September 8, 2016
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The most telling offensive numbers from the University of Alabama’s game against Southern California on Saturday may have been the ones at the bottom of the statistics page, or those that weren’t listed at all.
They include sophomore wide receiver Calvin Ridley having a mere two receptions for nine yards, the quarterbacks combining for only 12 completions, sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough averaging just 3.3 yards per carry and junior wide receiver Robert Foster not having any receptions at all.
If you had told Alabama fans those numbers beforehand, they might have shown some serious concern. Instead, it outgained No. 20 USC 242-64 on the ground, 223-130 in the air and crushed the Trojans 52-6.
“We have a lot of talent on offense at every position on the field,” senior wide receiver Gehrig Dieter said. “We have a lot of depth on offense.”
Yes it does. Although Alabama felt like it didn’t play that well at AT&T Stadium, or nowhere near its potential, one obvious thing from the game was that its playmakers were as good as advertised. For each one who didn’t have a big night, another did.
Sophomore running back Damien Harris, who was probably a little extra motivated by all the offseason attention Scarbrough received, had 138 rushing yards on nine carries.
Junior wide receiver ArDarius Stewart had a huge game with four receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Dieter, a graduate transfer from Bowling Green, caught his first touchdown pass with the Crimson Tide.
Those would be impressive showings in almost any game, but this was for a team that has yet to forge an offensive identity and is still in the middle of a quarterback competition.
It’s like the idiom of a kid in a candy store—how does offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin choose?
“I think we’ll do a lot more trying to keep the defense on their toes,” senior tight end O.J. Howard said last week. “So I think we’ll have a chance to take shots, like even starting off early in the game. And I think that’ll be helpful for us with so much potential and so much talent that we have on the offensive side of the ball. I think that’s something different we’ll change up.”
Coming into this season, Alabama already knew that it might have the best tight end in college football and a possible All-American at wide receiver.
Howard was one of the Crimson Tide’s biggest heroes from the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, finishing with 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns, and Ridley is coming off a 1,000-yard season in his freshman year.
Stewart was also established as a starter, having 63 receptions for 700 yards last season, and his development had been a long time coming. After redshirting in 2013, things finally started to click for him near the end of the 2014 season, and his big thing during this past offseason was to become a team leader.
“Yeah, I took [coaching] OK,” he said. “But coming in, trying to switch from quarterback to receiver, that was the hardest part for me. I played a lot of things in high school, but trying to get my mechanics down, that was a hard thing for me.”
In terms of proven production, that was pretty much it for the Crimson Tide. Harris and Scarbrough had combined for 64 carries and 261 rushing yards. Dieter had a 1,000-yard receiving season at Bowling Green last year, but that was a different school, different scheme and different opposition.
Foster had won a starting job last year but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Ole Miss. Because one never knows how well a player will come off a major injury, he still had to be in that “potential” category.
“People forget as great as Calvin Ridley was last year, Calvin actually backed Robert until Robert got hurt,” Kiffin said. “To see [Foster] grow in the program as part of the process and end up starting last year and scoring a touchdown in the opener, I think he would have had a great season if he hadn’t gotten hurt.
“Very special skill set as far as speed and ability to get on top of the coverage downfield, and if he’s healthy I think he’ll really have another one too.”
There were just so many things that Alabama couldn’t take for granted, and that was also apparent against the Trojans.
For example, put a different center with a new quarterback, handing off to a first-time running back in a big-time setting and you just can’t assume everything will go right.
It didn’t on freshman Jalen Hurts’ first snap at quarterback, resulting in a fumble that USC recovered at midfield late in the first quarter. A lot of players might have dwelled on that, but Alabama’s players didn’t.
“Jalen is a great quarterback,” Harris said. “He offers a lot to the offense. Teams have to prepare for him. He can throw the ball, he can run—just like all of our quarterbacks; they can all do a good job of that—so defenses have to prepare for that run-pass threat. That opens up a few more running lanes for the running backs.”
But with three new starters on the offense and a fourth in a new position—with sophomore Ross Pierschbacher going from left guard last season, to center all spring and summer and then right guard for the opener—the offensive line wasn’t in sync.
Alabama got off to a slow start as both freshman quarterbacks were anxious, but both played well as evidenced by the final score. Ridley actually dropped the only incompletion Blake Barnett had in the game.
Yet the offense didn’t sustain drives. It wasn’t particularly adept at converting third downs, and there was little difference in time of possession, all things that Alabama aims to dominate.
“We need to play with a lot better consistency,” Nick Saban said, and he meant it.
Alabama’s head coach defines an explosive play as a run of 13 or more yards, or a pass of 17 or more yards. The offensive goal is nine per game.
Despite the lopsided outcome, it failed to reach that number.
Alabama had three from the running backs, with Harris carries of 73 and 46 yards, and Stewart with a 17-yard carry. The passing game notched four, three of which resulted in touchdowns.
Now imagine what it’ll be like when the offense is able to do as things come together—when the quarterback is set, the offensive line is settled, Ridley starts making big plays, Scarborough gains confidence and everyone has had few games under their belt playing together.
Now go back and notice how many players in this article aren’t seniors or juniors.
“He wins with sophomores, at important positions,” said Marcus Spears, a former player for Saban at LSU who is now an analyst for the SEC Network. “That’s been the difference between Coach Saban and other coaches, and that’s not a knock on other coaches. He’s developing these guys and making them elite football players at a rate faster than the [coaches] in the rest of the conference.
“That’s been the reason for winning. If I can get my sophomore to be the best running back in the conference, or the best cornerback. If I can get Cam Robinson as a freshman to be the premier left tackle in the SEC, then I have an advantage because I have him for at least two more years.”
Mark Ingram Jr. won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore. Amari Cooper hit 1,000 yards as a freshman. The examples go on and on, yet these guys are just getting started.
“I think we can improve on everything,” Dieter said.
Watch out, college football.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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