as what was a remarkably athletic projected third-rounder dropped all the way out into UDFA territory.
Ball don’t lie; NFL don’t pay for lazy.
Teams like Georgia did none of these things: which goes to show you what a championship line looks like versus one feasting on average or bad teams, one with an alleged veteran leader sleepwalking, and with an undersized center trying to fend off future pro defensive tackles with his wee T-Rex arms.
Still, as a group, and given the new coaching, the tougher schedule, and the two new tackles, the Tide as a whole showed remarkable improvement over 2021, when Alabama couldn’t even bully East Popcorn State...not even Auburn.
What knows what to expect in 2023?
Honestly, I simply don’t know. And, besides offensive coaching, this is the single greatest source of concern for me in 2023.
We thought that A-Day had solidified a starting lineup: Seth McClaughlin is by default the answer at center, but he’s JAG and athletically limited. Steen is off the NFL, but Big JC did not move and is still at right tackle. And the rest of the line is up in the air after that game.
We thought that Elijah Pritchett was the answer at LT. He’s plainly not. Freshman 5-star Kadyn Proctor is going to be your other T starter at some point in the season — perhaps even Game 1. Tyler Booker looked very good, again. But where to put him? Move Pritchett inside? Dalcourt continues to get reps...and continues to struggle.
See? Not only did we think wrong, while we have some answers, they’re not all satisfactory. As a unit, they’re big as hell, that’s for sure. But they also got rang up by the defense in the A-Day game, surrendering an absurd 17 TFL (including sacks). And either Alabama’s pass rush has morphed into 2016, or this lineup has a lot of work to do.
Let’s hope it’s far more of the former. Because I don’t know if I can watch a regression, much less another year of midmajor production churned out by blue chip athletes who ought to be so much better than they are on a week-to-week basis.
Final Grade: B
Given where this group began, to morph into a mostly-above average one was nothing short of a miracle. It still needs much work to return to its dominant form. But “above average” is a far cry from where we even thought we’d be in 2022.
Grade the Alabama running backs in 2022