August 2, 2010

Tide doesn't necessarily want to pass more, just better

Among those whom University of Alabama senior quarterback Greg McElroy sought advice from during the offseason was former Florida State defensive back Myron Rolle, whom he never attempted a pass against.

Rolle, a rookie safety with the Tennessee Titans, finished his undergraduate degree in pre-med in 2 years and spent last season studying at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford University after being awarded a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. McElroy is applying to do likewise after his Crimson Tide career concludes.

"Basically I want to make a difference and I think having that Rhodes Scholarship would be something very helpful in accomplishing as many goals as possible, for my career," McElroy said. "It's definitely something I want to pursue and hopefully I'll have a chance to participate."

However, McElroy talked with some other colleagues as well, like during his return visit to the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La. Whereas last year he started making a name for himself there and nearly won the accuracy contest, this time he got a chance to pick Peyton Manning's brain a little more, with the four-time NFL MVP emphasizing the importance of timing.

"One thing I've been working on is anticipating where my receivers are going to be because last year I kind of saw my guys open up as opposed to trusting their route, trusting their depth, trusting their timing," McElroy said. "This year I'm kind of hoping to take that step and be able to throw a lot quickly and understand both their route and the protection as well."

It seems almost strange to suggest that a quarterback who hasn't lost since eighth grade (to Cross Timber Middle School and future Wyoming quarterback Stephen Hedley), and named MVP of the SEC Championship Game, is looking for ways to improve, but even McElroy knows that it's necessary if he's going to have a larger role in the offense as expected.

With the defense essentially replacing nine starters, the secondary having obvious depth concerns and opponents wanting to wipe the glare off Mark Ingram's Heisman Trophy, chances are that Alabama will need to score more points than last season's 449 (compared to just 164 allowed).

But that doesn't necessarily mean Alabama wants to pass more, just more effectively.
Last season the Tide ranked eighth in the SEC in passing offense (187.9 yards), fourth in total offense (403.0), and fourth in passing efficiency (138.5 rating). Correspondingly, McElroy was ninth in passing average (179.1), fourth in total offense (185.1), and fourth in passing efficiency (140.5).

Statistically, his best game statistically was against Arkansas (17 of 24, 291 yards, three touchdowns), with his worst the national championship game against Texas (6 of 12, 58 yards, one interception). While that in part had to do with Alabama getting the lead and pounding away with the running game, McElroy was also playing with a painful rib injury.

"Up until about a week before the championship game we didn't know that they were broken," he explained. "We had done two X-rays and nothing was getting better. They were giving me pain, err, not pain killers, muscle relaxers because they felt it was the muscle surrounding the ribs that were spasming and causing the pain. I said this just isn't right, it just doesn't feel right, it's been three-and-half weeks and it's still killing me. It was still just like the moment it happened. So we went and got a bone scan and the bone scan revealed two broken ribs in the ninth and tenth ribs on my left side.

"I didn't tell anyone. I told my girlfriend, my parents and then obviously the training staff and the coaching staff knew. Really, I'm surprised it didn't get out, honestly, but I'm awfully glad it didn't."

Of course the big statistic with McElroy last season was having just four passes intercepted out of 325 attempts, a huge reason why the Tide tied for third fewest turnovers in the nation with 12, while creating 31.

"We had a good year passing the ball," McElroy said. "We limited our turnovers. We had some inconsistent games last year and it's something we have to improve on. Our game is sort of pick your poison. If the running game is going well, like it was in the South Carolina game, then we'll keep running the ball. If it's like the Arkansas game, and we're passing well, then we'll just keep doing that."

With offensive coordinator Jim McElwain in his third season at Alabama and McElroy in his second as the Tide's starting quarterback, Alabama has some rare stability in the passing game. Even the key receivers are back, the biggest exceptions being tight end Colin Peek and wide receiver Mike McCoy.

Despite being slowed by a knee injury last season, Julio Jones led the Tide with 43 receptions for 596 yards, ahead of Ingram (32 for 334), Marquis Maze (31 for 523) and Darius Hanks (17 for 313). While they combined for 12 of Alabama's 17 receiving touchdowns, only one other player had more than one, Peek with three (to go with 26 catches for 313 yards).

"I think we're a lot more comfortable, a lot of guys have played in big games, big situations, and have been able to respond to that," McElroy said. "I think that does a lot a lot for a team's confidence. Our offensive team is not going to change; our offensive personality is not going to change. But will we be willing and able to take advantage of plays down field? Last year we had a lot of big plays relative to the year before. We did a lot better job of having 40-yard-plus completions. We were significantly better. But we want to take that one step further. We want to be in the upper echelon of big offensive plays.

"Coach Saban always says one of two things always determines games, turnovers and explosive plays. That's something we're going to try and do a lot of and with our offensive style and the great running backs that we have we're going to be able to do it."

If so, Jones could post significantly better numbers than his freshman year, 58 catches for 924 yards when played through wrist, shoulder and abdominal problems, if he can avoid any significant injuries. So could Maze, Hanks and the other receivers, giving Alabama more of a multi-faceted attack.

Florida coach Urban Meyer called that a "coaches dream" because defenses can't key on one thing.

"Julio you have a problem because he's so big and fast," Meyer said. "If you double him, you've left a gap in the running game against a running back, like the two running backs that Alabama has, great players, Ingram and (Trent) Richardson.

"It's not just the one guy. If you just had one, you could stop one player. That's been proven. It's hard to stop when you have balance, and they have tremendous balance."
As for possibly becoming a Rhodes Scholar, it's not that unheard of for athletes or football players in general. Peter Dawkins, the 1958 Heisman Trophy at Army was selected, as was Pat Haden, the former Southern California quarterback who was recently named the Trojans' athletics director.

Among his final offseason tasks, McElroy had to write an application essay, which was initially titled, "My intellectual journey: From childhood, to present day to the future, how I progressed as an individual." After an advisor suggested adding an intellectual problem to overcome, he started to explore whether football talent was more learned or natural.

"The interview, should I be named a finalist, would be the Saturday before we play Auburn," McElroy said before adding with a laugh: "Our game against Georgia State got moved to Thursday, Coach Saban did that for me."



 

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