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Alabama Secondary Leveling Up

By Jim Johnson
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The first few weeks of Alabama’s 2018 campaign have thus far shaped up like a video game. That’s not just a reference to the Tide’s offensive production, either.

The first few weeks of Alabama’s 2018 campaign have thus far shaped up like a video game. That’s not just a reference to the Tide’s offensive production, either.

Nick Saban’s very talented, very inexperienced secondary has gone heads up with a couple of the ostensibly more prolific passing attacks in college football.

Level one featured a battle in Orlando with a Louisville passing attack that ranked 19th in success rate, 68th in IsoPPP, 15th in yards per game, 16th in yards per attempt, 17th in touchdowns, and 18th in efficiency rating nationally, last year.

Sure, the Cardinals lost the best college football player ever, but all three of their leading receivers returned -- Jaylen Smith, Dez Fitzpatrick, and Seth Dawkins, which comprise a trio of dynamic, complementary weapons, each filling a unique role, theoretically capable of exploiting any defensive look. Even without Lamar Jackson, as Jawon Pass stepped in and allowed Bobby Petrino to get back to what made him so successful during his first go-round, there were plenty of reasons to expect that this group would, if not improve, avoid serious regression.

Alas, Alabama held their ACC foes to about 48 fewer yards, two less yards per attempt, and a passing efficiency rating of 34 points below their 2017 averages. Oh, and both touchdowns were allowed in the second half, the first when Alabama was up 34-0 in the third quarter, the second up 51-7 with under two minutes to go in the final frame… so garbage time.

Louisville also averaged fewer than one interception per game in 2017, but Pass tossed two in this contest -- one to Shyheim Carter that went to the house, and the other to Deionte Thompson, who looked like the best player on the field that night (maybe the best player in the country, as he posted the highest week one Pro Football Focus grade), and a future All-American.

Level two saw Alabama welcome Arkansas State to their home turf. The Red Wolves were coming off of a season in which their passing offense ranked 7th in success rate, 54th in IsoPPP, 5th in yards per game and touchdowns, 30th in yards per attempt, and 26th in efficiency rating.

Just a week prior, they had gone for 497 yards, at a clip of 12.4 yards per attempt, with seven touchdowns, and a 222.12 passer rating.

Granted, that was against Southeast Missouri State but there was still plenty of reason to believe that this group could challenge the Tide, if only in that one facet of the game, having returned star quarterback Justice Hansen, a former Oklahoma Sooner, who, a year ago, threw for as many touchdowns as Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph and tossed more than SEC signal callers Jake Bentley and Jarrett Stidham combined. He, paired with arguably the most physically imposing group of receivers -- their top three returning receivers range from 6’3 to 6’6 -- ought to be a handful for anybody in the nation. In fairness, it didn’t help losing another Oklahoma-transfer, wideout Dahu Green who is also a giant, in the opener, but what happened in Bryant-Denny Stadium was borderline unfathomable.

Arkansas State compiled 218 passing yards (-124 from their ‘17 per game average), on a miserable 4.3 yards per attempt (-3.7), with an 81.6 passer rating (-65.5). Hansen only managed to throw for one touchdown, once more in garbage time, and yet another pick was taken to the crib, this time by Saivion Smith.

In hindsight, Louisville and Arkansas State were like Wario and a couple of Koopa Troopas. After breezing through levels one and two, it’s time to take on the final boss. Ole Miss is Bowser and the battle will take place in his fortress.

A year ago, the Rebels ranked 14th in passing S&P+, with a 45.2% success rate (21st), and 1.74 IsoPPP (10th). They were also 11th in yards per game, 8th in yards per attempt and passer efficiency rating, and 20th in touchdowns.

Somehow, after being as elite as they were, they still return every meaningful piece from that group, including the best receiver in the game, A.J. Brown.

No SEC player this century has had as many 150+ yard games in a single season as he just did. He had a 143.9 passer rating on his targets (5th highest among returning FBS receivers), which is over 50 points above the national average. He also graded out above the mean on six different types of routes, at his absolute best on slants, crossing routes, and screens. Obviously he did most of his damage in the short to intermediate range, but he made them all count, averaging more yards per route run than any returning SEC pass catcher. Operating from the slot, Brown’s 13.17 yards per target were the second most among returning players, and his ten touchdowns topped all of college football, a year ago.

Brown is a physical specimen that bullies smaller nickel corners on a regular basis. He’s got the hops and body control to climb the ladder with anyone. He is one of just two returninging receivers with 80+ targets to rank in the 80th percentile of both marginal success rate and marginal IsoPPP. And, as plainly displayed by his 643 yards after the catch and 23 missed tackles forced, which ranked second and third, respectively, among returning FBS receivers, he is a serial embarrasser with the ball in his hands.

A small part of the reason for his unmatched pass catching proficiency may be a his playing predominantly from the slot, but that’s not a knock on him, rather a byproduct of his fellow NWO’s, who help comprise the only receiving corps in college football that may pass the eye test to a greater degree than Arkansas State. One of them is DaMarkus Lodge, who at 6’2, 200 lbs. is the prototype, and ranked in the top ten in the SEC in receiving yards and touchdowns last year. The other is DK Metcalf, standing a solid 6’4, 225 lbs., with the build of an outside linebacker and the sheer muscle definition of Captain Falcon, who ranked in the top 12 in the SEC for receiving yards and the top ten in touchdowns, as well.

Along with tight end Dawson Knox, their presence allows for Brown to kick inside and creates nightmarish matchup advantages on a regular basis. This isn’t a case of three gifted, but one dimensional athletes. The group each fills a unique role which offers myriad avenues to attack and dissect whatever opposing defenses are susceptible to, from one week to the next. Together, they form what might be the best collection of deep threats there is, each ranking in the top 31 last year in yards off of targets that traveled at least 20 yards downfield.

Lodge did miss the last game after suffering a concussion in week one, but Braylon Sanders has stepped in admirably and actually trails only Brown and Missouri standout Emanuel Hall ,among SEC receivers, in yardage so far this year.

Other than that setback, the unit has been as good as advertised, lighting Texas Tech’s cornerbacks ablaze in week one, and, in spite of a defensive no-show, they went for 479 yards and five touchdowns with a 230.7 passer rating against Southern Illinois. And, although it was an FCS opponent in week two, it was still a contextually impressive showing, as they posted the second most yards, the third most touchdowns, and the fourth best efficiency rating by an FBS team vs. an FCS team so far this season.

Brown has been especially dominant, too, with 15 catches on 18 targets, for 251 yards and three touchdowns. Last Saturday, six of his receptions went for first downs. The other two both ended up in the endzone, and his quarterback posted a perfect passer rating when throwing his way.

Speaking of which, even though Jordan Ta’amu began last season as Shea Patterson’s backup, the Hawaii-native might be a better fit for Ole Miss’ offense. Many in and around the program contend that, had Patterson opted not to transfer, Ta’amu still would have won the starting job in the preseason. There’s a compelling case for it, in that, while not the playmaker that Patterson can be, he is more of a low ceiling-high floor proposition. With all the skill position talent across the rest of the depth chart, it’s almost redundant, even counterproductive, to have someone trying to do too much behind center. Ta’amu simply gets the ball safely into the hands of Brown, Lodge, Metcalf, and company, and gets out of the way.

That formula clearly works, with Ta’amu finishing 2017 as the SEC’s leader in adjusted completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating from a clean pocket.

It’s remarkable how good Alabama’s defensive backfield has been after losing the likes of Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, Levi Wallace, Anthony Averett, Tony Brown, and Hootie Jones from last year’s title squad -- the six leading tacklers from the secondary, the first three of whom were all-conference selections, while Harrison was a third round draft pick, Averett a fourth rounder, and Fitzpatrick, the reigning Bednarik and Thorpe Award winner, as well as a two-time consensus All-American, was the 11th overall pick.

Yes, Alabama reloads unlike any other team in the sport. No one expected this to be a weakness, but who thought they would be this dominant already? Even against two of what should be the better air attacks anyone will play all year, while most teams have been padding stats against lower level competition, Saban’s previously untested group ranks in the top 25 in passing yards per attempt given up, the top 20 in passer rating allowed, the top 15 in interceptions, and first in passes defensed.

Still, their greatest challenge lies ahead.

While Brown, Lodge, and Metcalf keep Saban up in bed.

The Rainbow Road through Oxford is littered with banana skins, red and blue shells, and lightning bolts galore.

If only Mario Cristobal were still on staff to complete the metaphor.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP