Daily Focus: Can Alabama reload on offense?
Every weekday in “Daily Focus,” Pro Football Focus looks at the top college football storylines and explains what they mean from a PFF perspective.
Is Alabama returning enough on offense to be the SEC favorite? There’s no question that the defending national champion Crimson Tide recruit at a high-enough level to consistently reload every season. There also isn’t any question that their defense could again be one of the best in the country.
The defensive front is stacked, led by Jonathan Allen, who was very good versus the run in 2015 while leading all 3-4 defensive ends with 13 sacks (on a per-snap basis, he graded roughly as well as No. 7-overall draft pick DeForest Buckner of Oregon). Edge rushers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson ranked first and fifth, respectively, in pass-rush productivity among 3-4 outside linebackers, and a very talented secondary is headlined by Marlon Humphrey (who ranks fifth among returning cornerbacks in overall grade) and Eddie Jackson (top coverage grade among returning safeties).
The offense is a different story, however. Not only are they breaking in a new quarterback and replacing two NFL draft picks at running back (Heisman winner Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake), but the offensive line isn’t returning a single starter who graded positively last season. That includes left tackle Cam Robinson, who has elite potential but hasn’t played at that level yet, and whose off-field issues this offseason sparked a heated debate at Wednesday’s SEC Media Days between Alabama head coach Nick Saban and ESPN commentator Paul Finebaum (it appears likely at this point that Robinson will be available to play the Tide’s season opener versus USC).
The receiving corps is in excellent shape with wideouts Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and Robert Foster and tight end O.J. Howard. But there is a legitimate question as to how good this offense is entering 2016, meaning there is certainly hope for challengers like LSU and Tennessee to steal the SEC title away from the Crimson Tide.
Who is the top returning wide receiver in college football? The preseason watch list for the 2016 Biletnikoff Award, which honors college football’s top wide receiver, is out. You can read the full list of players here.
Which wideouts should be considered the favorites to win the award, based on PFF’s grading from 2015? There isn’t as much returning production at wide receiver as there is at other positions, with guys like Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, Baylor’s Corey Coleman and TCU’s Josh Doctson, who spent the majority of last season at the top of PFF’s WR grades, having moved on to the NFL. Among returning wideouts, the top five in PFF receiving grades all hail from non-Power-5 programs: Western Michigan’s Corey Davis, Western Kentucky’s Taywan Taylor, Middle Tennessee’s Richie James, ECU’s Isaiah Jones and Louisiana Tech’s Trent Taylor.
But which major-program wide receivers are worth keeping an eye on? USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster was one of the top-graded receivers in the nation through Week 8, before injuries began to slow him down, and fully healthy he might be the front-runner. His 3.39 yards per route run average ranks first among returning Power-5 WRs. Nebraska’s Jordan Westerkamp quietly had a very productive season in 2015, ranking in the top five of both deep-ball catch rate and slot efficiency. But perhaps the most intriguing is Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk, who earned the 15th-highest receiving grade among returning WRs as a true freshman and adds value as a returner as well.
Impact of Eddie Vanderdoes on UCLA’s defense: Ted Miller of ESPN.com had a feature on Bruins defensive lineman Vanderdoes Tuesday, detailing the injury he suffered in 2015’s season-opening win over Virginia that kept him sidelined the rest of the year. Now fully healthy, Vanderdoes says he is ready to be a key player for the UCLA defense.
Just how good is he? In 2014 he graded out as one of the better run defenders among interior D-linemen in the country, while grading right around average as a pass-rusher. In just 32 snaps against the Cavaliers in Week 1, he was absolutely dominant, earning excellent grades both against the run and as a rusher, applying three QB pressures.
If that performance was any indication of what he can do on a consistent basis in 2016, the Bruins could have a very formidable defensive front. Takkarist McKinley graded out as the fourth-best 3-4 defensive end among returning players last season, excelling both against the run and as a pass-rusher. He will take on more of an edge defender role as the Bruins transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. Vanderdoes will occupy the 3-technique defensive tackle spot next to nose tackle Eli Ankou, who graded well in Vanderdoes’ absence last season, particularly as a pass-rusher. Lastly, Deon Hollins will likely play both defensive end and outside linebacker – he is undersized and struggled versus the run, but offers a lot of explosiveness off the edge as a speed rusher.