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October 15, 2009

Midterm time for Tide

His freshman year was cut short after just 40 snaps due to injury, and while he was out the entire University of Alabama coaching staff was jettisoned. Insert Nick Saban, who didn't recruit him and was going to use a vastly different defensive scheme, and Cory Reamer wasn't just a player without a position but very easily could have seen his collegiate football career come to an end before it really began.

"I remember when he came here, I was still in the secondary and recovering from knee surgery and wasn't moving really well," Reamer said after blocking a punt and taking the ball away from an Ole Miss returner Saturday. "But I did pick up the defense pretty fast and that really gave me a shot to play."

Back then, Marcus Carter and Rashad Johnson were already established as the Crimson Tide's starting safeties, yet Alabama desperately needed depth at linebacker. Even after making the switch, Reamer was behind the athletic Zeke Knight and spent that season mostly playing special teams, recording just two tackles.

Now imagine where the Tide might this season be without the versatile Reamer. The second-year starter at strongside linebacker slid over to play the weakside spot at Kentucky, a role he may fill the rest of the season on passing downs, and has been one of the biggest contributors on special teams.

Although many of his teammates have gotten more attention during No. 2 Alabama's 6-0 start (3-0 Southeastern Conference), for every player like Rolando McClain a team needs someone like Reamer for it to be successful.

"There's a reason why I'm here and to take advantage of my opportunities," Reamer said. "I know this is going to end soon, so this is something I look forward to, coming up here every day and to have this opportunity at this university."

Strong team play is a huge reason why so many people feel Alabama has a legitimate shot to potentially dethrone Florida as both the SEC and national champions.

It's also the difference between this year and that 2007 season, when the Tide fell apart down the stretch after five players were suspended following an investigation into textbook disbursement, and needed a victory over Colorado in the Independence Bowl to finish 7-6.

"Absolutely," senior kicker Leigh Tiffin said. "That team was a mess. I think it's always a little bit like that when a new coach comes in, a lot of older guys are used to what the other coaches did and I think that was part of the problem."

"We really didn't buy in my first year," McClain said. "But now we know that the hard work is going to pay off."

It's been an interesting first half of the season with everything from the wildcat formation on the first offensive snap to a player getting shot and suiting up for practice two days later.

Here are the midseason grades for the 2009 Crimson Tide:

Quarterbacks: Junior Greg McElroy has hardly looked like someone making his first collegiate starts, and has already has two Alabama passing records: 14 consecutive completions against Florida International and he tied the mark for highest completion percentage with a minimum of 10 completions, going 13-for-15 (86.7 percent) against North Texas. Although McElroy had a string of nine passes without a completion against Virginia Tech (now a top-five team), that was also his only interception. His streak of 141 passes ranks third in the Alabama record book, behind Brodie Croyle (190) and Jay Barker (155), and since halftime against the Hokies he's completed 88 of 135 passes for 1,139 yards and nine touchdowns. That adds up to a 65.2 completion percentage, a 158.06 collegiate passer rating and a 113.78 NFL passer rating. The Tide's red-zone troubles at Ole Miss aside, he's hit deep passes, gone through his progressions well and gotten more players involved in the offense. Redshirt freshman Star Jackson also made a pretty impressive debut in relief against North Texas. Grade: A-.

Running backs: Sophomore Mark Ingram has done a little bit of everything this season, having only been slowed by the flu. He has 362 rushing yards his first three SEC games this season, many after the initial hit, and 659 yards overall. He leads the SEC with 10 touchdowns, is tied with senior tight end Colin Peek for the team lead in receptions with 17 for 163 yards, and hasn't lost a fumble in 278 career touches. "It kind of surprised me that I had 28 carries, I still felt kind of strong," Ingram said after recording a career-high 172 rushing yards at Ole Miss. "You just go out and play hard. You don't focus on how many touches you get, you need to take advantage of every touch you get. It's easier than last year, plus I'm getting better as a player and taking advantage of my opportunities." So has true freshman Trent Richardson, who has 346 rushing yards and four touchdowns on just 61 attempts (5.7 average). Senior Roy Upchurch has been sidelined by an ankle sprain, but appears ready to contribute once again. Grade: A.

Receivers: One of the biggest surprises thus far has been the lack of receptions by sophomore Julio Jones, who has been slowed by a bruised knee and numerous uncharacteristic drops. Despite being McElroy's prize target he has just 13 catches for 175 yards and one touchdown on a trick play out of the wildcat. However, after six games last season he had just 19 catches for 278 yards (and all four touchdowns), and caught 39 passes for 646 yards the rest of the year. Otherwise, numerous other receivers have stepped up and gotten involved with sophomore receiver Marquis Maze leading the team in yards (242), Ingram and Peek in receptions, and 15 different players with at least one catch. Last season, Alabama had eight different players with at last 100 receiving yards (tight end Brad Smelley missed by just two yards), but only two with 200-plus yards. Six players have already exceeded 100 yards this season. Overall, Alabama has passed for 1,327 yards and nine touchdowns, compared to 914 yards and six scores at the same time last season. Grade: B+.

Offensive line: Having new starters at left tackle, center and right guard has essentially forced Alabama to re-invent its offense, or at least its identity, but there have been few setbacks. Alabama's 223.5 rushing yards per game rank 11th in the nation, and the Tide has given up just seven sacks. "I don't think we're the same type of offensive line we were a year ago, but for what this offensive line does, they've been very functional, played extremely well, played with a lot of toughness, played hard, played smart, done a good job for us," senior guard Mike Johnson said just before the start of SEC play. Overall, the Tide is averaging three more points per game and 66 more total yards than last season. The passing offense has enjoyed the biggest jump with 1,327 yards and nine touchdown compared to 914 yards and six scores this time in 2008. "We think we're not even close to reaching our potential yet," redshirt freshman guard [db]Barrett Jones[/db] said. Grade: B+.

Defensive line: Senior nose tackle [db]Terrence Cody has very quietly made 12 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss, and two quarterback hurries, partly because offenses are double-teaming him and generally trying to go away from him and McClain. Senior end Lorenzo Washington only had six tackles, but has played well and been disruptive, while senior end Brandon Deaderick is amazingly back in his usual role after being shot just in a failed carjacking days before season opener against Virginia Tech. Sophomore Marcell Dareus is having a breakout season with 17 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for a loss and four hurries. The Tide has 15 sacks, which leads the SEC, is averaging 7.0 tackles for a loss per game, and has 27 quarterback hurries, which seem a little low considering the pressure the Tide has produced. Grade: A-.

Linebackers: The loss of sophomore weakside linebacker Dont'a Hightower was a serious blow, and Alabama's title chances might come down to how well the Tide can fill his numerous roles. With him the Tide's defense was arguably the most imposing in college football. Reamer was fundamentally sound replacing him for one game, but not as imposing, so coaches have gone to Plan B, sophomore Jerrell Harris and true freshman Nico Johnson. McClain has been outstanding in the middle, prompting Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt to say: "He gets to the ball carrier and he arrives in a bad mood every time I see him. What a playmaker." When asked about McClain earlier this week, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he was more worried about blocking speedy senior Jack linebacker Eryk Anders. He has 25 tackles, 6.5 for a loss, and is tied with Dareus for the team lead in sacks with 3.5. Alabama has given up just 1,308 yards (218.0) per game, down from 1,573 (262.2) this time last year, which ranked second nationally. Linebackers also have five turnovers. Grade: A-.

Defensive backs: That opposing teams haven't challenged the cornerbacks too much is indicative of the respect they've earned. The last two weeks on the road Alabama has picked off seven passes. Overall, the Tide has yielded just 154.8 yards per game (seventh nationally) after giving up 211.1 this time last year. Alabama is also fourth in the nation on third downs, with a 24.05 conversion rate (19-for-79) after Ole Miss went 0-for-9. The other ranked team the Tide played, Virginia Tech, was 2-of-12. The Tide safeties have improved with sophomore Mark Barron second in team tackles, and both he and senior Justin Woodall have two interceptions. "You've always got to look towards the future," senior cornerback Javier Arenas said. "If you're doing well then you try to sustain and maintain. If you're not doing good then how can you get better? You have to look at what's ahead." Grade: A-.

Special teams: The Tide's biggest weakness has been kickoff coverage, with opponents scoring two touchdowns and averaging 25 yards per return. To put that into perspective, even though Alabama may have the best return man in the country with Arenas, he's averaging just 23.0 and plagued by numerous costly penalties. Arenas has 1,546 career punt-return yards on 110 attempts, just 150 years away from breaking Lee Nalley's SEC record of 1,695 (1947-49), and needs 216 to break Wes Welker's NCAA record of 1,761. Senior long-snapper Brian Selman has been solid, Alabama has successfully executed both a fake punt and field goal for a first down, and Tiffin leads the SEC in scoring. "He did a good job on kickoffs for us in this last game and anytime you make five field goals like he did (at Ole Miss), he's been pretty consistent," Saban said. "I think the big thing with Leigh is when he stays technically in his zone, he is pretty consistent. I think every time he misses one, it's because of something he did wrong. It's kind of like my golf swing. When I rotate my elbow out and get that club laid off, I hit some really good slices. I mean some that go in the record book. If I can get that right, I can hit it straight. We all have those issues." Grade: B.

Overall: Except for Hightower's injury (and numerous other potential distractions), the first half of the season went about as well as possible, with Alabama showing more versatility, balance and depth in almost every area. Nevertheless, there's still room for improvement. "I think that at times, we've played physical, tough with great competitive character, but I also think at times we've lost our focus a little bit in games and not played and sustained that intensity like you would like," Saban said. "I think that is something we need to continue to work on. I felt that way in the Ole Miss game. We didn't play as well in the second half on defense. We needed to put the game away and never really did it. We intercept pass with 12 or 13 minutes left in the game on the 10-yard line that would make the game go 19-10. The game is certainly not over. You've got to play for 60 minutes in the game. There is just a small difference in having the focus and the intensity and playing extremely well and losing that small edge and not playing quite as well, and making a few mental errors that allows the other team to gain momentum. That's something that we need to work on, so it would be more from a consistency standpoint that an inability to do it." Grade: A-


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