Questions for 2012 – Better Receiver Play?

Last year, I addressed four questions the Tide had heading into the 2011 season.  At the time, the issues were relatively easy to identify:

  • The Defense – though a top-five unit in 2010, the unit seemed unable to create a big play or change momentum when needed.
  • Replacing Julio – I mean, really, how do you do that?
  • The Offensive Line – primarily, the question was who would play left tackle.
  • Quarterback – not who, but how well would he play?

Looking back, I think most of the questions were answered fairly well.  The defense was the best in the land (heck, maybe even the best of all time), the offensive line was one of the best units in the country, and AJ McCarron carried the weight of the championship game plan on his back and handled it very well.  Yes, when you win a national title, most of the questions have pretty good answers.

So what about this year?  What are the big questions, the issues that will determine a repeat?  From my perspective, they were a bit hard to find.  No, no, I’m not predicting a 14-0 2012 and another championship (not necessarily, that is), it’s just that when the cupboard has been stocked by Nick Saban and when you see the system working (i.e. two national championships in three years), you can identify some questions, but they get answered fairly easily.

But I will try anyway to come up with some tough questions for 2012.  As it stands now, I’ve come up with four and today I will tackle the first one: Will we get better receiver play in 2012?

From 2008 through 2010, Bama had one of the best wide receivers in the country: Julio Jones, a once-in-a-generation type player who now has Atlanta Falcons’ fans salivating.  He was big, fast, physical and had pretty good hands – especially at crunch time.  For three years, when we had to have it (yes, there were a couple of times we needed it), we went to Julio.

Along the way, though, we’ve signed other talented receivers, but none have come close to being the dominant player Jones was.  Is this because Julio was just a freak, are we misevaluating the receivers we sign or is the staff just plain old not developing them?

Those are all legitimate questions, and here are my answers: no; are you kidding me; and no.

Julio was indeed a freak – a once-in-a-generation player as I mentioned above.  There’s simply no replacing him one-for-one.  Losing a player like that means a drop-off, like it or not.

For the last five years, Nick Saban has signed some of the top classes in the country.  The results have included two national titles and a bunch of NFL draft choices.  Saban and his staff know how to evaluate and develop talent.  I simply don’t believe they are not doing their jobs related to that single position group.  That doesn’t make sense compared to the overall results.

So, how about this for an explanation?  Last year we were not only replacing Julio, but also a two-year starter at quarterback who had a 24-3 record.  His successor wasn’t solidified until a couple of weeks into the season (at least publicly).  While we did return Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks (who had to sit out a couple of games), it didn’t make good business sense to start flinging the ball around to a gang of untested receivers with a brand new starter at quarterback – especially when that quarterback could turn around and hand the ball to Trent Richardson or Eddie Lacy, or when he could throw short, safe passes to those same running backs or Brad Smelley.

Simply put, I think the staff played it safe because they could.  And guess what?  It worked.  Regardless of the route taken, the plan worked and a championship was won.

In hindsight, though, it’s obvious to see that our wide outs disappeared at times last year.  DeAndrew White looked like a bright light at the beginning of the season, but was erratic.  Kenny Bell played throughout the year and made some big plays, but also wasn’t consistent for the whole year.  Hanks missed a couple of games and his game took a step back from 2010.  Kevin Norwood stepped up huge in the title game, but that made us wonder where he was the rest of the year.  Maze led the team with 56 catches, yet his 11.20 yards per catch was a step back from the 14-15 ypc range we saw from Julio.

But things have changed for the 2012 season.  Richardson is gone and we’re not sure Lacy is 100%.  McCarron returns and everyone is talking about him airing the ball out a bit more this year, especially after his award-winning play in New Orleans.  So that gives me the idea that Saban and company feel better about the receiving corps and feel like they could make a bigger contribution this season.

On paper, that looks feasible.  Norwood, Bell and White are talented and could be considered much more experienced than a year ago.  And don’t forget about Christion Jones who also turned heads with his punt returns in the title game.  Add to that redshirt freshmen Marvin Shinn, Danny Woodson, Jr. and true freshmen Amari Cooper, Eddie Williams, Cyrus Jones and Chris Black and I believe the Tide has a few pieces of the puzzle with which to work.

So, yes, I do think the Tide will get better receiver play this season, but the team has perhaps the best O-line in the country and a stable of backs, so I don’t think the running game will be forgotten.  I see a better, more experienced receiving corps translating into 1) more overall receptions; 2) increased yards per catch for the leading receiver (back to the 14-15 ypc range); and 3) a few more touchdown receptions.  I would also expect to see a few more explosive plays (i.e. long touchdowns) from the passing game, but I think that will be in lieu of some of the shorter routes, not the running game.

In three of the last four years, total rushing and passing yards for Alabama have been almost 50-50, with a slight lean toward the run.  Care to guess which year didn’t fit that mold?  That’s right, 2010 when the Tide had almost 1,000 more passing yards than rushing.  Regardless of what the press reports, I see the balance remaining around 50-50.

Numbers-wise, I wouldn’t expect a 78-catch, 1,000 yard season ala Julio.  Why not?  Well, when I look at the names above, I can see five or six guys that will get significant playing time this fall.  I see the numbers being split-up among those guys and I don’t think one guy will dominate the stats.

Better play for the wide outs.  Slightly better numbers.  But still no Air Raid offense.

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