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October 30, 2011

Report Card: Grading the Tide

The University of Alabama is idle this weekend with two-thirds of the regular season in the books. But with the stretch run of the Southeastern Conference season still ahead, there is still much work to be done. Perhaps even championship work.

Today, TideSports.com hands out some grades for the Crimson Tide, position by position, for an idle-week report card.

QUARTERBACK
Grade: A
Progress report: This position was one of the few that was a legitimate question mark entering the season, and through eight games, AJ McCarron has answered it emphatically. As a first-year starter, his completion percentage is the best in the Southeastern Conference, his pass efficiency rating is second in the league, and his yardage per game (208) ranks third.
Prize pupil: As a new starter, McCarron is going through a season of firsts. First start, first SEC start, first road SEC start, etc. And with only three interceptions in eight games, he has met every challenge impressively.
Skipped a grade: Redshirt freshman Phillip Sims is getting late-game action in relief of McCarron and has completed 18 of 28 passes.
Do the math: McCarron has distributed his completions in every direction as seven of his weapons have collected at least 10 catches on the year.
Class project: As effective as he has been completing shorter passes, McCarron has been off the mark with some of his deeper throws this season. After completing deep passes to Marquis Maze and Kenny Bell against Tennessee last weekend, that issue may be turning the corner.
Pop quiz: 1. Who caught McCarron's first career touchdown pass?

RUNNING BACK
Grade: A+
Progress report: What else to give a trio of effective backs led by a Heisman Trophy candidate? Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and Jalston Fowler have run through the toughest defenses they have come across, and each is averaging better than six yards per carry. They have picked up blitzes well and have been effective as receivers, as well.
Prize pupil: Richardson is enjoying the best season of his career, and needs only 11 yards against LSU next week to reach 1,000 for the year. He's bulled his way across the goal line 17 times, and says he is feeling fresh physically.
Skipped a grade: Despite a foot injury that has limited him midseason, Lacy has shown explosiveness when given the ball. He's also hung onto the ball, which was a focus of his in fall camp.
Do the math: The Richardson-Lacy-Fowler trio has combined for 25 rushing touchdowns on the year.
Class project: Stay healthy. Everything else, for this group, is in place.
Pop quiz: 2. Which of Alabama's running backs comes from the state of Louisiana?

OFFENSIVE LINE
Grade: A-
Progress report: Perhaps no unit on the field has shown more progress from the start of the season to now than the offensive line. After a few signs of inconsistency early in the year, Alabama's offensive front began establishing itself as a dominant group with its effort against Arkansas in late September. UA leads the SEC in rushing at 229 yards per game. The pass protection has been solid as well.
Prize pupil: Barrett Jones has been outstanding in his first year playing left tackle, a transition that isn't easy for someone who was previously a two-year starter at guard. Jones is also a leadership figure for the line, and is versatile enough to play any spot up front.
Skipped a grade: No doubt, Anthony Steen's improvement from 2010 to 2011 has been a major factor in the line's overall improvement. Steen has started all but one game at right guard and has been especially effective as a run blocker.
Do the math: The UA line has allowed on 12 sacks in eight games this year.
Class project: Performance-wise, there is no flaw that shows itself game in, game out. Much like the running back position, staying healthy is priority number one, especially with the loss of reserve left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio to a knee injury.
Pop quiz: 3. How many career starts do Alabama's five starters have combined?

WIDE RECEIVER
Grade: B+
Progress report: Those wondering whether Marquis Maze had ability to take the No.1 receiving role vacated by Julio Jones have pretty much gotten their answer: yes. Darius Hanks' production has been on the rise since his return to the lineup in week three. Others have been reliable when thrown to. As a unit, there have been very few drops.
Prize pupil: Maze leads the team with 39 receptions. There is more safety help rolling his way in coverage than there was a year ago, which has made the deep pass tougher to complete, but he's been able to maintain a pace for about 60 catches on the year.
Skipped a grade: Kenny Bell's 167 yards receiving ranks third on the team among the wide outs, and his 12.8 per-catch average is first among the regulars.
Do the math: Five different UA wide receivers have caught at least one touchdown pass, but only one (DeAndrew White) has caught more than one (2).
Class project: On obvious passing situations, opponents do what they can to take Maze away. Consistent production from others, particularly Bell and White, will keep the passing game sharp.
Pop quiz: 4. A freshman leads UA in yards per catch, but has only three receptions. Who is it?

TIGHT END
Grade: A-
Progress report: The tight end position has been a strength of Alabama's team every year since Nick Saban's arrival in 2007, and this season is no different. Michael Williams has been outstanding as a blocker on the line of scrimmage. Brad Smelley, as the H-back, blocks more in open space and his athleticism is suited for that. As receivers, the two have combined for 26 catches for AJ McCarron, and Smelley has made a few tough catches look easy.
Prize pupil: Williams' year-to-year development has been impressive for a guy who began his career at linebacker. He is a complete player who helps keep McCarron out of bad down-and-distance situations with his blocking, and also delivers when thrown to.
Skipped a grade: Brandon Lewis switched from defensive line to tight end early in the season, and immediately began giving UA some help in short-yardage situations as a blocker.
Do the math: Williams' 15.2 average per catch is exceptionally high for a tight end.
Class project: Developing depth among the younger players such as Brian Vogler and Harrison Jones will help set up continuity at the position for the future. UA loses Smelley and Chris Underwood after this year, but returns all others.
Pop quiz: 5. Which tight end is tied for the lead for Alabama in touchdown catches with two?

DEFENSIVE LINE
Grade: A-
Progress report: The simplest way to judge how this group has played is to look at the team's performance against the run, which has been nothing short of stellar. Gap control is priority number one for defensive linemen in a 3-4 defense, and in that aspect, opposing offensive lines have found tough sledding against UA. There also seems to be little drop-off when substitutes rotate in.
Prize pupil: Josh Chapman has been a stalwart at the nose guard position. Though he's made just 13 tackles, Alabama linebackers swear by his value as a guy who can hold his own against double teams, occupying the middle of the line with control of his man.
Skipped a grade: Jesse Williams, in his first year playing at the SEC level, has steadily improved. He's made 3.5 tackles for loss and, more importantly, has become a more effective player over time.
Do the math: Defensive end Ed Stinson has more tackles (14) and tackles for loss (five) than any other UA defensive lineman.
Class project: Alabama's linebackers tend to get more sacks than the linemen, but the linemen still have to shrink the pass pocket, which helps the linebackers finish the play. Nick Gentry has been excellent in that regard in pass situations.
Pop quiz: 6. Who are the two fifth-year seniors on the Alabama defensive line?

LINEBACKERS
Grade: A
Progress report: Arguably the best group of linebackers in the nation, the Crimson Tide has just what it needs at each position. Dont'a Hightower provides leadership, knowledge in the middle, and is a run-stopping force. Courtney Upshaw's ability as a pass rusher gives Alabama a threat on the edge against the pass, and the weakside position gets contributions from both Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley.
Prize pupil: Dont'a Hightower is the easy choice. From making calls and checks for the front seven before the snap, to playing the middle of the field against the run, to rushing off the edge on third down, he is invaluable.
Skipped a grade: Jerrell Harris is playing more than ever this season, not only because he is a first-year starter, but also because UA is using its regular 3-4 defense a bit more than it has in the past.
Do the math: Upshaw leads the team in tackles for loss with 11.5, for minus-54 yards.
Class project: With Alex Watkins out with an arm injury for two to three weeks, UA will have more of a chance to develop a younger player at Upshaw's Jack position. Adrian Hubbard could be that guy.
Pop quiz: 7. Which two Alabama linebackers are semifinalists for the Butkus Award?

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Grade: A
Progress report: Cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner have played significantly better than they did a year ago. Alabama is the only team in the SEC allowing completions on fewer than half of opponents' passes (48.1 percent). Meanwhile, the safety play of veterans Mark Barron and Robert Lester has been rock solid. Alabama is allowing 135 yards per game through the air, second-best in the league behind South Carolina.
Prize pupil: Mark Barron is the most experienced member of the secondary, now a third-year starter, and gives UA its most physical secondary presence. His 40 tackles ranks second on the team, and he has broken up five passes.
Skipped a grade: Although Milliner picked up valuable game action in 2010, he is still the youngest player in the group. Nevertheless, he has played like a veteran this season with a team-high two interceptions and seven pass breakups.
Do the math: Alabama's five regulars in the secondary have combined for 31 pass breakups.
Class project: The UA secondary has given up some of its longest completions of the season on the opposing team's opening drive. Getting off to a better start on a consistent basis is important.
Pop quiz: 8. Which Alabama defensive back came to UA as a transfer from LSU?

SPECIAL TEAMS
Grade: B
Progress report: The good news first - Marquis Maze has been outstanding as a return man on both kickoffs and punts, and with the exception of a rough game against Ole Miss, kickoff coverage has been solid as well. The bad news - punting needs improvement, and kickoffs haven't been especially deep. The field goal tandem of Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley has been solid once again (12 of 16).
Prize pupil: Maze has 576 total return yards this season, most of which has come on punts. He leads the SEC in kickoff return average at 29.8 and is third in punt returns at 13.0.
Skipped a grade: Freshmen Vinnie Sunseri and Trey DePriest have made a major impact on kickoff coverage.
Do the math: At 11 of 13, Jeremy Shelley is converting 84.6 percent of his field goals.
Class project: Punter Cody Mandell's punting average of 39 yards ranks 12th in the SEC. More consistency there, as well as improved kickoff distance, will help significantly.
Pop quiz: 9. What is the longest field goal converted by a UA kicker this season?

OVERALL
Mid-term progress report: Two months into the season, Alabama is not only 8-0 but it hasn't played a close game yet. That speaks, more than anything, to the dominance the Crimson Tide has displayed in 2011. The defense has been stellar in virtually every respect, while the offense has been both balanced and effective despite a new quarterback and a new left tackle. Alabama's special teams, overall, have been solid if not spectacular.

POP QUIZ ANSWERS
1. Julio Jones, against San Jose State in 2010.
2. Eddie Lacy.
3. 115.
4. Christion Jones.
5. Michael Williams.
6. Josh Chapman and Nick Gentry.
7. Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower.
8. Phelon Jones.
9. 45 yards, Cade Foster.


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