Heresy To Suggest Julio Must Improve?

When 2009 pre-season football assessments began a year or so ago, the book on Alabama was that the offense had to be rebuilt—replace a record-setting quarterback, two All-America offensive linemen, top running back, and tight end. But for one primary reason, the outlook for the Crimson Tide offense was not bleak.

Alabama's offense was expected to be in the sure hands of wide receiver Julio Jones. That didn't happen. Alabama was eighth in the Southeastern Conference in passing offense. Jones, who had shared SEC Freshman of the Year honors with Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green, had a sophomore slump, insofar as statistics are concerned at least.

Instead of relying on Julio, Bama's offense became the Mark Ingram show. Ingram, also a sophomore, took over at tailback and rushed 249 times for 1542 yards. And, oh yes, Ingram won the Heisman Trophy as the nation's best player and was a consensus All-America. Jones didn't make All-SEC.

To be sure, Julio Jones was a major component of Alabama's national championship success. As Bama Coach Nick Saban pointed out on numerous occasions, Jones was performing when at less than full physical strength owing to minor injuries. More important, the yardage gained by Ingram and other Bama players was in great part because Jones is an outstanding blocker, a wide receiver in the mold of old-time wishbone split ends who had to be blockers first.

So is it heresy to suggest that Julio Jones needs to pick it up?

Jones has been Alabama's leading receiver the past two years. As a freshman he had 58 catches for 924 yards and four touchdowns. Last year the numbers fell off, to 43 catches for 596 yards, only 45.8 yards per game. He was 10th in the SEC in receptions per game and didn't make the top ten in receiving yards.

Shay Hodge of Ole Miss led the SEC with 63 receptions for 1,023 yards in two fewer games than Jones played. A.J. Green of Georgia, Julio's top competition for Freshman of the Year in 2008, had 47 catches for 751 yards playing only nine games.

It's hard to blame it on first-year starting quarterback Greg McElroy, who completed over 60 per cent of his passes. McElroy completed 198 of 325 passes for 2,508 yards and 17 touchdowns with only four interceptions. In other words, he was accurate. Indeed, McElroy's numbers would have been better except for one astounding fact.

Julio Jones dropped a lot of passes.

He also made some big catches. Alabama might have been Tiger meat—twice—without the clutch receptions of Julio. In the fourth quarter against LSU, Jones took a short pass and turned it into a 73-yard touchdown. With Bama down by a point and down to its last possession at Auburn, McElroy went to Jones for three first down pass completions, two of them on third down, as Bama came from behind to win.

The point is not that Jones is a disappointment. Nothing could be further from the truth. He has been outstanding and perhaps no one could have lived up to the expectations held for him.

When the Crimson Tide begins spring practice on March 12, Julio Jones, Heisman Trophy winner Ingram, SEC Championship Game MVP McElroy and all others will be expected to work to improve.

Most would have expected Jones to be a three-year player for Alabama when he was signed as one of the nation's top prospects following his prep All-America career at Foley High School. Is he on the NFL radar for next year? Almost certainly, yes.

Alabama can only ask that if he's going to go out, that he go out with a bang.

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