After a sensational freshman season which saw Julio Jones haul in 58 passes for 924 yards and four touchdowns (all three Alabama freshman records), Julio has become a marked man for opposing defenses.
The staff brought in four freshmen receivers in the 2009 class, each player possessing a ton of upside.
However to be successful passing the ball this season, especially with a new quarterback, some of the returning players other than Jones need to step up their games.
Hailed as the No. 1 overall recruit nationally in 2008 by Sports Illustrated and named a Parade All-America, it didn't take Julio Jones long to get his collegiate career started in a big way by catching a John Parker Wilson pass for a touchdown in his first game against Clemson.
Jones went on to take numerous post-season awards, including Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year and second team All-SEC. Needless to say, it will be difficult for Jones to go unnoticed in action this fall. He can expect to see the opposition's best cover man every game, and will also face double teams and combination coverages.
Jones had some amazing individual performances throughout his debut season like the Tennessee game where he had 103 yards receiving in helping to seal the fate of the Volunteers. In the highly-charged atmosphere of LSU's Tiger Stadium, Jones beat outstanding freshman cornerback Patrick Peterson for a 24-yard gain in overtime to set up the winning score.
Perhaps his finest work of the year came against perhaps the best secondary in the nation during the SEC Championship game where Jones put up 124 yards receiving on the eventual national champion Florida Gators.
In the Sugar Bowl loss to Utah, Jones was one of the few bright spots with seven catches for 77 yards.
Clearly, Alabama coaches want the ball in Julio's hands as often as possible and with another viable receiving threat to keep the defenses honest, the sky's the limit on what kind of numbers Julio's capable of putting up in '09.
With the game's outcome well in hand against the Auburn Tigers, Marquis Maze gave Bama fans even more reason to become excited about the future when he made a remarkable over-the-shoulder grab delivered by probable 2009 starting quarterback Greg McElroy.
Another sign Maze is primed for a big year in 2009 came in the Spring A-Day Game, where he earned the Dixie Howell Memorial MVP Award with five catches for 87 yards. The Tarrant native had 11 receptions last season and 137 yards with two touchdowns.
Maze, a third year sophomore, looks to be the team's deep ball play threat which opposing defenses will need to account for every time out. He had his moments last year, but Maze seems ready to come into his own as a play-maker.
The veteran players returning to the Tide receiving corps include junior Earl Alexander, sophomore Brandon Gibson, junior Darius Hanks, senior Mike McCoy, and junior Travis Sikes.
Departing from the unit are B.J. Scott (now on defense), Chris Jackson (transferring to Georgia Tech), and outgoing seniors Nikita Stover and Will Oakley.
After Jones and departed tight end Nick Walker, Mike McCoy had the third most catches on last year's team with 16 for 191 yards and a TD catch in the Ole Miss game. The senior from Rankin, Miss., has close to 400 receiving yards for his career and looks to finish off a solid four years at The Capstone as a key contributor to the offense scheme.
Earl Alexander had surgery on his shoulder which kept him out of contact during spring practice, but everything looks good for him to be ready to go in the opener with Virginia Tech. The Phenix City native and former quarterback has shown flashes of brilliance at receiver during his time in Tuscaloosa and hopes to add to his eight catches for 121 yards from a year ago.
Darius Hanks is a third year sophomore who is looking for increased playing time this season after a sharp spring showing. Last year he was getting more involved in the rotation as the season progressed. He finished with eight receptions for 88 yards.
Brandon Gibson has seen limited duty during his college career, contributing solely on special teams. While Gibson will probably be used more in that area this season, he hopes to see a bigger role at one of the receiver positions.
Gibson was a well-regarded prospect out of Mobile UMS-Wright in the 2007 class, but has yet to live up to high expectations. He'll need to show improvement to the coaches as the four new guys come in seeking to move up the depth chart quickly.
The Tide second leading receiver from a year ago is gone. Jim McElwain made good use of big tight end Nick Walker during his senior season. Walker caught 32 balls for 924 yards and had two touchdowns.
Also in the mix for a bigger role as receiving tight end is sophomore Brad Smelley. The Tuscaloosa native contributed earlier than expected in '08 with seven catches for 98 yards. Smelley is 6-3, 220. While Smelley doesn't have the bulk of Peek, he gets out on blocks and also has nice, soft hands.
Preston Dial should push both of those two for playing time at tight end. The 6-3, 245-pound third year junior missed a portion of 2008 after undergoing knee surgery, but he came back and contributed significantly on special teams. The A-Day game performance indicated Dial is ready to have a breakthrough season. The Mobile UMS-Wright native made five catches for 58 yards in the inter-squad game in April.
Chris Underwood, a Birmingham native and Vestavia Hills High School alum, will try to see more playing time this season. Last season Underwood saw action on special teams. He will probably see action there as well this season while trying to work his way up the depth chart.
Yet another player to switch from the defensive line to the tight end position is redshirt freshman Undra Billingsley from Birmingham. Billingsley at 6-3, 27, appears as a blocking type tight end as well. However, Billingsley did have more than 400 receiving yards at Woodlawn High School. He'll have to show plenty to surpass the others in the rotation, but don't count him out once he gains a better understanding of the position.
With all the switches the coaching staff must be worried about lack of depth at the position. The Tide recently got good news for the future with the commitment of Brian Vogler, a top-rated tight end out of Brookstone School in Columbus, Ga.
Reasons for Optimism
Julio Jones is a once-in-a-lifetime type of player. Peek and Maze should have huge seasons. Also, there are some savvy upperclassmen ready to supply big contributions.
However, it's hard not to be encouraged with the incoming freshmen group of receivers. Meet Kendall Kelly, Kevin Norwood, Kenny Bell, and Michael Bowman. All of them expect to make a big splash for the Crimson Tide during their freshman seasons.
Kenny Bell isn't short on speed, but doesn't have a very physical presence. He'll try to become involved in the rotation with Maze at slot receiver. Bell, from Rayville, La., decomitted from rival LSU on National Signing Day, a pleasant surprise for Tide fans after losing out on fellow Louisianan, Rueben Randle. Bell should become a nice complement to Maze off the bench and a homerun threat in his initial season.
Kevin Norwood was the Sun Herald defensive player of the year in 2008 in southern Mississippi, but will begin his freshman year at The Capstone on offense. The coaches may eventually decide to move him to the secondary like Scott, but this year Norwood will try to make his mark as a receiver.
All four newcomers have to adjust to the college level, but as talented as they are, it's a good bet at least one will emerge to make a big impact on the Tide passing game during his freshman campaign.
Reasons for Concern
While Julio Jones did pass A.C. Carter's record with four receiving touchdowns by a freshman, it's interesting to note his fourth touchdown came in the second quarter of game five against Georgia in Athens.
Jones will go into the 2009 season with his scoring drought at nine games and counting. The Tide should find better ways to utilize his ability near the red zone, like the beautiful 22-yard touchdown he had on a fade route in the Georgia game.
The experience of both Walker and McCall will be missed at tight end. Walker was a sure-handed second option for Wilson, while McCall's blocking ability was a big reason for the success of the running game. There is young, but unproven, talent arriving. Both the new guys and the veterans have to get in sync with their new quarterback to ensure success through the air.
Look for the Tide to become a lot deeper than it was last season at wide receiver. Jones and McCoy are the probable starters with Maze in the slot. Earl Alexander needs to stay healthy in order to keep himself in the rotation. Darius Hanks should see the field often as well.
If the freshmen come in and play well this could be a top 10 unit nationally and make the transition of having a new field general easier.
The tight ends look pretty good, but lack of experience across the board does raise some questions. If Peek emerges as a top target and the three former defense men fit nicely into their new roles then there won't be much of a drop off in production from last year.
In the pecking order in the Tide offense, the receiving corps and tight ends would have to be on top coming into '09 as the line is revamped, and the leading rusher and passer from a year ago have moved on. They'll need to become solid right away as the new players acclimate to their starting roles.
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