Questions for 2012: Can McCarron Drive the Nuss Bus?

Last week Danny Sheridan continued his campaign to repair his hide, but buried in the repair work, were these nuggets concerning AJ McCarron and the 2012 Tide:

Sheridan predicted Alabama’s defense would have trouble with passing offenses this season and repeated a critique he’d made previously of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, saying that while the Mobile native “could be another Joe Namath,” he has no faith in his ability to lead the Crimson Tide back from a deficit.

Like him or not, Sheridan’s comment concerning McCarron does touch on one of the major questions for this year’s team.  Jim McElwain is gone.  So is Trent Richardson.  Mark Ingram and Julio Jones also don’t live here anymore.  When you think about the offensive stars on this year’s team, especially at the skill positions, you most likely think of McCarron.  And how he plays will have a major impact on how this season goes.  Being a manager or caretaker alone won’t be enough, we’ll learn if he can step up and lead.

And by all accounts, that’s what he’s doing, at least so far:

“I think it’s a different situation,” McCarron said, comparing this season to last season. “I think every year is a different situation. I guess last year, because I was the young one looking up to the older guys, and now I have some younger guys and I’m the older guy.

“There’s a little more talking on my part and them listening. … It was vice versa last year. They told me what they thought, and I agreed with it or said OK and we’ll try. Now it’s kind of like if I see it, we’ll going to go with it, and that’s how we’re going to do it.

That makes sense and it’s good to hear that’s happening because new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and the gang have some big shoes to fill.  Soak in these numbers under McElwain:

  • Yards per game conference ranking: 2008 (6th), 2009 (5th), 2010 (3rd), 2011 (2nd)
  • Scoring per game conference ranking: 2008 (5th), 2009 (4th), 2010 (3rd), 2011 (3rd)
  • Time of possession: 2008 (1st), 2009 (1st), 2010 (4th), 2011 (2nd)

When you have offensive numbers like those in the SEC, and a nasty defense to boot, you can average 12 wins per year and win a couple of national titles.

But as we’ve already discussed, the heart (and perhaps soul) of last year’s defense is gone.  Yes, there is plenty of talent available, and, yes, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are still on the job, but it’s tough to replace folks like Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick by just turning a few pages on the calendar.  So though the defense will likely be tough again, we can’t count on a defense to league in yards allowed as has been the case for the last four years.  That makes the role of Nussmeier and McCarron even more important.

McElwain wasn’t a perfect offensive coordinator, but he was very good and he continued to get better each year, as most of the statistics show.  In his first couple of years, he took some heat for the offense sitting on a lead in the second half of games and allowing momentum to swing back to the opponents.  This made quite a few games closer than they needed to be.  In 2010, he also fielded perhaps the greatest collection of offensive talent the Tide has ever assembled, but that unit never lived up to it’s billing.  In 2011, the Tide dominated a fantastic LSU defense in the regular season, but couldn’t find a way to score a touchdown.

But, from a fan’s perspective, he also game-planned the offense for two BCS title wins and masterminded a magnificent offensive plan to scald the Tigers in the rematch last January.  That’s what Tide fans will remember:  McElwain went out on top as a champion and the offense played a big part in that win.

So that’s where Nuss and McCarron have to pick up.  Nussmeier will be expected to field solid game plans that allow the Tide’s talent to win.  And McCarron will be expected to play like a champion every week.

Last year, McCarron was asked to be a game manager for 12 of the Tide’s 13 games. Don’t turn the ball over. Take what the defense gives. Hand the ball off to Trent Richardson. And for 12 of the 13 games, he played quite well. For the year, he completed 66.8 percent of his passes for over 2,600 yards, 16 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Along the way he collected the offensive MVP award in the BCS title game.  Not bad for a first year starter.

He most definitely played his worst in the Tide’s only defeat, a 9-6 overtime loss to LSU. Sure, his statistics looked ok, but his indecisive play in the second half definitely prevented Bama from winning a game they had mostly dominated.

Saban and McElwain, in hindsight, gameplanned for McCarron perfectly.  With a brand new quarterback and a stable full of young, but untested receivers, the Tide relied on it’s bread and butter:  Mr. Trent Richardson.  And he didn’t disappoint as he ran for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns.  When the Tide needed to pass, McCarron relied on the short game, which used Marquis Maze, Brad Smelley, Richardson and Darius Hanks as targets.  When you win a national title, you can declare that all of your game plans worked.

In 2012, the offensive talent and experience has shifted.  The offensive line is stacked across the board and is led by All-American candidates Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack.  The Tide has a bunch of talent at tight end, H-back and wide outs, but a lot is either young, inexperienced, or both.  Running back is also loaded, but Eddie Lacy seems to stay injured and Dee Hart is returning from an injury and the talented T.J. Yeldon is a true freshmen.

Just like the Tide’s defense, it’s offense is very talented, but it’s unproven in spots.  So given this, it’s entirely reasonable that McCarron may have to strap the offense on his back in order to win a game or two.  I could possibly see this against Michigan and I could very much see it against Arkansas.  If the team comes out flat against a lesser opponent, he would be needed then too.  And against LSU, we may need to be more aggressive  in order to score touchdowns, something we had a hard time doing in 2011.

Nussmeier is in a tough spot following McElwain, no doubt.  He’s younger and less experienced than McElwain, but will be expected to prepare game plans that are just as precise, with no room for error.  That’s a pretty difficult spot to be in, and I’m pretty sure he won’t do as good of a job as McElwain.

So what do I expect from Nuss and McCarron in 2012?  Well, despite all of the talk, I don’t expect a wide-open, air raid type of attack from a Nick Saban coached team.  The offense if Saban’s and Nuss is just the babysitter.  The offense will be what Nick Saban wants and I expect that to be similar to the last several years.  The offensive line is a collective beast, so I expect us to run the ball in the same ratio that we’ve seen over the last four years. I think the expectations for McCarron in terms of a game manager will be the same, but I think he’ll have more explosive plays due to a deep and talented corps of receivers.  And I expect there will be several games when McCarron’s arm will be the difference.  I guess we’ll have to wait until then to see if Danny Sheridan was right.

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