Well Now What?
After watching and evaluating the AU offense this series the evaluation for things was that the offense was not good. Each position group on offense ran into problems during the season, so are there any answers to those problems for this upcoming season and is there any reason for hope? I believe there is room for some hope.
With that said let's get into it!
Note: left off in consideration are a number of guys I assume are not expected to contribute much, if you felt there's someone I should have mentioned please let me know. Vids are from Hudl and there are various links and stats scattered about from al.com, 247, espn and cfbstats.com.
Issues in 2015: Inconsistent play and new starters.
In 2015 the OL had to replace Chad Slade, Patrick Miller and Reese Dismukes. The prevailing thought at the time was that the guys behind them stepping in had prior experience and the growing pains and issues would be at a minimum. However Kozan maybe wasn't fully himself yet, Golson was playing Center for the first time and Braden Smith was a full time starter for the first time. Not helping was occasional injury and perhaps their coach having to deal with Cancer recovery.
So for 2016 what answers are there?
Well this season only 2 starters on the line are being replaced at the OT positions with both Young and Coleman leaving early so 2 < 3 starters gone should help.
Both Kozan and Smith come back at the guard spots. With Smith having another year and off-season under his belt you expect him to keep improving or at least be as good, believe I heard on a 247 podcast or elsewhere he's another pro prospect that could even leave early this year. Kozan getting an off-season in fully healthy also can only be a good thing as that should help him get back to his old self for this year.
Golson moves from Center over to his more natural position of tackle (LT I think) which is good considering his prior experience was at Tackle before coming to AU so that transition should be fairly smooth or at least smoother than his transition to Center last year.
With Golson moving to OT Dampeer takes over at Center. Unlike in 2015 where a new guy ended up playing a new position Dampeer has been a backup Center his entire time at AU I think. In addition apparently he did well enough in the Spring to where the coaches were fine with moving the guy that started at Center last year back over to Tackle. In a worst case if Dampeer gets injured or doesn't perform up to task Golson can always be moved back over.
This leaves the other tackle position (RT I believe) which looks to be filled by Robert Leff at this time. Given how he was able to help AU run the ball on Bama last year and at other times come in for big sets to help road grade for the running game it seems like this other tackle position is also in good hands.
As far as backups you have that entire well regarded O-line class from 2014 who are now RS-freshmen with 2 off-seasons and a year plus of practice under their belts and you also have former 5-star Darius James who is still contending for a starting spot at tackle last I heard. At the least you'd think James would be able to come in on big packages for short yardage when needed which should be a help.
So Answers for the O-line: fewer starters being replaced and the replacements seem like they will be good and there are backup options and other assortments of the O-line available to shuffle in case things struggle again.
We are still replacing two starters and once again going with a different guy at Center. While things look positive I also thought they were positive last year so we'll have to see.
The O-line with 3/5 starters back, more experience for some, re-shuffling players to their stronger positions and backups having a year of development gives the thought that the O-line looks like it should be ok. It will be a question mark, though I'm thinking less so this season than last season's unit in hindsight.
Issues in 2015: injuries and the doghouse.
Jovon Robinson is back and seems to have "elevated" himself from the other running backs. In addition it seems he was helping recruit during big cat which would indicate to me he's in the coaches full good graces now. Jovon was our best running back last year but didn't get much playing time other than a few carries until after the mid-point of the season (Ole Miss, A&M, UGA, Idaho, Bama and Memphis) and even then he was splitting time with Barber a bit.
Assuming similar number of carries as say CAP in 2014 and Jovon maintaining his 5.46 rushing average the projection for this season comes out like this:
Att: 303, Yards: 1654.38 TDs: 7
TDs project a bit low since his TD% on his touches was only 2.5% or so which I think will rise next season and I was not sure what assumption to make to bring that up. Otherwise though those are some very solid numbers there.
Apart from Jovon we have Kerryon Johnson coming back from last year. He'll be stepping into both Roc's role and backup RB role and given his play making ability he showed off last year and assuming he improves he should be a solid backup option.
Roc departs sadly. Which sucks as he was a play-maker in space himself and was a nice change of pace back, but as noted above Kerryon will probably be stepping into that role.
Adding to depth Pettway and Cox are also going to be options in the running game and from what was seen in the Spring game both looked pretty solid though Pettaway looked a bit more natural at RB to me.
As far as freshmen Malik Miller comes in as another decent sized running back. Don't know much on him but it looks like coaches expect to play him at least on special teams and will have him ready in case injury strikes.
Depth at RB. With only Jovon, KJ and Miller as the best pure RBs at the running back position things could get thin in a hurry if injuries strike. At the same time Pettway and Cox are available if need be and provide a couple more power backs if their depth is needed in the running game.
I expect the running backs to do well and even better than last year so long as injuries don't factor in, though if that happens I think the running backs will still be productive with what we have on the team.
Issues in 2015: inexperience.
The play last year from these guys was not "bad" per se but there were occasional hiccups like a missed block or a dropped pass here or there. If I remember right from what the coaches and players are saying it sounds like these guys are improved and will be more involved in the offense. Certainly Cox's big block in the Memphis game gave some good vibes late year.
Similar with the RBs I'm a little concerned on depth here, if injuries were to occur to either Cox or Pettaway and to a RB things get a bit dicey with numbers at that point with only 3 combined RB/HB/FBs all total (not counting TEs).
Both Cox and Pettway were Freshmen or Red Shirt Freshmen last year so you absolutely expect improvement from them and it sounds/looks like both will be more involved with the offense this season.
Issues from 2015: Inexperience and perhaps talent issues.
AU just did not use the TEs much from last year at all other than for blocking at times. Part of it was probably inexperience but given the fact that there didn't seem to be ANY targets at all for them I would guess talent was also an issue. This needs to change and thankfully it seems like the coaches realize this as they mentioned they are using the TEs more in practice and know they need to use them.
As to inexperience Jalen Harris who was a true freshman last year has a year now under his belt so improvement from him you'd expect.
Chris Laye departed but I'm not sure how much that hurts if at all.
As far as talent AU brought in 4 star TE Landon Rice. While it is asking a good bit for Landon to contribute immediately he was an early enrollee in Spring which helps and we have seen freshman TEs contribute a bit in Malzahn's offenses before. Even the pedestrian 66 yards and 2 TDs that Lutzie had in 2009 would be 66 yards and 2 TDs more than what AU had last year from the TE spot! (Interesting tidbit, Lutzie was a 4-star as well)
Something a bit odd Caleb King is listed as a TE and for some reason I thought he was a Center. He may just be adding depth.
While the talent got upgraded with the addition of Landon Rice and you expect improvement from Jalen Harris after a year of experience there is still a concern with Rice on his inexperience and with Harris on his lack of production last year.
Adding Rice could be a big help for this offense and the added year of experience for Harris should help as well. While the question of how productive the TEs will be remains it seems the position has gotten better from last year.
Issues in 2015: Dis-missal of Duke, replacing key folks from 2014, issues blocking and ball skill problems.
From last year AU lost Duke Williams, Melvin Ray and Ricardo Louis. As far as guys replacing them there are two sets of folks. The "old" guys and the "new" guys.
Overall: These guys aren't necessarily not talented, but seniority wise they were behind Ray and Louis and not helping were the issues with qb play last year. In addition consistency was also an issue for some as well.
Marcus Davis Sr - 5-9 189 - Sure handed guy who has made plays in critical situations before at AU. He seems to be their most consistent receiver returning right now.
Tony Stevens Sr - 6-4 212 - Talented but in-consistent has been Tony's label seemingly while he's been at AU. He made some plays and had opportunities for some plays last year. Guy is tall and big at 6-4 212 but he needs to get it together this year as a Senior. More reps now that the starting spots are open hopefully helps that.
Jason Smith Jr - 6-1 188 - Has the physical tools and speed to be a big contributor but he's still developing as a receiver after being a QB in Jr college. Definite flashes were seen of his ability last season though, culminating in his great catch and run in the Iron Bowl.
Stanton Truitt SO - 5-9 185 - Speedy guy who got some targets and runs last year but sadly got hurt. He's listed as a sophomore but I thought he was one last year as well, I'm guessing he got a medical red-shirt?
Ryan Davis SO - 5-9 172 - Another speedy guy, he got used on the 1 "woody" play last year. If memory serves he's talented but was at the back of the bus on seniority and the depth chart.
Darius Slayton RS FR - 6-2 191 - Decent sized WR at 6-2 with speed to take the top off a defense as evidenced in the A-day game. Also evidenced is that he still has some work to do since he dropped a pretty sure TD catch on that same play...
Overall: good grief that's a big talented group of receivers! I'm not sure we've had this many high rated new-comers since Aromashudu, Obamanu and Mix came in that 1 year.
Kyle Davis FR - 6-2 219 he already looks the part of a collegiate receiver and coaches concur. He seems to be pretty physical with a knack for catching contested balls or balls in traffic (that'd be nice to see...). I like in his highlight vid it shows him making a key block on a play (0:48-1:00). He was the only early enrollee from the new WRs though he was limited due to injury.
Nate Craig-Myers FR - 6-2 204 he's another good sized WR. At one time he was the #1 WR in the country I think and had offers from all over. The guy's speed, athleticism and hands are something to see in his highlights. This guy looks like he could be special but we'll have to wait and see.
Eli Stove Fr - at 6-0 177 (Au's listing, 247 has 6-1 178) he isn't as big as some of the other new comers but he was another top 20 WR that Au grabbed in the class. He does have good speed though with his Hudl vid at the start mentioning he runs a 4.4 40 and a 10.7 100 and his highlights in the vid show it off to good effect.
Marquis McClain - 6-2 208 - Kind of an under the radar guy who was a 3 star (maybe because it looks like he split time at RB and receiver?). But he has really nice size and his highlights aren't too bad either. Guessing he needs more development but you never know.
Some other points:
Well there is no more Duke Williams on this team and so far we don't seem to have any players in the WR corp that matches his problems.
For the blocking and overall physicality the coaches seem to be placing a point of emphasis on those and rightly so as it was an issue at times last season.
While talent is being upgraded the new folks coming in will still be freshmen and if the returning guys were talented and/or reliable why didn't they feature more prominently in the offense last year?
Among reliable guys (Marcus Davis), potential break out guys from the returning folks (Jason Smith, Stevens and Slayton), some very nice (elite?) talent coming in at WR for AU and more emphasis on blocking and "dirty work" I'm thinking the WR corp will perform a good bit better this upcoming year, especially on drops and the small things.
Issues in 2015: Mental issues, turnovers, Red Zone production, inconsistency and injury.
I think I'll go qb by qb as far as the 3-4 seemingly main contenders (leaving out Queen since he was set back by injury again sadly).
If White Starts...
Mental issues, turnovers and inconsistency problems would be dealt with I believe if White started. White was getting better game by game and if not for drops/could have got that balls his completion percentage would have been a lot higher and he could have had another TD or 2.
Injuries and Red Zone issues would still be a concern though.
Injuries you can only do so much about, White is decent sized at above 200 pounds so it's not like he doesn't have size to absorb injuries. My take on it is we don't know if White is injury prone yet or not, though since it did happen last year it is a concern.
However, Red Zone issues could be mitigated by packages with JJ in at qb for red zone situations as we saw in the bowl game or even with newcomer JF3 back there. AU also added more weapons for White to throw to in the red zone with a new TE and a couple of pretty big WRs in Kyle Davis and Myers. Add in other parts of the offense like the O-line, FBs and RBs to be improved or hopefully improved should all also help White in Red Zone situations.
Something to bear in mind in all of this though is that White was a Red-Shirt Freshman last year when he started so it's likely he'll be improved this year which is also a point in his favor.
If JJ Starts....
Red Zone production, turnovers and injury wouldn't seem to be as much of a problem under JJ. He did fairly well in scoring situations as I mentioned in the last part and he seemed to get rid of his turnover problems as well late year.
Mental issues and inconsistency though could still be problems.
Other improvements by the offense and having more weapons to throw to could help some with those concerns but until we see the JJ we thought we knew again it's going to be a big question mark for him.
JJ's running ability and overall athletic ability still seems to be the best out of our qbs and if he got his mental issues settled and right I could see him starting and being successful at qb. The coaches have also said that JJ has improved from last year as well which may be faint praise or it may be honest who knows?
JJ to me is the big x-factor in the QB race. He seemed to still have some of the problems he had at first in A-day but settled in later, but that's just 1 spring game... We have no idea how he has done in day to day practice compared to the other qbs so we really only have last year and the Spring game to go on. As is I'd say JJ has some ground to make up but Summer practice awaits and who knows what it will bring...
If JF3 starts...
I'm not sure how much he mitigates the problems at the qb position from last year. It seems like he wasn't too turnover prone in JC but he wasn't a full time starter either. With his running ability I'd think the red zone offense would be fine unless he just couldn't be a throwing threat at all.
He does bring a big time running threat to the qb position though and as 2013 pointed out with Malzahn's offense if you can get really nice running production from the qb you don't need too good of a passing game to be successful. That said he's on the smallish side at 6-1 186 but they were still working at putting on weight on him last I remember reading. He also seems to have a good work ethic, going out of his way to get some pointers from Michael Vick and his coach/guru a few weeks back.
With JF3 the zone read would come back in force at AU it would seem and it could very well work. But I'm not sure if he's durable enough or otherwise a good enough qb to grab the starting spot. He does have an arm though and is REALLY fast.
If Woody Barrett Starts...
There would be a large number of questions... He seems talented but starting a true freshman in the SEC is rarely a recipe for success. But he's been promised a chance at the qb job from what I remember and while I think his chances are not very good he'll be getting a look.
Like I said he seems talented and has running ability but I just don't see him getting the nod with more established and also talented older guys fighting it out ahead of him.
None of the qbs separated themselves enough in Spring to win the qb job and all had problems in the Spring game. This makes sense but at the same time it would have been nice if someone had just shown up and blown the doors off of everyone else, well maybe that'll happen in Summer. The argument could be made naming a starter in Spring didn't help JJ much last year...
With expected improvement from JJ and White and the addition of JF3 to add a dynamic fast running threat the AU coaches are a bit more spoiled for choice this year and that should pay dividends when they eventually settle on a starter.
Issues from 2015: off and on play calling/decision making, prior responsibility for development and recruiting in problem spots and lack of good HUNH.
As far as play calling I think it will be better since the AU coaches will have more weapons and options in place for what they want to run between having more qbs with different skill sets, TE being added, talent upgrades at WR and overall the offense looking like it should improve. There is also the well publicized tidbit of Gus wanting to coach more and be less CEO like. Between those two main things I'm thinking the play calling will be a bit better and good HUNH will be more prevalent.
For recruiting the AU coaches seem to have gradually gotten a better feel for that as they've tried to bring in more FBs, TEs and WRs in recruiting classes. It still feels they are slightly behind in some ways but needs seem to be getting evaluated and recruited better now.
Development wise, apart from JJ's poor play last year to start I'd argue for qb development you have a counterpoint with White as he seemed to have been developed all right. O-line wise and Receiver wise though things were up and down or just bad. Coincidentally the coaches for both of those units are gone now. Herb Hand comes in with a good reputation after helping make Vandy of all teams relevant in the SEC and Kodi Burns comes in after a season at MTSU that saw their production at WR skyrocket from 2014 to 2015.
That being said I'm slightly disappointed that Lashlee is still there instead of say Craig moving to be qb coach. At the same time though Gus has had success with Lashlee as his right hand man through most of Gus' time as an assistant coach and as a head coach. So I guess we'll see how that goes.
We still have Lashlee on staff, Kodi is a relatively young coach and Herb Hand's last job at Penn State was not exactly awesome. In addition we do seem slightly behind in recruiting as freshmen who could be plugging holes in the roster this year maybe would have been better to have gotten last year. There is also the question of if the two new hires will work out and actually be better than Grimes and Craig from last year.
Things are in place for the coaching staff to have a better time of it this year. With more weapons and choices for personnel to work with on offense, Malzahn getting more involved with the whole team including the offense and new coaches in units that struggled last year it's looking like steps were taken to make corrections in coaching.
Each position group had problems in 2015 and in addition there were some coaching issues as well. From what I'm seeing though there are potential if not outright answers for each question mark or concern!
OL - 3/5 starters back and well regarded new OL coach.
HB/FB - Starters from last year who were freshmen/RS freshmen have a year under their belt now.
RB - Best player looks like he'll be a focal point and seems like he is nowhere near the doghouse right now. Backups and others also seem decent.
TE - Harris from last year has a year of experience and a talented freshman was brought in with Rice.
WR - There are some possibilities with existing guys and there are some talented new guys who have come in or will be coming in this Summer. New WR coach seems like a good hire.
QB - Barring no improvement the qbs from last year are available, should have more weapons on offense and the rest of the offense as a whole should be better. In addition a JC guy and a freshman have come in/will come in to add to competition and give more options for the coaches to choose from (poor Queen and getting set back with injury again...).
Coaching - New coaches at problem spots of WR and OL, Gus looking to get more involved with the team in coaching and less CEO like and better/more weapons offensively for the coaching staff to use while play calling.
Is it a certainty that all these potential answers will work out? Of course not. However it seems more likely than not to me that enough of them will to make a difference. How well this will affect the offense at this point is unknown, but I think you can say this much for the AU offense this upcoming season: There is hope...
Well it looked like I'd keep the word count lower for this one for a while but yeah.... Anyway, thanks all for reading! I hope those that read through all of this series enjoyed it or found some interesting stuff!
I'm not sure if I'll try a similar series on the defense.... I just don't feel as knowledgeable on it (and my knowledge in football aint that great to being with) and since the focus is usually on the offense on vids I'm not sure it's as easy to see what happens play to play with the defense. I guess let me know in a comment or on twitter if ya'll would like me to try? Thanks again!
God bless and War Eagle!