As Good As Could Be At Halfway Mark

A few weeks ago Alabama offensive lineman Mike Johnson was asked how he had graded in a certain game. He provided some surprising information. He said that Assistant Coach Joe Pendry, who coaches offensive linemen, has the players grade themselves.

The point, Johnson explained, is that the players know how they are doing. They don't need an assistant coach to give them a grade. They watch videotape together and go over the good and bad points.

Johnson, a junior, was asked, "Is there anyone else on campus who lets you grade yourself?" There isn't.

Alabama has reached the halfway point of the 2008 season, and even the few who had no expectations (Coach Nick Saban is the only one on record) have to be surprised at the success of the Crimson Tide. Mid-term grades for the Alabama football team look like the gradesheet of an Auburn sociology class. But in the case of Bama football, the high marks have been earned.

Alabama is 6-0 and has played one of the more difficult schedules in the nation. The Crimson Tide is 3-0 in Southeastern Conference play. Bama has knocked off two top ten teams, ninth-ranked Clemson in the season-opener in Atlanta and third-ranked Georgia in Athens.

The Tide is ranked second in the nation after having started the season ranked 24th.

Alabama has an open date this week. Bama returns to action Saturday, October 18, hosting Ole Miss at 2:30 p.m. CDT, a game that will be nationally televised by CBS.

Saban said the practices this week (Tuesday-Thursday) would be to improve. The need for improvement notwithstanding, it should come as no surprise that all aspects of Bama football get high marks through the first half of the season.

College football is a coaches' game, and few college coaches are better known for success than Nick Saban. One of the most important things a head coach does is put together his staff. Saban did that on the fly when he arrived, then adjusted it when a couple of coaches departed after his first season. Although it is a staff known mostly for its excellence in recruiting, it has showed this year that it can also coach.

Saban is a leading candidate for National Coach of the Year. If he gets it he can use some of the same lines as when he won it five years ago after leading LSU to the national championship.

John Parker Wilson isn't likely to be named All-Southeastern Conference quarterback, but Wilson would rank among the most improved quarterbacks in the conference and in the nation. He is completing about 60 per cent of his passes and his touchdown (6) to interception (2) ratio is excellent.

Offensive line play was expected to be good, and it has been very, very good. The move of Mike Johnson from right tackle to left guard and the insertion of Drew Davis at right tackle has solidified a line around all-stars Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell. Marlon Davis at right guard is having his best season.

Alabama is getting a lot from its tight ends, Nick Walker and Travis McCall, both as blockers and as pass receivers. Saban likes to use the tight ends and they are being used well.

The receiving corps was an area in need of rebuilding after three top players completed eligibility in 2007. With freshman Julio Jones being among the nation's best first-year players, the wide receivers count as serious weapons for the Alabama offense.

The tailback spot was something of an unknown going into the season. Terry Grant had been the starter in 2007 until injuries took him out, and injuries had also affected Glen Coffee and Roy Upchurch. Everyone is well now and new in the mix is freshman Mark Ingram, who has been every effecitve. But the big news is Coffee, who has over 700 yards rushing in Bama's first six games. Alabama leads the SEC in rushing offense.

A lot of championships have been won by teams effective running the football and stopping opponents from running. In great part, that means winning the line of scrimmage on offense and defense. Alabama leads the SEC in rushing defense, too.

Saban's defensive philosophy includes pushing the offensive effort of the opponent from inside out. Opponents have had almost no luck running the football at Alabama's middle. That's because newcomer Terrence Cody is dominating from his nose tackle position. The Tide has gotten steady play from ends Bobby Greenwood and Brandon Deaderick, and a handful of back-ups (Josh Chapman, Luther Davis, Lorenzo Washington).

Alabama runs a 3-4 base defense, meaning there are four linebackers. When the Tide opened 2008 play, there was only one linebacker with any meaningful playing time in the corps. Rolando McClain is excellent and is the leader of the Bama front seven. The good news has been the play of former back-ups at new linebacker positions. Brandon Fanney was a back-up defensive lineman and is now at jack linebacker. Cory Reamer was a back-up safety and is now at strongside linebacker. The weakside linebacker is true freshman Dont'a Hightower. Bama is also getting outstanding role work from back-ups like Courtney Upshaw and Eryk Anders. Prince Hall can improve this group in the second half of the season.

Bama returned one safety and one cornerback and it's not a stretch to say that Alabama is better at both spots in 2008 than was the case in 2007. Javier Arenas has been outstanding at cornerback and Justin Woodall has been one of the Tide's most pleasant surprises at strong safety. Returning cornerback Kareem Jackson is having a very good year. Although he doesn't have the interceptions he had last year, Rashad Johnson is one of the SEC's best at safety.

Special teams grades are a mixed bag. Leigh Tiffin has been kicking off better this year and he is one of the best on field goals and extra points, even though he had an off day in Alabama's final game of the first half of the season against Kentucky. P.J. Fitzgerald has been very much improved this year as a punter. Alabama's return game has a hard time getting the grades it deserves because most opposing teams have the good sense to not kick to Arenas. Alabama has not been a great coverage team, perhaps the area where most improvement is needed.

Alabama's midterm grade? A.

And as Nick Saban said after Alabama's first game, "So you make an A at mid-term, are you going to be satisfied with a C on the final and an overall B?" Figure that Alabama's coach is going to make an A for the year, and that he'll have the attention of all the others.

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