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Part II: Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Miami Hurricanes Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game Preview

As They Face-Off in Their First Matchup Since 1993, the Two Programs With Rich History Have Had Contrasting Trajectories. Read All About the Jampacked Preview of this Year’s Season Welcome in Atlanta.

1993 SUGAR BOWL Getty Images Archives

This is the Second of a Three-Part Series Looking into the out-of-conference opener against the defending National Champions.

Roster Analysis:

Early Projected Offensive Starters: (11 Personnel - One RB, One TE)
QB: Bryce Young, Sophomore (6’0”, 194lbs)
RBs: Brian Robinson, Jr., Redshirt SR (6’1”, 228lbs)
WR1: John Metchie III, JR (6’0”, 195lbs)
WR2: Agiye Hall, Freshman (6’3”, 195lbs)
WR3 (Slot): Slade Bolden, Redshirt JR (5’11”, 191lbs)
TE: Jahleel Billingsley, JR (6’4”, 230lbs)
LT: Evan Neal, JR (6’7”, 360lbs)
LG: Javion Cohen, Sophomore (6’4”, 325lbs)
C: Chris Owens, Redshirt SR (6’3”, 315lbs)
RG: Emil Ekiyor, Jr., Redshirt JR (6’3”, 324lbs)
RT: Kendall Randolph, Redshirt SR (6’4”, 298lbs)

Quarterbacks: Under an SEC-only 2020 schedule, five-star QB Bryce Young did not have the luxury of getting quality reps during out-of-conference games. Rather, Young was predominantly utilized in mop up duty during his true freshman season as he only threw 22 passes. Young’s predecessors have obviously been well-documented with back-to-back first round draft picks in Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa. The two years before, Eagles QB, Jalen Hurts, handled signal caller duties.

Young’s high school tape looks Manziel-esque the way he can elude pressure, but in the Spring game, he showed an immense pocket poise as pass-first QB with steady intermediate precision. He uses the electric legs when necessary to escape pressure and is able to take the ball down and run. Due to his relatively smaller stature - hovering around 5-11/6-feet - Young projects most as a Russell Wilson type of finesse passer.

Barring a significant setback, Young, who was Bama’s Spring A-Day Game MVP (25-for-44, 333, passing yards, 1 TD) and is the 20th best recruit all-time according to 247Sports Composite rankings, will the starting QB. Four-star recruits, Redshirt freshman, Paul Tyson, is a pro-style QB and freshman, Jalen Milroe, still have question marks as they continue to develop. If either takes the field in the fourth quarter, it most likely means things have not gone the U’s way.

Key to Stopping the QB: Miami’s goal will be to put pressure on the California native, especially from the EDGE position, which is obviously an area that is experiencing immense turnover after the departure of Quincy Roche, Jaelan Phillips, and Gregory Rousseau. If the pass-rush of Deandre Johnson, Zach McCloud, et. al. can make Young feel the heat and make him create “freshman” mistakes, then the Tide could be turned into the Canes’ favor. Pre-snap alignments by Manny Diaz’s defenses involving a versatile player like Bubba Bolden, or even James Williams (although it is a lot to ask for of his first game), to confuse Young will pay dividends.

Wide Receivers: Even though Bama has had four straight years of NFL-caliber talent at QB and two straight years of first round selections, an argument could be made that the Tide has experienced more renowned exits at the wide receiver position. To that end, Alabama has had unprecedented NFL placement the last two years by placing two first round WRs the past two drafts (Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III in 2020 and Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith in 2021 - the latter of which won the Heisman last year). The offense has thrived by building around these electrifying and dynamic playmakers that set the tone in an uptempo formation.

This year, Alabama continues to reload with a veteran weapon in Junior, John Metchie III, who caught 55 passes for 916 yards and 6 TDs during last year’s 13-game slate. The 16.7-yard per catch by Metchie actually exceeds Heisman winner, DeVonta Smith’s, 15.9-mark. It should be noted Metchie was limited in the spring with and injury.

After Metchie is Redshirt Junior, Slade Bolden, who will operate mostly out of the slot. Bolden was not a huge difference maker last season but put together 24 receptions for 270 yards, and scored his lone TD in the National Championship. Under O’Brien’s guidance, expect Bolden to operate similarly to Wes Welker, who O’Brien coached from 2007-2011 while with the New England Patriots.

As the third option, things get interesting as the Tide welcomes three of the top six 247Sports Composite wide receivers in Agiye Hall, who impressed during the Spring Game, JoJo Earle, who was a late flip to Bama, and Jacorey Brooks, who hails from Miami. Hall has a good chance to get quality reps as a freshman, but may compete with Sophomore, Traehson Holden. Also in the mix are Javon Baker (Sophomore), and Christian Leary (Freshman). Last night, Saban announced that Xavier Williams (Redshirt Junior) would not be available for this season.

Bama had a loss in the transfer portal in running back, Keilan Robinson (Texas), who they anticipated may see snaps out of the slot.

Key to Stopping the WRs: Beyond their linebacker, coverage CBs is another big question mark on Miami’s roster. Transfer, Tyrique Stevenson, displays immense athleticism and has reportedly been a freak in the weight room in setting the CB squat record. Even though Stevenson primarily played slot corner at Georgia, he did play outside in the Peach Bowl against Cincinnati and has been making noise during camp with his coverage capabilities. He appears most suited to cover Metchie.

After Stevenson, Te’Cory Couch appears prime to take the leap. He could take on reps against Bolden, who O’Brien should love out of the slot. Even though they’re inexperienced, Bama’s depth is athletic and DJ Ivey and Isaiah Dunson need to hold their own. It is unclear is Al Blades Jr. will be ready by day one.

Running Backs: The last time Miami faced a Robert Gillepsie-coached running attack, they let up 554 rushing yards to UNC. And with the rushing attack refueled in Tuscaloosa after a key departure, consider this like taking the final exam on the first day of class as far as Miami’s tackling.

Bama’s running attack also experienced a changing of the guard as Brian Robinson Jr. will attempt to fill the big shoes of 2021 first round pick, Najee Harris. Similar to Young and Metchie at their respective positions, Robinson possesses the upside necessary to make this positional rebuild relatively easy to swallow. The 6-1, 224lb Redshirt Sr has already collected 1361 yards for 15 TDs on 274 attempts in his college career. His yards per carry have steadily improved since his Sophomore year from 4.3 yards a carry to 5.3 per attempt this past season. Robinson is less of a power back than Harris but runs with more vertical speed, exhibiting impressive cut ability.

Gillepsie and O’Brien have generally thrived in previous organizations when utilizing a running back-by-committee and this will be no different in this crowded Alabama backfield.

Despite the departure of K-Rob, the Tide features a number of four-star and five-star athletes for depth: Sophomore, Trey Sanders (no. 6 recruit overall in 2019), Sophomore, Jase McClellan (no. 47 recruit overall in 2020, and Roydell Williams (no. 77 recruit overall in 2020) comprise a stout backfield. Bama even has the no. 3 of the 2021 recruiting class (No. 34 overall) in Camar Wheaton. Because Wheaton arrives this summer and the backfield is already deep, he is unlikely to have much of an impact on opening day.

Key to Stopping the RBs: Finish the play and make the tackles. This is likely to be an RB-by-committee, with Robinson playing the role of bell cow. After getting destroyed by Gillepsie’s run game last year, the LBs need to have some bulletin board material ready for some semblance of revenge.

Tight Ends: A big component of OC O’Brien’s offenses is the Tight End position. In fact, O’Brien started his career as a TE Coach at Brown in 1993. Thereafter, he’s employed a two-TE set in New England, which most notably featured Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, as well as at Penn State with future NFL players Jesse James, Garry Gilliam, and Kyle Carter.

With the Tide, O’Brien will have the opportunity to work with one of the nation’s best in Jahleel Billingsley, who has an impressive body and skill set but plays more as a pass-catching TE. A two-TE set is entirely possible as Bama also features former four-star, Cameron Latu, who impressed all Spring and capped it off in the Spring Game with a 59-yard catch. Major Tennison may also contribute and has strong blocking TEs, Robbie Ouzts, and Kendall Rudolph (hybrid TE-OL), who provide key depth.

Key to Stopping the TEs: Again, this is an area where James Williams’ size and athleticism could be a huge benefit. However, it’s hard to rely on a freshman to patrol what will be a big portion of a Bill O’Brien offense. Veteran, Amari Carter, has been patrolling the Striker position and the former Safety should be capable of occupying this mix of coverage and blocking, so long as penalties are limited.

Offensive Line: Not only does Bama welcome a new OL coach, but also experiences key departures in draftees, Alex Leatherwood (LT), Deonte Brown (LG), and Landon Dickerson (C) - a unit that ended up winning the Joe Moore Award last year, given to the nation’s top offensive line. On paper, this is an area that Miami could capitalize on due to Bama’s youth.

That being said, Bama features one of the nation’s projected best left tackles, Evan Neal, who will be swinging from the right side to left this season. Beyond Neal, the Tide return the most experienced offensive lineman in Center, Chris Owens, who has played 38 games including three starts last year at center after Dickerson went down due to injury in the latter half of the season. The third veteran, Emil Eikyor, could be featured at either left guard or right guard and has the potential to thrive.

After the above trio, Bama will rely on relatively inexperienced players for at least two-fifths of the OL as Tommy Brown (RS Junior, 10 career games), JC Latham (Freshman), Tommy Brockermeyer (Freshman), James Brockermeyer (Freshman), Damieon George Jr (Sophomore), Javion Cohen (Sophomore), Pierce Quick (RS Sophomore, 3 games), and Kendall Randolph (RS Sr, TE/OL hybrid) should battle for the LG and RT positions.

Key to Beating the OL: Based on the above, those who are starting in the opener may not be occupying those spots at season’s end. For example, Latham, a true freshman and no. 3 overall 2021 national recruit, could be in the starting RT slot in due time, but it would be a lot for him to protect Young’s strong side from day one. That being said, Miami should attack the right tackle position early and often. Defensive line coach, Jess Simpson, has not shown his hand as to the line configuration but transfer EDGE defender, Deandre Johnson, has four years of SEC experience. Miami needs to focus on sending blitz packages to the soft spots, right tackle and left guard.

Early Projected Defensive Starters: (2-Gap 3-4 Base Scheme)

DE: LaBryan Ray, Redshirt SR (6’5”, 295lbs)
NT: DJ Dale, Junior (6’3”, 307lbs)
DE: Phidarian Mathis, Redshirt SR (6’4”, 312lbs)
OLB: Christopher Allen, Redshirt SR (6’4”, 252lbs)
OLB: Will Anderson Jr., Sophomore (6’4”, 235lbs)
ILB: Christian Harris, Junior (6’2”, 232lbs)
ILB: Jaylen Moody, Senior (6’2”, 225lbs)
CB: Josh Jobe, Senior (6’1”, 192lbs)
SS: Jordan Battle, Junior (6’1”, 210lbs)
FS: DeMarcco Hellams, Junior (6’1”, 208lbs)
CB: Jalyn Armour-Davis, Redshirt JR (6’1”, 192lbs)

Defensive Line: The defensive line will largely rely on strength in numbers across the formation as they return a slew of talent and could thrive on a rotational basis. In fact, Bama appears to have only had one big loss in second round pick/National Champion Defensive MVP, Christian Barmore, who patrolled the interior defensive trench as a quick pass-rusher.

DJ Dale appears prime to takeover the middle of the front line, but exhibits more run stuffing prowess than pass rush as a nose guard. This is where Bama may benefit from rotating in a younger player like Tim Smith to apply pass rushing pressure with more quickness. Even Jamil Burroughs, who had a strong spring, may factor into the rotation early on making Corey Gaynor’s job in the middle a challenging one.

At least one paper, LaBryan Ray and Phidarian Mathis should occupy the ends but both show a keen ability to shift inside as capable run stoppers. The Redshirt Seniors are both also relentless in their attack. Ray, who was the no. 28 overall recruit in the nation in 2017 has been plagued by injuries throughout his career. Mathis, on the other hand, was the no. 101 overall recruit in the nation that year and has steadily risen throughout his career and should be a key player to watch despite an injury this spring.

As the Tide are expected to deploy their deep defensive line on a rotational basis, skilled veteran Justin Eboigbe and Byron Young should see plenty of action. Jah-Marien Latham appears to be the next guy off the bench.

Key to Beating the DL: Miami’s left tackle, Zion Nelson, started his career in a neutral site game where he was thrown into the fire against a Florida Gator defense featuring defensive linemen Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard. His performance was awful. Now, with a few more snaps under his belt and many 2022 first-round draft projections, Nelson will have an even more challenging test in week one. Saban likes to attack from the interior so expect a busy day for Corey Gaynor. With the deep potential of this front line, Miami must keep a player at home on pass plays. A freshman, Thad Franklin, has the body to do this, but whether he will be game-ready by week one is another issue.

Linebacker: Even if D’Eriq King is able to evade pressure on Alabama’s defensive line, the Tide return two of the best pass-rushing linebackers in the SEC in Will Anderson and Christopher Allen who play on the outside. They are the clear starters and can wreak havoc in multiple areas as athletic freaks who can put up monster production. In Bama’s Spring Game, backups King Mwikuta and Drew Sanders proved ready to answer the call in the top duos absence. It is unlikely he should see much action in his very first collegiate game just due to the talent at OLB, but Dallas Turner comes in as the no. 9 recruit in the nation.

Even though he had an underwhelming final season, Alabama loses Dylan Moses from last year to the NFL Draft. Regardless, even though Miami features a strong running back by committee, establishing the run game will be challenging especially led by Christian Harris, who racked up 79 tackles and 4.5 sacks last season. Harris started at the Will LB last season but saw some action at Mike in the spring. Jaylen Moody played with the first-team this spring and should be the other starter in base formation at Will. After Moody, Bama once again exhibits depth with Demouy Kennedy, Shane Lee, and Deontae Lawson.

Key to Stopping the LBs: D’Eriq King’s experience and dual threat capability will be the key here. Anderson and Allen are about as good of a LB duo in the game. Coming off the knee injury, this is a really tough mental test for King as the front seven could be flying around in the backfield all day. King must be able diagnose the blitz packages pre-snap and make the proper adjustments so the personnel keeps him protected.

Defensive Backs: Oftentimes, Alabama will align its defense in nickel formation with five DBs or dime with six DBs. Thus, this configuration could also see a lot of swapping. Miami native and CB, Josh Jobe, is the most experienced guy in the secondary and likely could have gone pro after last year but opted to stay as his draft stock dipped as the season progressed. After Jobe, the competition is somewhat open for CB2 as Jalyn Armour-Davis is the current favorite but will be challenged most by Ga-Quincy Kool-Aid McKinstry.

In the slot, Malachi Moore is likely the most talented player to patrol that spot, but Brian Branch saw the most action in this area this spring with Moore nursing an injury. Depending on Moore’s health status, these two could be most likely to be rotated around the defensive formation.

Alabama’s Safety position returns a lot of talent led by Broward County native, Jordan Battle, who is deemed one of the best draft-eligible players at the position along with Miami’s Bubba Bolden. After Battle, Demarcco Hellams should occupy the other starting safety position while Daniel Wright and Kristian Story are the next in line for reps at the position.

Key to Beating the DBs: This is OC, Rhett Lashlee’s, chance to shine with the uptempo spread offense. All signs point to the fact that the pass catchers are thriving in camp led by the leader of the group, Mike Harley Jr. It would make the most sense for Jobe to be matched up on Miami receiver, Charleston Rambo, due to Rambo’s length and the fact he’ll be the top receiver lined up on the outside throughout the game. Harley should see his fair share of Moore in the slot. Beyond the lethal duo, the young freshman and sophomore receivers could see a lot of action, as well as tight end Will Mallory.

Special Teams: Alabama returns placekicker, Will Reichard, who was the first kicker in the program’s history to connect on every field goal and PAT he attempted after he hit all 14 field goals and all 84 PATs (52-yard long). The Tide welcome Troy transfer, Jack Martin, who averaged 46.1 yards per punt (13 inside the 20) and also handled kickoff duties.

Looks good on paper, but I’ll take Lou Hedley and a Borregales any day of the week.

Check back in tomorrow for Part Three focusing on the Keys to the Game and Prediction.