TUSCALOOSA — There’s little doubt the second quarter return of Najee Harris and the other suspended juniors infused life into Alabama’s meandering offense in Saturday’s 42-3 win over Duke, even if his explosive opening salvo didn’t end up counting.
“I feel like we definitely noticed when he came in. Everybody was like, that’s what we were missing,” junior right tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. said of Harris’ 54-yard catch-and-run on the first play of the second quarter, which was negated by a holding penalty.
“I feel like there was definitely a different (perception) when he came in. They had to pay attention to him, you know what I mean?”
The Blue Devils’ defense clearly paid added attention to Harris, who never could quite match the explosiveness of his first play after that, finishing with just 52 combined rushing yards on 12 carries. Of course, Harris wasn’t alone in his rough first game, with fellow junior tailback Brian Robinson Jr. managing just 9 rushing yards on nine attempts, through did contribute a 1-yard touchdown with 5:13 left in the second quarter.
In all, Alabama rushed for 145 yards on 42 carries for a paltry 3.45 yards per carry average Saturday, the program’s lowest mark since averaging 3.16 yards per carry against Mississippi State’s second-ranked run defense last season. But against a Duke run defense that ranked 105th nationally after surrendering 209 rushing yards per game in 2018, it’s a pedestrian figure to say the least.
And take away third-string tailback Jerome Ford’s 37-yard touchdown run during garbage time late in the fourth quarter, and the offense averaged just 2.63 rushing yards per carry.
While it was difficult to put a finger on what exactly led to the Crimson Tide’s uncharacteristic struggles on the ground, at least some needs to be placed on those with the ball in their hands.
“I know this much: there’s a certain way you’re supposed to run the ball on certain plays, (and) you have to trust and have confidence in that,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Harris and Robinson’s play Saturday. “And that’s the thing we want to focus on with those guys to be able to do (that consistently).
“ If that takes rhythm to do that, then we need to improve their rhythm. If it takes more eye control and eye discipline to see what you’re supposed to see and respond that way, then that’s what we need to do.”
Saban’s message is clear : I f Harris and Robinson are going to lead Alabama’s once-feared rushing attack like some of their predecessors, it’s going to take greater discipline at the point of attack, including understanding exactly where to go and what holes to take based on the offensive play call.
Of course, another source of those struggles could be attributed to inconsistency with a reshuffled offensive line that features three new starters in the middle.
“I would say that we need to do better up front, probably on a (more) consistent basis,” Saban said a fter the game.
Even the hog mollies along the Crimson Tide offensive line agree Saturday’s effort is not going to cut it.
“I mean, a win is a win. So, no matter how we can get it, we’ll get it,” Wills said. “But I feel like as an offensive line, you definitely want to see a big number in the rushing game. So we’ll see what we missed and what we can do better to improve on that week to week.”
Saban sounded downright pleased with the Tide offensive line throughout much of the preseason, extolling the unit’s wealth of quality depth, including five players who he considered capable of starting at any of the three positions interior line spots.
That depth will be thinned a little over the next week or so as redshirt sophomore center/guard Emil Ekiyor Jr. is expected to be out “a week or two” with a knee injury suffered in the second half Saturday.
“Emil was the only guy that got hurt late in the game and he may be a week or two with his injury,” Saban confirmed Monday.
Alabama will also be without the services of junior guard Deonte Brown, who still has three games remaining on the six-game suspension levied against him by the NCAA prior to last year’s College Football Playoff.
In the meantime, though, the five linemen who started Saturday’s opener in Atlanta — Wills, right guard Landon Dickerson, center Chris Owens, left guard Evan Neal, and left tackle Alex Leatherwood — must work to establish some of that necessary on-field chemistry that may have inhibited Alabama’s once-explosive ground game from ever taking off Saturday.
“I feel like it was a good first performance. We have new guys in new spots for the first time with those five guys,” Wills Jr. said Monday. “It’s a process that we started back in the spring trying to develop that, so it takes a while, especially with five consistent guys who’ve never played together before, … but I feel like we’re going to come along pretty nice.”
Watching Jalen: Former Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts was the talk of the college football world — including in and around his old stomping grounds of Tuscaloosa — after leading the nation with a career-best 508 yards of total offense in his first game as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback on Sunday night.
“I’m happy for him. He did a great job both passing and running,” Alabama receiver Jerry Jeudy said of Hurts’ performance. “Six touchdowns, that’s unbelievable. But that’s what Jalen do, so I’m very happy for him.”
Hurts, who was 26-2 in two seasons as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback before being supplanted by then-sophomore Tua Tagovailoa prior to last season, joined the Sooners as a graduate transfer in January, and was awarded the starting job in August.
Working under Oklahoma head coach and renown quarterback whisperer Lincoln Riley paid dividends Sunday night when the dual-threat senior showed out with 332 yards and three touchdowns on 20-of-23 passing to go along with a career-high 176 rushing yards and three more scores on the ground in a 49-31 win against his hometown University of Houston.
Dickerson adds ‘special’ energy: Alabama’s big foray into the NCAA’s transfer portal this offseason didn’t make nearly the splash of other teams around the nation, but it’s already paying off for the Crimson Tide offensive line.
Former Florida State graduate transfer Landon Dickerson has seemingly found a home in Tuscaloosa after arriving in early August, even securing a coveted starting spot as the Crimson Tide’s first-team right guard this season.
“He’s a special guy,” Wills said of Dickerson. “He has a lot of energy for us. I like what he did.”
That energy allowed the 308-pound redshirt junior to also catch the attention of TV cameras during Saturday’s 42-3 win over Duke, especially when an animated Dickerson found himself embroiled in several on-field disputes with Blue Devils redshirt senior defensive lineman Edgar Cerenord.
“It was a good reaction from him,” Wills said of Dickerson. “It just caused more problems for the other guys.”
The clip of Dickerson smiling and waving at the in-stadium video feed of Cerenord leaving the field caught the attention of social media, and instantly made him a Crimson Tide fan favorite.