Tide has plenty of positions to shore up
Homecoming is traditionally a game where the local team can pile on a few early touchdowns, then get its starters out of the line-up in order to avoid a needless injury that might affect the following week's game (or worse).
Alabama doesn't have that luxury this year, with the fact that Houston is a pretty decent football team only part of the reason. The Cougars aren't quite as good as they were when they won the Conference USA championship last year, but they should still be in the game at least entering the fourth quarter.
More importantly, the Crimson Tide just isn't playing well enough as a team to take any time off. The Alabama starters need all the reps they can get against quality opposition to try to shore up some major consistency problems.
Alabama has been productive at a number of positions --- running back, wide receiver and certain spots on the offensive line to name a few, but less-than-stellar at several others. In keeping with this column's usual "five" theme, here are five positions at which the Crimson Tide could really use some improvement.
John Parker Wilson has taken every meaningful snap for the Crimson Tide the last two seasons, and gave every indication entering the season that he would take a major leap forward in production in his second year as a starter.
It hasn't happened for whatever reason, with the amateur quarterback coaches criticizing everything from Wilson's footwork to his arm angle to his concentration. Some have even speculated that periodic limping and ice on his right elbow are signs of some sort of debilitating (but as-yet-undisclosed) injury.
Wilson has had major trouble completing passes inside the opposing 25 yard line in his career and hasn't been especially sharp from any point on the field this season. He currently ranks 91st in the country in passing efficiency, one spot ahead of that other highly scrutinized quarterback in this state, Auburn's Brandon Cox.
Houston is not a particularly good defensive team, and a big game against the Cougars might be just what Wilson needs to springboard him to a big second half. With tough defenses from Ole Miss, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn (as well as always physical Tennessee) left on the schedule, Wilson had better step up his production soon if the Tide is going to enjoy the type of season it is capable of.
If Wilson doesn't look sharp early against Houston, head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Major Applewhite might be tempted to pull the trigger on back-up Greg McElroy. The redshirt freshman looked very good against a very bad Western Carolina team in his only appearance this season, but the Tide may have no choice but to try him if Wilson's inconsistency leads to an early deficit against Houston.
Right side of the offensive line
Left tackle Andre Smith, left guard Justin Britt and center Antoine Caldwell (aside from some poor shotgun snaps) have been relatively solid this season, and at times very good. But the Crimson Tide isn't getting the same level of play from the other 40 percent of its offensive line, right guard Marlon Davis and right tackle Mike Johnson.
That's understandable, considering that Smith and Caldwell were preseason All-SEC picks and Britt is a senior who was once one of the most highly touted line prospects in the country. Davis and Johnson didn't come into the season with such high credentials, but were still expected to hold their own in what was billed as one of the best lines in the conference.
They've both had some major breakdowns this season, both in run blocking and pass protection, and it might be time for a change. Davis missed two days of practice earlier this week while home in Columbus, Ga., due to a death in the family, but is not expected to lose his starting job for that reason.
One option could be to slide Caldwell to right guard and install sophomore Evan Cardwell at center, but that only solves half the problem. Much-maligned senior Chris Capps has 25 games of starting experience at tackle for the Crimson Tide, but Saban and offensive line coach Joe Pendry don't seem prepared to make that move just yet.
Alabama hasn't been able to generate much pass rush from anyone, including its ends, this season. The Crimson Tide has only five sacks in five games, the worst mark in the conference and one of the worst in the country.
Junior Bobby Greenwood has one sack this season, but is not likely to play on Saturday due to an ankle injury suffered against Florida State. If Greenwood doesn't play, junior Brandon Deaderick would get his first career start at right end.
Deaderick came to Alabama with great pass-rushing credentials, but hasn't yet made his mark in that category during the last two years. In fact, he's barely played at all, with just eight careers tackles, four of which came after Greenwood was injured last week.
Senior Wallace Gilberry seems to get in the backfield constantly, but rarely closes the deal for whatever reason. He has no sacks this season and only 11.5 career sacks, a very low number for someone who has played as much as he has the last four years (though it's possible we were spoiled by Gilberry's 6.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman in 2004).
More likely, the Crimson Tide will have to continue to try and generate a pass rush through a variety of stunts and blitzes with linebackers and defensive backs.
Strongside linebacker Zeke Knight has been productive in this area this season, but the Crimson Tide could really use another dynamic pass-rusher to pair with him on the outside.
Alabama has been just fine with Simeon Castille at one of its corner positions, and freshman Kareem Jackson has mostly held his own at left cornerback when Castille slides to "star" in nickel coverage. But the right cornerback has been a sore spot for the Crimson Tide no matter who is playing there.
Junior Lionel Mitchell started the first four games of the season at right corner, but was burned often, including for the winning touchdown against Georgia two weeks ago. Saban hinted that Mitchell's practice habits also landed him in the doghouse, and cleared the way for sophomore Marquis Johnson to make the start against Florida State.
Johnson fared no better than Mitchell had, giving up two touchdowns --- including a 70-yard game-clincher --- and a few other long plays. Johnson was in position to make a tackle after a short gain at least twice, but whiffed on both and ended up surrendering big plays.
Opponents will continue to throw away from Castille --- and perhaps increasingly away from Jackson --- until the Crimson Tide shores up the other side. But with Alabama needing to blitz to help generate a pass rush, that's left the corners exposed.
There may not be many options beyond Mitchell and Johnson. Freshman Tarence Farmer is apparently red-shirting, while senior Eric Gray, who entered the season as a contender for a starting job, appears lost in the shuffle.
Former walk-on Rashad Johnson has been a pleasant surprise at free safety, showing decent ball skills in coverage and a more-than-willing attitude in run support.
Senior strong safety Marcus Carter has also had his moments, though he's less polished as a cover man than Johnson is.
There's just not any depth behind those two, with the fact that return specialist Javier Arenas and converted running back Ali Sharrief are the top reserve safeties all the proof you need.
Sharrief has played in some dime situations in recent weeks, and has proven to be an aggressive and capable tackler against the run.
But none of these guys are star-quality SEC safeties, something Saban's LSU teams always had. If there was a sideline-to-sideline, line-of-scrimmage-to-secondary safety of the LaRon Landry mold (or even the Roman Harper mold) on this Alabama team, the Crimson Tide would be much more successful in the attacking, gambling style of defense that Saban and coordinator Kevin Steele want to play.
One player who has been noticeably absent from the field in recent weeks is sophomore Justin Woodall, who hasn't played since the Western Carolina game. Woodall was one of the Tide's top prospects in 2006, but hasn't been anything more than a special teams contributor to this point in his Alabama career.
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Creg Stephenson has covered Crimson Tide athletics for several print and online publications since 1994, and currently writes for The Anniston Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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