Alabama football: 5 players who could tilt the Crimson Tide toward Atlanta
The long-awaited bye week is over for Alabama, and that very short, very challenging 4-game stretch run has suddenly arrived, without a warning.
First comes a road rivalry showdown this Saturday night against a ranked LSU team that’s feeling great about itself coming off its own bye week.
Second comes another road rivalry grudge match against a ranked Ole Miss team that’s 8-1 and will now have its bye week to rest and recharge before getting ready for Bama’s arrival in Oxford on Nov. 12.
Third, admittedly, comes the annual late-season breather against FCS Austin Peay in Tuscaloosa, when Nick Saban will demand perfection, probably not get it and likely have a lot to bark about in his postgame press conference to get the troops’ attention before the Iron Bowl.
And fourth will bring that Iron Bowl, in Tuscaloosa as always in an even year, against an Auburn team that’s not very good but will, of course, want to make its season by at least making its hated rival sweat a little (or a lot).
There it is.
LSU, Ole Miss, Austin Peay and Auburn. Two steep road challenges and likely 2 easy victories are situated on the Crimson Tide’s rocky path to Atlanta and defending its SEC championship.
Going into Week 10, the 7-1 Tide are in a flat-footed tie with LSU and Ole Miss atop the SEC West, with all 3 teams at 4-1, so it’s right there in front of Saban’s crew. Beat the Tigers and Rebels and it’s Atlanta time yet again. Fail to beat both and a national title is out the window, and that almost annual trip to Atlanta might be, too.
So as the Tide rested and recovered from the season’s first 2 months, got healthy and now get mentally prepared for what’s to come, we ask this very important question — which players will help them get to Atlanta and possibly a shot at another trip to the College Football Playoff?
We mean beyond the obvious ones, like Bryce Young, Will Anderson Jr., Jahmyr Gibbs and Dallas Turner. This means the unsung guys, the ones you might not think of 1st or even 2nd when pondering this question.
With that, here are 5 Crimson Tide players who’ve sometimes been on and sometimes haven’t through September and October, but who can definitely make the difference in November in getting Bama to Atlanta and maybe beyond.
1. Jase McClellan, running back
The junior has been around the program a while, and so he knows what November football means in Tuscaloosa. McClellan knows it’s all about finding a way atop those SEC West standings around Thanksgiving time. And he knows that the Saturday after Thanksgiving is usually when it’s time to beat Auburn, or hear about it for the other 364 days.
McClellan also probably knows that it’s time to elevate his level of play another notch or 10, if possible. He had his moments in September. There were the 2 touchdown catches in the season opener against Utah State. There was that 81-yard lightning bolt of a TD run the following week at Texas that helped get the Tide to 20 points and out of Austin with a 1-point win. And there was the SEC opener against Vanderbilt, when he led Bama in rushing with 78 yards on just 11 carries and a 12-yard touchdown, serving notice that more was on the way in October.
Except there wasn’t.
In the 4 October games, McClellan had a combined 25 carries for 67 yards, with 1 measly touchdown run in the Oct. 1 victory at Arkansas, which makes it feel like a really long time ago since he found the end zone. McClellan didn’t catch a pass in the Arkansas and Texas A&M games, and he lost a fumble in the dramatic win over the Aggies. He did catch 3 passes for 22 yards in the loss at Tennessee, but 18 of those yards were on 1 catch, and then he had 1 catch against Mississippi State before the bye week.
Yeah, nothing that’s going to move the needle, since September at least. And, yes, the emergence of Gibbs after his transfer from Georgia Tech has no doubt taken a lot of the steam out of what McClellan would’ve likely produced this fall. But just because Gibbs has emerged doesn’t mean McClellan has had to disappear and disappoint. The tape on Bama’s ground attack is apparent now for Brian Kelly and Lane Kiffin as they get ready to face the Tide in the next 2 weeks: It’s Gibbs and more Gibbs, and if you can limit Gibbs, then who else is going to beat you who’s not named Bryce Young?
Well, 1 of those guys can be McClellan, who is averaging almost 6 yards per carry in 2022. He might not have as many chances to make his mark with Gibbs around, but he’ll have more than a few. And he’s got to make those opportunities count to help Bama find its way back to Atlanta.
2. Jermaine Burton, wide receiver
You just knew he was going to be on this list, right? And you were right. Because why wouldn’t he be?
Burton is a bona fide difference maker, or at least Saban and everyone who really cares about Alabama football thought he was when he joined the Tide just a few months after burning them in the national title game in January. Burton was going to be the guy who helped replace all that wide receiver wealth that the Tide lost in the offseason, the guy who left Stetson Bennett IV and joined forces with Young to help Bama get past Georgia, his former school.
And in the beginning, it all looked so good and real and wonderful. Young and Burton hooked up for 2 touchdown passes in the opener against Utah State, and the ceiling was sky high for the quarterback-receiver duo in 2022. In early September, if someone had somehow zipped 2 months into the future, zoomed back and whispered in your ear that Burton would have exactly 1 more touchdown catch in the next 7 games, you’d have questioned his sanity while telling him his time machine was fake anyway.
Yet, it’s all true. Not the time machine, but the touchdown catches. Burton has all of 3 scoring grabs this fall, as November football beckons. That’s it. And that’s not what Saban and the Alabama program were counting on when they went to the transfer portal and plucked Burton from their SEC rivals to the east.
Has Young’s injury and subsequent rehab had a little to do with Burton’s disappointing season thus far? Perhaps a little. But we all know that Burton was becoming a certified disappointment in the weeks leading up to Young’s injury on Oct. 1 at Arkansas. Burton’s curious lack of production was already becoming “a thing” in Tuscaloosa, a not-so-pleasant topic of discussion for Tide fans.
The season stats don’t lie: 20 catches, 306 yards, the season-long catch of 48 yards that you thought would be a lot higher, and those measly 3 touchdowns that really speak to his lack of being the difference maker everyone thought he’d be. Burton has caught 5 balls in a game once this season, in that season opener of false advertising. It has all been so confusing. Yet in the dying days of October, there is still time for Burton to make a difference, and when it counts the most — in November and maybe December and even January.
There is still time for Burton to shed that label. And if he can start doing it on Saturday night in Baton Rouge, then nobody will care about the failures of September and October.
3. Cameron Latu, tight end
The senior has been somewhat of a disappointment in 2022, especially when you consider what he did just 1 season ago. Latu set the Bama record for touchdown catches by a tight end with 8 in 2021 and finished tied for 7th in the SEC in TD receptions. This year? Latu has found the end zone only twice. He was supposed to be a “glue guy” whom Young (or Jalen Milroe) could count on, especially with the Tide losing so much talent at the wide receiver position in the offseason.
Have there been circumstances beyond Latu’s control that’ve contributed to his touchdowns and overall impact on the offense being down? Absolutely.
Latu missed the majority of fall camp and the opener against Utah State with a knee injury, and he suffered another apparent knee injury in the Vanderbilt game in Week 4. The following week at Arkansas, with his knee issues likely still being a factor, Latu started the game but did not catch a pass. Clearly, Latu has been somewhat limited by injuries since camp in August, and that has definitely factored in here.
But he has been deemed healthy enough to play in the past 7 games, and he has only 18 catches for 217 yards to show for it. And Latu’s 12.1 yards-per-catch clip means he hasn’t exactly been stretching the field for Young (and Milroe). Yes, there have been those knee injuries. But also, yes, there was a lot more expected of Latu coming off such a strong junior season, when he caught 26 passes for 410 yards for 15.8 yards per catch.
Latu has had his moments, which just makes his overall season that much more frustrating. It also puts him on our list, because we know what he’s capable of. Latu had 4 catches for 28 yards in his season debut at Texas, and 2 of those grabs came on Bama’s game-winning drive that ended with a last-second field goal. Latu also threw a key block on McClellan’s 81-yard touchdown run in the 1st quarter. So his impact on the Tide was indeed immediate.
Latu also did have 1 signature game this season, catching 6 passes for 90 yards and a 4th-quarter touchdown grab in the “Game of the Year” loss at Tennessee.
But the week before against Texas A&M? One catch for 10 yards.
And the week after against Mississippi State? One catch for 11 yards.
So there have been moments of the old Latu surrounded by a lot of nothing and, yes, injury woes. But Latu was named to the Mackey Award Watch List for a reason. That leaves these last 4 games for Latu to get it right and subsequently get the Tide pointed toward Atlanta.
4. DeMarcco Hellams, defensive back
The senior doesn’t get a lot of attention because he plays on a defense with so many other big names. But during a season when the defense hasn’t forced enough turnovers or had enough big plays that’ve turned games (other than Turner’s fumble return for a touchdown in the Tennessee game), it seems like Hellams has been around most of the big plays that have been made by Pete Golding’s unit.
Hellams, you might not know, is 2nd on the Tide in total tackles with 59, just 1 behind team leader Henry To’oTo’o. And you might not know that 38 of those total tackles are of the solo variety, and that number is far and away a team high. Hellams has 6 pass deflections, which is 2nd on the team. He has an interception. He has a sack. And he has a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Perhaps if Hellams’ playmaking ability had permeated the rest of the defense, we wouldn’t be talking about a turnover margin that’s in the negative column. That’s certainly not his fault. Hellams has been everywhere you would want him to be. And the guess here is that the Tide are going to need him to be in a few more key areas at a few more key moments if they’re going to survive Baton Rouge and Oxford without suffering that dreaded 2nd loss.
Hellams might not be a headliner. He might not be Anderson or Turner or even Jordan Battle in his own secondary. But if Bama is going to get to Atlanta, he’s going to be right in the middle of everything — again.
5. Will Reichard, kicker
We’ll end this, appropriately, with the guy whose right leg may or may not be responsible for a win or a loss, for an SEC championship or not. You get the point.
Reichard’s 2022 has been a topsy-turvy one, and Saban has come out in defense of his senior kicker because he believes in him, despite the struggles. Overall, Reichard is 12-of-16 on his field-goal attempts, which isn’t awful (he missed 6 kicks last season) but isn’t what it could be, either.
On a bright note, he has made every extra-point attempt, all 43 of them, this season, and that can’t be sold short because every point counts when you’re trying to win at the highest level like Bama is. But there are those 4 missed field goals, 2 of which came in the 2nd half of the Texas A&M game, with both misses preventing the Tide from taking a 2-score lead. Sure, Alabama won the game (by 2 yards). But the road to that win on Oct. 8 could’ve been a ton easier had Reichard made even 1 of those 2 kicks.
Reichard’s miss from 53 yards at Arkansas ultimately didn’t matter, either, but his miss from 50 yards with 15 seconds left in the 4th quarter at Tennessee did, of course. The Vols dashed down the field afterward and made their own field goal to prevail, 52-49. Are 50-yarders easy to make, with the game on the line, in a hostile environment? Of course not.
But Reichard has made a kick of 50 or more yards 3 times this season, so the miss in Knoxville was well within his range. If he had made that one, the Tide’s national title outlook, their record, their ranking, everything really would be different as we head into November.
But he didn’t, and it’s not. The Tide are 7-1, ranked 6th and teetering with no margin for error going into the stretch run. Perhaps Reichard will have another chance to make another big kick in these last 4 games. You would imagine he’s yearning for that very chance.