Second-half report card: Tide was a poor student as semester drew to a close
By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Dec. 1, 2010

As Alabama reaches the end of its regular season, it’s time to take a look back at the second half and see where the 2010 Alabama Crimson Tide team ranked in the football “classroom.”

Quarterbacks
First half: B+
Second half: B+

Greg McElroy was just coming off the loss to South Carolina when he received a B+ rating for the first half of the year. He held serve the second half of the season, and actually improved a bit. His worst game of the year might have come in a win, over Ole Miss at homecoming, and the loss at LSU was as much or more a factor of the defense and Alabama’s continued troubles running the football as it was anything McElroy did or didn’t do. McElroy’s performance against Auburn was more than good enough to win that game, but a defensive collapse in the second half along with injuries and continued poor OL play thwarted the Tide’s upset attempt. The real story, though, was A.J. McCarron, who looked strong through the Tennessee game but finished with mediocre performances against Mississippi State and Georgia State, along with an ineffective stretch against Auburn in relief of the injured McElroy. McElroy has one start left, and spring practice at Alabama should feature open competition between McCarron and Phillip Sims for the starting job for 2011.

Running backs
First half: A+
Second half: B-

Injuries played a big part in the dropoff, but the B- this unit received for its second-half work might actually be an example of grading on a scale. Mark Ingram looked decently good down the stretch after Trent Richardson was hurt, but Ingram is still favoring the knee he hurt in preseason camp. Richardson’s effectiveness tanked down the stretch and effectively ended when he was hurt against LSU; his drop of a sure touchdown pass may have been the point that turned the Auburn game. Alabama stopped using Jalston Fowler as a short-yardage blocker, and Eddie Lacy’s role basically went away after his second fumble of the year. Aside from spot duty against Mississippi State, filling in for the injured Richardson, he was restricted to mop-up duty along with Fowler and Demetrius Goode.

Wide receivers
First half: A-
Second half: A

Julio Jones’ second half will go down as one of the strongest of any Alabama receiver in the history of the school. Marquis Maze also turned up the juice, taking on a bigger role in the passing game and adding return skills to his repertoire after Trent Richardson’s knee injury. Darius Hanks continued to be a solid slot receiver. Preston Dial’s work at H-back probably qualifies as the most unexpected surprise of the season, team-wide. What keeps this from being an A+, though, is a combination of things: Michael Williams’ lack of development as a receiving threat, Jones’ missed time due to injury and especially the lack of a consistent second rotation at WR. Kevin Norwood was in, then out of the rotation and then had a costly drop at the end of the Auburn game. Kenny Bell never really built on a solid spring, Brandon Gibson’s contributions were limited to special teams and the reserve tight ends (Chris Underwood, Brad Smelley) were non-factors. Earl Alexander did give Alabama a solid performance throughout his senior season and will be missed.

Offensive line
First half: B+
Second half: C-

A grade of C- is actually generous given the bevy of sacks given up and especially the lack of production in the running game. Alabama’s offensive line reverted back to the Mike Shula/Bob Connelly days in the big games of the second half, and when Alabama had to go wide to score on the goalline against Georgia State, it should have been clear that something was up. What that something was, is still unclear. An injury to Barrett Jones was part of the problem, but C William Vlachos regressed and G Chance Warmack’s development stalled. There were no complaints about starting tackles James Carpenter or D.J. Fluker, and Fluker rebounded much more quickly than expected from a fairly horrific groin injury sustained against South Carolina. Reserve linemen Alfred McCullough and Anthony Steen did their best in relief of Fluker and Jones, but neither were difference-makers. Not knowing what the problem was makes it even more frustrating; the 2011 spring will be crucial to determining what is broken and how it can be fixed.

Coaching/playcalling
First half: B+
Second half: B-

It’s hard to say whether coaching was to blame for the offensive line’s woes, but it’s clear that the OL play was the biggest negative factor weighing on the offense. Once the coaches finally yielded the point, however, the play of the team improved. Alabama discovered that going 4- and 5-wide and playing an up-tempo, spread-like attack actually gave the Crimson Tide the best chance to win. Beating Mississippi State and Tennessee, and coming close to knocking off LSU were all pluses, but the second half of the Auburn game was a system-wide failure. Alabama needs to establish an identity going forward, whatever that identity is, and commit to seeing it through.

OFFENSE OVERALL
First half: A-
Second half: B-

The passing attack held serve, but the utter destruction of the running game, in games in which its success was crucial to achieving victory, was inexcusable. Granted, Alabama dealt with injuries throughout the 2010 season, but this is a team with talent stacked four- and five-deep at most positions. The performance in the second half of the Auburn game, by itself, was the worst effort by an Alabama offense dating back to the 21-0 shutout at the hands of Southern Miss during the 2000 season.

Defensive line
First half: C
Second half: B

While not horrible, the defensive line never played up to Alabama standards. It did, however, get better as the year went along, thanks to a resurgent performance down the stretch from Luther Davis, the improvement of Damion Square, Marcell Dareus getting healthier and the coaches finding a role for reserve NT Nick Gentry. The LSU game was ugly, but Alabama’s front did a nice job against Auburn, and completely put the brakes on Mississippi State in a game that could have been much closer than any Bama fan wanted to imagine. Despite Kerry Murphy not being healthy for four weeks, production at nosetackle seemed to stabilize a bit. The defensive coaches also seemed to get a better handle on what their charges were capable of doing, and designed blitz and stunt packages that were more in line with abilities. On the negative side, Darrington Sentimore, who has the motor and the quickness to be a disruptive pass rusher in the mold of Wallace Gilberry, virtually disappeared from the scene in the second half, as did Undra Billingsley. Alabama essentially played the second half a tackle/end short of a full rotation, and Murphy’s injury only made things worse.

Linebackers
First half: C+
Second half: B

Two changes made the biggest difference here. The first was that Alabama finally developed a somewhat dependable rotation of Chavis Williams at SLB and C.J. Mosley inside, depending on the package, benching Jerrell Harris in the process. The second was replacing Ed Stinson with Alex Watkins as Courtney Upshaw’s relief at Jack. Having Upshaw healthy for the entire second half of the year was also big. Overall, it’s hard to complain about the results, but the continued struggles of Dont'a Hightower continued to be discouraging. And despite Williams’ presence at SLB cutting down on the mistakes from that position, he made few plays. Mosley’s development, and the return of Nico Johnson as a factor, give Alabama something to build on going forward. Harris played well in the Georgia State laugher, and he’ll once again get every shot to be a starter in 2011.

Defensive backs
First half: B-
Second half: B+

Dee Milliner’s development was rocky, and will continue to be so through the bowl game, but his ability as a tackler and his knack for shaking off mistakes and not carrying them forward to the next play will serve him well. True freshmen get killed in the SEC, particularly when they’re trying to learn Nick Saban’s defense at the same time, but Milliner advanced from being an outright liability early on to being someone who could and would make plays in the second half of the year. Dre Kirkpatrick’s development was nice to watch, and Kirkpatrick became one of the team’s best at sniffing out an opposing offense’s plays, but he needs to get more physical as a tackler. The safety group was a mixed bag. Mark Barron has fought off multiple injuries this year, and it’s unfortunate that he’ll be remembered mostly for the gaffe in the Auburn game that sprung Terrell Zachary for a crucial touchdown. Robert Lester had some great games and some transparent ones. The relief group – corners Phelon Jones and DeQuan Menzie, and safety Will Lowery – played their roles well, for the most part, but Alabama missed having a difference-maker coming off the bench like Marquis Johnson in 2009. Still, Alabama put up good numbers in every game except the LSU debacle, where Jordan Jefferson was allowed to look like an actual quarterback.

Coaching/playcalling
First half: B
Second half: B+

The improvement in the performance of the front seven alone raises this grade, and Alabama’s efforts against Mississippi State and Auburn alone were good enough to confirm improvement. However, the LSU game continues to stick in everyone’s craw, and Alabama never developed much depth in 2010. The coaching staff essentially went forward with 19 players in the second half of 2010, and for a team with as much talent as Alabama has, that number is way too low. For a team that looked so gassed heading into the off-week before LSU, the question must be raised whether stamina was unduly affected by essentially playing with an NFL-like roster (meaning, too few subs).

DEFENSE OVERALL
First half: C+
Second half: B+

The only real breakdown in the second half came against LSU. Alabama did what it had to do defensively against Auburn, and effectively shut down both Mississippi schools.

SPECIAL TEAMS OVERALL
First half: B+
Second half: B+

It’s hard to get an A in life, anyway, and much harder when you allow a kickoff return for touchdown to Georgia State. Aside from that single gaffe, Alabama’s special teams were pretty solid in the second half of the year. Punter Cody Mandell’s development sort of stalled, but the addition of Marquis Maze to the return teams proved to be a welcome addition, and kickers Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley were very reliable. This remains the single most pleasant surprise of any performance category in 2010.

OVERALL
First half: B
Second half: B

Two losses in the second half versus one in the first half effectively kills any chance for report card improvement. Although the competition was stiffer in the second half of the season, the second-half collapse against Auburn will go down as one of the most disappointing in school history. It doesn’t help matters any that the blame can be spread around between player and coach alike, or that Alabama’s fix for the problem largely depends on the upcoming recruiting class. It shouldn’t be that way. This team has more talent than any program in the conference except for Florida and possibly LSU, but effectively finished as the league’s 4th- or 5th-best team in 2010. You can’t win them all, and you can’t win them all every year, but the LSU and Auburn losses in particular make this season a ho-hum affair at best. Alabama’s biggest win this year? Either Penn State at the front of the season, or a romp over an overmatched Tennessee squad in the middle of the year.