While last week we spent more time than ever on this feature, the same was not necessary this time around.
'Bama did what it should have Saturday. It played dominant defense, scored early and often offensively, added a non-traditional score and played a whole mess of young players in a shutout win. It wasn't perfect but it was about all one could ask for a month into the season.
True Team Triumph
This 48-0 win for Alabama over Kent State featured a lot of what would make any coach or evaluator satisfied. The home team dominated from the jump, save for one long run play by the Golden Flashes which was just a product of a Shaun Hamilton missed tackle and improper Ronnie Harrison pursuit angle thereafter. Offensively, UA moved the football and found the end zone with ease. Jalen Hurts continues to display ball handling skill in the read-option and after Damien Harris was injured, Joshua Jacobs combined with him to form a rushing attack that was well too much for the MAC program. The offensive line, trotting out the same unit as last week, got a solid push and the skill guys on the outside, as well as the tight ends, were very effective blocking down the field as well. It opened up play-action and some simple reads for the frosh quarterback.
Defensively, everything clicked after that first play. Execution was much better, pressure was consistent whether UA kept its back-seven in coverage or added to the pressure, and tackling wasn't an issue much longer. Just as importantly, as we've seen all season thus far, the group absorbed a big blow and bowed up. That initial gain could have resulted to points but the defense thwarted the drive and KSU missed the corresponding field goal. The offense was back on the field and the lead doubled soon after.
The first half played out similarly en route to a 41-0 halftime mark, allowing considerable youth to see the field (more on that later). The score, combined with some injuries, also created one of the feel-good moments of the season. Xavian Marks, noted speedster walk-on apart of the class of 2015, got his first big break of the season and started as a punt returner. He gained six yards on his initial attempt, showing some quickness and vision despite the minimal gain. It was all put together the next time he fielded one, combining nice moves in the open field, acceleration and key blocks from Keaton Anderson and Laurence Jones on a 75-yard touchdown. Long awaiting the chance, about a dozen of his teammates mobbed him in the end zone and the rest each made it a point to congratulate him after he finally made it to the bench.
Perfect Plays, Perfect Passes
Last week, after the Ole Miss game, we broke down two key defensive plays in the game. Today, we'll switch gears to offense and look at the best throw I saw from Hurts and Barnett. The Texan's best was of course the back-shoulder dime to Cameron Sims. Hurts, who again was steady and smart for the most part, showed off everything on this one play. First, he recognized single coverage on Sims, a receiver he hasn't worked a lot with during game situations, by the way. He then showed patience in allowing the big target to get down the field before going all arm talent with a gorgeous strike to the one spot where the defender, who was in solid position, couldn't make a play on the ball. Sims, to his credit, showed strength and length in hauling it in just short of the end zone. UA scored on the next play with a Jacobs tote to make it 14-0.
Barnett's triumph was also to a big target, this time to O.J. Howard. UA had run a drag with him in the first quarter and while it was completed, Hurts saw it a tad late and the ball was tipped and probably should have been intercepted. It came back with a similar look later and it redeemed what was a sub-par start to Barnett's day. Howard again beat the defender (why would a linebacker be on him?) and again a second defender began closing in, but Barnett stepped up on his drop and was ready a bit sooner, delivering an accurate ball to allow Howard to catch it in stride. He used his speed, caught a block from Gehrig Dieter and scored with ease to put UA up 34-0.
On both big-time plays, the offensive line executed, the correct read was made and each passer delivered the ball right where it needed to be. These are valuable reps and examples for each as SEC play resumes next week. I can't help but wonder why Nick Saban went to Barnett much earlier than he did even against WKU, but once he was in and settled after a rocky start, it all made sense. Both guys still need the reps, they still need to make throws and especially in Barnett's case, still need confidence.
Young Tiders Take the Field
Ardarius Stewart, Robert Foster and Rashaan Evans missed the game with injury and the suspension remains in affect for Tony Brown, so there was even more opportunity for freshmen to see the field. In fact, more than a dozen class of 2016 signees saw action on offense or defense in the win. It mostly helped to bolster depth but also free up first-year talent Trevon Diggs. Eddie Jackson started at safety but didn't play special teams, including as punt returner, enabling Marks to see the field. I was asked about this on the CABC podcast just this week and I assumed Diggs still sat above Marks on the PR depth chart. While he may have, the staff clearly wanted him to get extended work at wide receiver so his punt and kick returning duties were cancelled out. Dieter was paired with Marks on UA kick returns, though there was only the opening kickoff in which that unit was needed during the shutout.
Diggs played well on offense, making some solid blocks to spring Jacobs, B.J. Emmons and even Derrick Gore, and he of course made plays on the football. The two-way standout did not see time on defense, as far as we saw, but did put in three catches for 23 yards on "O" while in there. He was targeted even more than that, particularly when Blake Barnett relieved Hurts. Late in the game, the only other wide receiver UA signed in the national title class, T.J. Simmons, also saw the field.
On defense, the usual frosh contributors were in there like Shyheim Carter and Aaron Robinson after that, but others like Jared Mayden, Raekwon Davis and Terrell Hall did as well. Another freshman seeing time on each side is Lyndell Wilson. Better known as "Mack," he followed up leading Bo Scarbrough to a TD vs. WKU with a pass-catching score of his own near the goal line. He actually had to make a body-controlling adjustment to haul it in and did so while defenders lurked (we later learned the play was intended to Howard). It was the final score of any kind in the game and he got in on his first defensive tackle a few series' later as a linebacker. Expect him to remain a defender though his versatility could continue to make an impact when UA bulks up near pay dirt on offense.
It should also be said that key non-freshmen reserves got considerable run. On the offensive line, after Lester Cotton replaced Alphonse Taylor to work with the first group, a second unit of Matt Womack, Dallas Warmack, J.C. Hassenauer, Brandon Kennedy and Korren Kirven played the bulk of the second half. The defensive front also saw considerable rotation but two linebackers who got in and made as big an impact as any reserve were Keith Holcombe and Anfernee Jennings. The pair of former Scout.com four-stars were all over the place, with Holcombe showing off his running and finishing ability while Jennings continues to flash as a pass-rusher.
While the severity of Harris' injury is still at the forefront of "what matters" in looking at the running back position, the rest of the group took full advantage of their increased reps. While Emmons again looked very good with 51 yards on eight carries, it was Jacobs who earned more critical touches even ahead of Scarbrough. It wasn't hard to see why. Coming out of high school we thought he would excel in space, with good size (but not nearly as big as he is now) and acceleration traits. But the frosh's ability to make the first man miss, the most important running back trait in my opinion, was underestimated. Jacobs touched the ball 14 times (11 runs, two catches, one drop) and the first man to make contact with him only tackled him three times that we could count. For reference, at the high school level with elite backs, I look for a 50/50 rate. He was well over that, in college, against more equipped tacklers like linebackers and secondary talent.
Part of the reason Jacobs was able to be successful on his 120-yard day (97 rushing), aside from the offensive line working well, was his vision. When we talk about setting up a defender in the open field, we look for guys who can accelerate up the field planning to make a man miss while also advancing the ball. This means not juking a defender in order to run into another one. So think of it as being two steps ahead. Jacobs did this as both a runner and receiver and he didn't do it with dancing, which typically doesn't advance the ball simultaneously. Like we said we look for, he gained ground the entire time. His moves were subtle and still involved physicality while getting up field. Jacobs' hips aren't the most flexible but they are just enough to where he can accomplish the vision element to acceleration to the move itself and the finish with some power in order to fall or move forward. While all of the backs had a nice showing in pass protection, Jacobs was clearly the best with the ball in his hands on this day. It won't be easy if Harris is limited or out going forward, but it was the best in a bad situation and felt even more like that when Scarbrough seemingly hurt his knee later on.
* O.J. Howard is padding that NFL resume. He's obviously going to own the combine with his numbers on and off the field, but he has progressed a good bit as a blocker. He's always been very good on linebackers and defensive backs down the field because of his power and length, but he was used in-line a lot in this win and held his own. Sometimes he was even one-on-one against a defensive end and the QB was all good. It was mentioned on the SEC Network broadcast that Mario Cristobal's status as tackle AND tight end coach could be the reason. Makes a lot of sense to me. Hard to imagine a tight end going sooner in the next draft.
* Reuben Foster is doing he same as Howard. His talent suggests he could be taken sooner than Reggie Ragland was last year (something we've already touched on) and on Saturday he took a page out of Ragland's book by lining up as a true defensive end on one third down. Foster made a swift move outside, dipped back inside and got in on a sack. He can play all three downs, sideline to sideline and in coverage, and now he can get after passers from the first level.
* Tim Williams is really good, that it all. We knew about his speed and he again won with it, but his progression in the power and leverage department is just as notable. How many first rounders may UA have in the draft?
* From the not-so-important-today-but-could-eventually-bite-'Bama department, Hurts has not improved in one key asset in the first month of his college career -- progression patience. He will come off of the primary read and get to secondaries but it's usually on the run or down the field. Conversely, when down-the-field threats are accounted for with multiple cover men, he still has the desire to take the risk when options closer to the first-down marker remain wide open. Part of it is Lane Kiffin, who loves aggression and it's understandable with the pass-catching talent on the roster, but at some point the check-down is a great play because the backs and tight ends can make plays happen, too.
* Anthony Averett is making strides at the cornerback position. While the rock solid Humphrey and the dynamic and versatile Fitzpatrick continue to make easy-to-see plays, Averett is making the ones that require a closer look. The defensive backfield wasn't challenged much down the field in this win but Averett continues to show willingness to support the run and play physical ball. He got in on his share of tackles and forced a fumble that helped the game get out of hand in a hurry. It was the only turnover on the afternoon.