Many changes on offense
Offensively, Alabama returned eight starters from last year's squad. Of that group, only five (Freddie Milons, Antonio Carter, Terry Jones Jr., Jason McAddley and Ahmaad Galloway) retain their jobs. Fullback, quarterback and every single O-Line slot are all now manned by athletes that that didn't even play a down at that position in last year's season-ending loss to Auburn.
At this point in the season most experts would list Bama's offensive line as the most pleasant surprise on the team. And interestingly, every single starter saw little or no action under the previous regime.
On the defensive side of the football, change is also a theme. Ten athletes return that either started at some point last season, or would have started if healthy (Kindal Moorehead). At this point, seven still hold their jobs, with two (both cornerbacks) being tenuous.
Linebacking play has generally been good. And while the secondary is a major concern at this point in the season, it was also a worry back in August. That leaves a so-far underachieving Defensive Line as probably the biggest disappointment. Though their play has been decent, most Tide fans expected much more from the highly touted group.
Interestingly, in contrast to their offensive counterparts, no new faces start on the Tide D-Line. In fact, the return of Moorehead has forced one former starter (David Daniel) into a No. 2 spot at tackle.
Generally the theme to all this change has been younger (freshmen or sophomores) replacing upperclassmen (juniors and seniors). Good examples are Cornelius Wortham (sophomore) working ahead of Victor Ellis (senior); Evan Mathis (freshman) displacing Dante Ellington (junior); and Charles Jones (sophomore) now ahead of Reggie Myles (senior) at free safety.
But sometimes the age/class differences are closer. Tyler Watts (junior) won the quarterback job over Andrew Zow (senior); Justin Smiley (freshman) beat out Dennis Alexander (sophomore) at guard; and Waine Bacon (junior) hasn't yet given back the starting strong safety job to Shontua Ray (senior).
But the theme of older players giving way to younger athletes is consistent.
Best athletes haven't always won out
Evaluation of talent is a highly subjective process, so opinions will vary on this point. But in many of the cases the change of guard has involved the more physically gifted athlete winning out. For example, though Ellis is one of the hardest-working (and most highly respected) players on the squad, Wortham is viewed by most as being a faster and more naturally gifted linebacker. And while Dennis Alexander is a huge physical specimen, Justin Smiley possesses significantly more speed and explosive power.
However that trend does not hold true for all the lineup changes.
To illustrate, while Evan Mathis is a versatile athlete with very good potential as a lineman, Dante Ellington has as good a combination of size and athletic ability as an O-Line coach could as for. And some still predict he has NFL potential. Also, the most recent lineup change (Jones ahead of Myles at free safety) almost certainly involves the player with less pure athletic ability getting the starting nod.
Production over mere athleticism
But as Coach Franchione, Coach Torbush and the rest of the Tide staff point out repeatedly, putting together a starting lineup is more about production than potential. "Make the play! Make the play!" was an oft-repeated ‘admonition' heard on the practice fields this week.
And players long on ability but short on production are learning the hard way that a new sheriff is in town.
Kudos to Bama's offensive ‘guru'
Speaking of that new sheriff, it's important to recognize the job Dennis Franchione has done the last two weeks--not only as head coach, but also as offensive game planner. In case some fans have forgotten, John Thompson (Arkansas defensive coordinator) and Charlie Strong (South Carolina) have national reputations as two real ‘comers' in the coaching ranks.
But the Tide's offensive game plan had both of them shaking their heads for much of the respective games.
Numerous reports out of Fayetteville had the Razorbacks spending hours in practice working to stop the Alabama option attack. Of course in the actual game Franchione called the play only once. Yes, it's true that Alabama did little offensively in the second half versus the Razorback defense. But once the Tide got up by two touchdowns, Franchione essentially shut things down, knowing Arkansas was incapable of mounting a comeback.
And then last week an obviously unprepared South Carolina ‘D' yielded 285 yards on the ground and 516 yards of total offense--much of it courtesy of Tyler Watts and the quarterback option.
Remember. This Tide team fields essentially the same skill players as last season--with five first-year starters on the offensive line.
Franchione arrived in Tuscaloosa with a reputation as something of an offensive guru. And like his commitment to return discipline and accountability to the program, the improved offensive production is another Franchione promise fulfilled.