It wasn't that long ago when small, jitterbug-quick wideouts seemed to be football's future. Epitomized by the Miami Dolphin's appropriately nicknamed ‘smurfs,' receivers were short--sometimes extremely so. And cornerbacks mimicked their stature.
But with the tall, athletic Randy Moss as their prototype, coaches are now going for height. And a quick glance back at Alabama's season proves the point.
UCLA started Brian Poli-Dixon (6-5, 215) and Ryan Smith (6-3, 201), but reserve Tab Perry (6-3, 220) caught the clinching touchdown. In Dan Stricker (6-3, 204) and M.J. Garrett (6-3, 202), Vanderbilt had two tall, dangerous wideouts. Arkansas' George Wilson (6-1, 202) was both big and fast. Brian Scott (6-3, 215) of South Carolina hauled in a key TD pass in that Tide loss. UTEP's Lee Mays (6-3, 190) didn't do much damage to Bama, but it wasn't for lack of talent. The Rebels' Chris Collins (6-2, 190) was a receiving machine in Oxford. Tennessee, long a proponent of tall, physical wideout had a prototype this year in Kelley Washington (6-4, 225).
LSU's Josh Reed, who scorched Alabama for 293 yards receiving, is an exception at only 5-11, 205. But it's frightening to imagine how dangerous his running mate, freshman Michael Clayton (6-4, 185), will be in years to come. Even the ground-oriented MSU Bulldogs featured Harold Lindsey (6-1, 209) as a starter. Auburn's dangerous (though admittedly inconsistent) Deandre Green (6-1, 225) is almost in Washington's league size-wise. And as usual, Southern Miss sported a tall, talented receiver in LeRoy Handy (6-1, 196).
Without belaboring the idea too much, by examining the rosters of opposing teams it's not hard to understand one of the key points Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione has learned about his team. To compete effectively in the SEC, Alabama must sign and develop bigger, taller and more physical corners.
Height--especially when coupled with strength--can make up for deficiencies in straight-ahead speed. As Franchione explained last fall, by his calculations an inch of height roughly equates to a tenth of a second in the forty-yard dash. Remember that a cornerback is never expected to cover his man for more than 3-4 seconds. And in that short span of time, extra inches and muscle often spell the difference.
It's not that athletes like Roberto McBride (5-9, 172) or Anthony Madison (5-9, 173) can't compete, because they can. In fact the NFL is dotted with cornerbacks in the 5-10 to 5-11 range. But a roster full of mighty-mites will spell trouble every time.
The solution? Recruit and develop taller corners.
On the development side of the equation, Thurman Ward (6-1, 190) showed flashes of talent at cornerback during his first college season. But long term, the real progress will come on the recruiting trail.
Alabama made a start last season with the signing of Roman Harper (6-1) and Charlie Peprah (5-11 ½). And the commitments of David Scott (6-0) and Chauncey Malone (6-1) continue the effort. Other taller recruit possibilities include Willie Andrews (5-11), A.J. Davis (6-0), Elvis Gallegos (6-2) and Greg Threat (6-2).
Lack of height was by no means the only factor--nor necessarily the most important. But despite rallying at the end, for most of the season Alabama's pass defense was sadly lacking.
The numbers tell the story.
Rated no better than 95th (out of 115 Divison IA teams), the Tide gave up 2774 yards through the air for an average of 252.18 yards per game. Opponents completed 58.33 percent of their passes against the Alabama defense, averaging more than 13 yards per catch. Thirteen touchdown passes were thrown against the Tide, while Bama managed a paltry six interceptions--two of which were turned in by defensive linemen. Compared to other major-college teams, Alabama was 105th in defensive interceptions.
And were it not for contributions from Kindal Moorehead and Kenny King, the alma mater of Jeremiah Castille, Antonio Langham and George Teague would have been dead last in that category.
Given those passing numbers, it's frankly remarkable that the Tide ended up ranked as high as it did in total defense (48th) and scoring (24th) defense.
Recruit, Bama, recruit.