The Alabama 2013 Preview

Alabama 2013 Preview

You know, it’s a shame that Mal Moore isn’t around to see the 2013 version of the Alabama Crimson Tide because you know he would have appreciated the immense amount of talent on this team.  We at the Lighthouse would like to pause for a moment and give thanks to Coach Moore for all that he did for the University.  Without his vision of what Crimson Tide football should be, we wouldn’t be celebrating this wonderful and unprecedented time of being an Alabama fan.  When the media told Mal he just needed to accept that the Mike Shula days were the new norm for the University, he said NO – this is not good enough.  Alabama deserved better.  Better facilities.  Better academic support.  Better coaching.  Better players.  Mal’s drive to get the Alabama program to back to where he felt it belonged resulted in Bama winning three of the last four national championships and a 2013 team that, on paper, appears to be the best one of the Saban era.  The team will be honoring Mal with this helmet sticker during the 2013 season as a thank you to Coach Moore.  More than being a player…more than being a coach…more than being an athletic director – Mal was true definition of a southern gentleman and he most certainly will be missed.

In today’s entry, we are going to take a look at the offensive and defensive groups as a whole in an effort to give you folks a general idea of what you’ll see on this Saturday (and every other Saturday) as we get set to kick off the season against the Hokies from Virginia Tech.  Towards the end of this week, we’ll also be posting our usual array of predictions on the game based on our hours and hours of film study (sprinkled in with just a few minutes of stomaching the Finebaum show).  Kidding!  Anyway, as the Black Eyed Peas would say, “Let’s Get It Started!”

Alabama on Offense

Yeah, you already know what Alabama looks like on offense – if it were a sports car it would be a Maserati.  Behind the wheel there’s a 5th year senior QB (and certain NFL draft pick) in AJ McCarron who will be dropping dimes to a receiving corps (think of them as the horsepower and speed) littered with talented 4 and 5 star wide receivers.  For handling and aerodynamics, the Tide features a multitude of 4 and 5 star running backs who will be taking hand-offs and running wild through overwhelmed defenses (and then on to the NFL).  This season’s offense is easily the finest collection of talent that a Nick Saban team has ever put on the football field, and that includes his two-year stint in Miami!  Am I Right!?!?!?  Well, potentially this offense can be the best one ever at the Capstone.  However, there is this one little thing that needs to be shored up – the offensive line.  In the Maserati analogy, think of the offensive line as the pistons for the engine.  If the piston rods fail, then this finely tuned engine will quickly lock up and all those pretty receivers and running backs won’t mean a thing with it sitting still on the highway…

Last year’s offensive line was the greatest offensive line in the BCS era and, perhaps, the greatest line in the history of college football.  Gone are NFL first rounders Chance Warmack and DJ Fluker (the heart and soul and leader of the line).  Gone, too, is Barrett Jones – the most decorated offensive lineman ever to play at the Capstone.  Of course, the cupboard isn’t bare as big junior Cyrus Kouandjio and senior Anthony Steen are back and form a pretty solid foundation for new offensive line coach Mario Cristobal to work with.  However, if the fall scrimmage is any indication, this offensive line will likely be a work in progress until they get center Ryan Kelly, tackle Austin Shepherd and guard Arie Kouandjio acclimated and working together as one cohesive unit.  Keeping AJ upright and in the locked position is job #1 for the OL and God help us all if he goes down to injury.

Speaking of cohesion, it’s the one thing that is largely ignored when offensive lines are discussed.  In 2010, “he that shall not be named” worked behind a veteran offensive line and together they led “the school down the road” to a national championship (why is it that I always hear the song “Tainted Love” when I think about the 2010 championship?).  Anyway, you always hear college football analysts tell us the teams who are returning a veteran group of offensive lineman are the teams to watch.  Why?  Well, it’s not because in a year’s time these OL’s suddenly got bigger and stronger.  No.  Good offensive lines become very good lines by performing numerous in-game repetitions over a long period of time together.  In working together, they understand how to get the most out of their blocking assignments.  Defensive fronts change.  They shift.  They stunt.  They slant.  They rarely do you the favor of sitting still and letting you bum rush them with your big road graders.  In particular, Va Tech loves to stunt and slant their lines and that will force the Bama OL to make quick on-the-fly decisions as they work together to get their blocks.  From what I saw two weeks ago, Bama does not have enough cohesion on the offensive line just yet.  Will it come?  Yes.  Will it be visible Saturday against the Hokies?  Unlikely.  So, you’ll notice the Lighthouse will be offering up some conservative prognostications where the offense is concerned this week.

From an X’s and O’s standpoint, this Alabama team will likely look and act a bit differently than its predecessors.  Gone is the massive 270 lb Michael Williams whom Saban called out as the unsung hero on the team.  His ability to block transformed a great offensive line into a historically awesome one.  Also gone are two of the greatest run blockers of our time in Warmack and Fluker.  We anticipate that these three losses combined with the ridiculous athleticism of Jalston “Nudie” Fowler and OJ Howard will result in more of a one tight end look complemented with either three WRs or an H-Back.

Fowler will line up as a fullback, an H-back, a tight end and even as a wide receiver.  In short yardage, we can easily foresee him lining up at tailback, as well.  If he does line up there, we’d ask that the Alabama PA sound system ring out a loud train whistle.  Whoo Whoooo!

Fowler is strong enough to be a lead blocker but he’s gifted enough to catch the football so look for him to be featured in a variety of ways.  Also, tight end OJ Howard has improved enough as a blocker that he can line up on the end as an in-line tight end and of course we know he can be split out as a wide receiver.  These two kids will allow offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier the ability to do many, many things within the same personnel groupings and this will likely cause a few headaches for a few defensive coordinators around the league.

With the offensive line having a much more difficult time moving the big uglies off the line of scrimmage, we think the Tide will be throwing short passes and utilizing the passing game to open up the run.  We also think that TJ Yeldon will be the third leading receiver on the team as he’s developed quite a rapport with McCarron as a valuable check down weapon in the passing game.

Speaking of Yeldon, it’s going to be fun watching him as the feature back this season.  But, we think you’ll enjoy Derrick Henry even more.

Alabama on Defense

In listening to Kirby Smart during SEC Media Days, you could tell that he was still seething over a few defensive performances last season – likely the performances against Texas A&M, LSU and Georgia.  It was as if he’d been waiting months for an opportunity to tell the world that he was very, very unhappy about last season’s defense.  Oh, and please don’t bore him with the 2012 statistics as they only compare Alabama to mere mortal defenses around the country.  Instead, Smart and Saban prefer to compare their defenses to the god-like Bama defenses of 2009 and 2011!  So, yes, last season the Tide did lead the nation in Total Defense, Scoring Defense, and Rushing Defense.  However, that wasn’t nearly good enough for the Alabama coaching staff.  You see, they were “only” ranked 8th in Pass Defense.  Eighth in pass defense????  Clearly that’s totally unacceptable these days so I guess it must be time to fire the defensive backs coach!  (Kidding – Coach Saban coaches the DBs so we assure you we aren’t looking to give him the axe!).

Alabama’s defense really should be remarkably better in 2013.  Alabama returns seven starters from last year’s #1 ranked defense and while they do have to replace the likes of Dee Milliner, Jesse Williams, Quinton Dial and Damion Square, the upside is that they more than have enough capable bodies to do it.

At nose tackle, the Lighthouse staff does not expect to see much, if any, drop off as Brandon Ivory and DarrenLake are both more than capable of handling the job.  Ivory actually caught the eye of ESPN’s Todd McShay as he was an absolute wrecking ball last year in short yardage situations.

At the defensive end positions, Ed Stinson (seen as a future high draft pick in the NFL) will line up on one side and he brings a tremendous amount of size, athleticism and experience.  So, the only “question mark” on the defensive line would have to be at the other end position where the uber talented Jeoffrey Pagan is slated to take over.  Most feel he’s an extremely athletic and talented kid, and at 6’4, 290 we like his chances to succeed.  Additionally, the defensive line has plenty of depth which allows them to mix and match their fronts to defend the different attacks that will be seen this season.  We’ve looked at this group in our other previews but suffice it to say there should be plenty of tools in the tool box along the front line this season.

The talent at linebacker will surely make your head spin as it’s truly an embarrassment of riches.  In fact, it’s so good that last season’s starter Xzavier Dickson (who played very well last year) was moved from OLB to DE just to make room for Denzell Devall and other more talented OLBs.  Adrian Hubbard will wreak havoc from one side while Devall will apply a ton of pressure from the other.  Meanwhile, the best player on Alabama’s entire team resides at middle linebacker as C.J. Mosley returns for his senior season.  Yes, the LB corps is loaded.

The only potential weakness on defense this season could be in the secondary where the loss of 1st round corner Dee Milliner stings quite a bit.  Deion Belue showed himself to be a pretty solid defender last season and he takes over the role as the #1 corner on the team.  At the other corner, senior John Fulton appears to have wrestled the position away from converted wide receiver Cyrus Jones.  Jones was very impressive during the spring and fall camps and we would not be surprised to see him in there from time to time.

The strength of the secondary is at the safety position where Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Landon Collins will each see a ton of playing time.  Clinton-Dix has first round talent, as does Collins, and between the three of them, they should shore up most of the issues in the back half of the defense.  Ha Ha’s range back there is like having a human eraser in the back of the secondary.  Ha Ha could describe the reaction to the QB who tries to test him.  Sunseri is still playing deep safety in a lot of sets so we are still a little concerned about creative offensive coordinators who can get him locked up in coverage.  But, we suspect this group will actually be improved over last season.  The loss of Geno Smith against Va Tech hurts but he’ll be back for the other 11 games on the schedule.

On the whole, Alabama’s defense has gotten much more athletic across the front seven in an effort to combat the spread offenses that are so prevalent in today’s game.  Large figures such as Terrance Cody and Marcel Dareus have been replaced by slightly smaller but much more athletic defenders across the front.  And while at outside linebacker (Jack) the Courtney Upshaws of the world were big and strong, the new and sleeker Tide uses smaller, fast kids like Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall coming off the flanks.

With seven starters back and a plethora of talented players at every position (ok, except for corner), we suspect Smart will likely be much, much happier when he addresses the media at the next SEC Media Days event.

Alabama Special Teams

We’ll be brief here as we will likely cover most of this during our Va Tech W2W4 (What to Watch For) preview.  However, there are a few vital things you need to know about the special teams this year.  Gone are Carson Tinker and Jeremy Shelley so there will be a new snapper (true freshman Cole Mazza – the first long snapper I can ever remember getting a scholarship from Alabama) and a new short yardage place kicker this season.  Cade Foster has the experience but Adam Griffith is a very, very talented kid who is poised to take over should Foster struggle.  The Lighthouse staff thinks the kicking battle will continue throughout the season with Foster having to look over his shoulder after every missed kick.  Keep in mind that Shelley made 100% of his kicks inside the 40 so there will surely be a drop off here this season.

At punter, Cody Mandel is back and better than ever.  Apparently he’s so good that Bama doesn’t even bother using a backup during the scrimmages because we never saw anyone other than Mandel punt the football!

There are about a dozen players who are all talented enough to return kicks and punts but it appears the primary guys are going to be Christion Jones and Dee Hart.

Conclusion

If the offensive line can become just average, look for Alabama to put up some serious yards and points during 2013.  However, if the o-line struggles then the Lighthouse staff has circled the LSU game as Bama’s potential stumbling block on the way to the SEC Championship game.  .  The progress of the offensive line will be the key to the season and we don’t think it is quite 100% settled just yet.  But, with a very favorable schedule and a locker room full of ridiculously talented athletes, anything less than an appearance in Atlanta at the end of the season will be viewed as a disappointment

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