Tide Offense Hopes For More Playmakers

In the history of Alabama football, the most popular guy on campus always seems to be the second string quarterback. Hope springs eternal in the minds of fans, whether the backup be named Lewis, Shula, Barker, Burgdorf, Zow or Watts, or your choice depending on the week. Here is the second of four parts on Alabama football.

To wit, many Alabama fans wonder now how good Greg McElroy or Nick Fanuzzi (or soon, Star Jackson) could be. Would someone new be an improvement? Ask Nick Saban: "Fans, this is why I love you so much. You have hope that the guy you have not seen is better than the one you have seen," Saban told many audiences on his recent Crimson Caravan tour. "John Parker Wilson is our best option."

Saban told a Prattville audience last month that he had seen progress in Wilson under new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jim McElwain. "He's maturing a lot, and I think he's getting it," said Saban. "The new offensive coordinator will help him in that regard."

Wilson will need more playmakers than he had at his disposal last year. McElwain, like any good offensive coordinator, believes in getting the ball in the hands of those guys. And by "playmakers," Saban means guys who can take it the distance.

The Tide offense that exited spring practice in April had maybe two such guys, and one has never played in a varsity game and the other fought injuries much of last season. Yet, both receiver Darius Hanks and running back Terry Grant showed all spring, including at A-day, that they can take it to "the house" from any spot on the field.

The 2008 Tide offense needs more than two such players. Are they around yet, even with the start of summer school and the enrollment of the much ballyhooed freshman class? No one knows, for sure, but the chances are good.

A few more guys who could become playmakers are redshirt freshman receiver Marquis Maze, true freshman receivers Julio Jones and Burton Scott, and true freshman running back Mark Ingram. It's asking a lot of a true freshman to become a playmaker on national TV August 30 against Clemson on ABC, but the talent is there for most, if not all, the above guys to do just that.

And solid guys who can move the chains are important, too. Alabama has a few of those, in receivers Mike McCoy and Earl Alexander, tight end Nick Walker, and running backs Glen Coffee and Roy Upchurch. Upchurch has actually shown playmaker potential at times, but consistency has not been his middle name at Bama for a myriad of reasons. Maybe this year that will change. That'd be fine with Saban, McElwain, and Tide fans.

No playmaker can do much magic without a solid foundation in front of him, and by "foundation" read "offensive line." He's improved leaps and bounds as a receiver, but Travis McCall enters his senior season known as perhaps the best blocking tight end in the Southeastern Conference. That's important, because McCall's efforts will be needed as blocker, even in the passing game when most tight ends are on a pattern.

Why is that? Because Bama is very inexperienced at the right tackle slot. Current starter Drew Davis was a much-improved guy all spring, but he will need help on passing downs against the type of defensive ends who rush rampant in the SEC. Even if Davis is beaten out by five-star true freshman, Tyler Love, chances are Love will also struggle on third-and-long.

The rest of Bama's offensive line is pretty darn solid. Left tackle Andre Smith, though a junior, will be in his final season as the NFL will come calling, as it will for senior center Antoine Caldwell. These are two of the finest linemen to ever wear the crimson, and they'll be joined by guards Marlon Davis and Mike Johnson, a converted tackle.

Many other scenarios exist for the o-line personnel, but the above seems the most likely entering fall camp. Johnson is a better guard than tackle, though he started on the right side at tackle most of 2008.

Back to the Wilson thing. The Bama senior can hope to have the same type senior season as Fresno State's Tom Brandstater did the one year McElwain mentored him: a 63 per cent completion percentage, 2,654 yards, 15 TDs and only five picks. Brandstater came off a lack-luster junior year and improved in every category.

Wilson can do the same, but to leave his legacy at UA in a better shape, he'll need to beat teams like Tennessee and Auburn. Right now, Wilson is basically Scott Hunter: a lot of nice stats, and very few big wins (and in neither case is the quarterback entirely to blame).

Wilson, McElwain, and Saban hope that all changes this fall.

Coming Saturday: The defense

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