TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was a conversation with reporters during which everyone else suddenly started looking at each other with a “Did he just say what I think he said?” look.
University of Alabama junior wide receiver ArDarius Stewart was talking about the offense for the 2016 season and if the Crimson Tide would have a different approach due to having so many receiving options.
He said: “It’s still going to be a balance, I believe, because we still have Bo [Scarbrough] and all those guys at running back. When we tie this all together, you’re going to see that it’s going to be a dangerous combination having the assassins on the outside and the guys who can run on the inside.”
Um, wait. Assassins?
“We’re the ones who come down when you need something clutch, we’re going down there [when we throw] the ball up, sacrificing our bodies, all that,” Stewart responded. “I consider the receivers assassins, and I tell them that all the time.”
Normally it’s the defensive players who might get a nickname like that, and of course Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders was known as “The Assassin” for his brutal hits in the National Football League. But in terms of Alabama having the kind of playmakers that any mistake by a defender and he’s toast, Stewart does have a point.
The offense returns most of its key wide receivers and tight ends, the notable exceptions being Richard Mullaney, a graduate transfer last summer who is now trying to land a job in the NFL, and fan favorite Michael Nysewander.
Of the 17 players who had a reception last year, 11 are still on the roster (including Dakota Ball, who has moved back to the defensive line for his senior year). They made 72 percent of all the catches and 75 percent of the receiving yards in 2015.
There are two players coming off a 1,000-yard season and a tight end with 1,000 career yards, plus the two who were considered the starters coming out of training camp last year, Stewart and Robert Foster.
Stewart started all 15 games and made 63 catches for 700 yards and four touchdowns. Foster, who was expected to have a breakout year, ended up suffering a season-ending shoulder injury Week 3 against Ole Miss.
“He’s playing with a lot more confidence,” head coach Nick Saban said.
Instead, Calvin Ridley became just the second player in Crimson Tide history to have a 1,000-yard receiving season as a freshman, finishing with 89 catches for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns. The first, of course, was Amari Cooper, who is now lighting it up with the Raiders.
He ended up making 228 receptions for 3,463 yards and 31 touchdowns during his three seasons at Alabama, all school records by a wide margin. The previous marks were 194, (DJ Hall, 2004-07), 2,923 yards (Hall) and 18 touchdowns (Dennis Homan, 1965-67).
Meanwhile, Ridley’s yards were the seventh-most among players Saban’s coached at the collegiate level and the 10th 1,000-yard receiving season.
“He wants to be better, just like everyone else,” Stewart said about Ridley, who didn’t make his first start until after Foster’s injury. He then had an eye-opening game at No. 8 Georgia, where he made five receptions for 120 yards, including touchdowns of 50 and 45 yards.
Perhaps that performance was a little assassin-like.
Additionally, Alabama is adding Gehrig Dieter this summer, a graduate transfer who led Bowling Green with 94 catches for 1,044 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Cam Sims had a good spring after being limited in 2015 when coming off knee surgery. Daylon Charlot is looking for more reps. Derek Kief scored a touchdown on A-Day…
However, he was the only one. This year’s scrimmage to wrap up spring practices was different from 2015 when Foster had 125 yards on six catches and Stewart tallied 118 yards on seven receptions and a touchdown to be named co-MVPs.
With the defense successfully applying pressure on a regular basis, the offense managed to reach the end zone just the one time and struggled to get into any sort of a rhythm. But the receivers also had made uncharacteristic mistakes while tying to catch passes from the rotating quarterbacks.
“We had some drops at receivers, from some very good players who don’t usually drop passes,” Saban said. “Obviously, we need to make more explosive plays on offense, but when you limit your offense and limit your defense, I’m not sure without a game plan how much that really happens.”
The surprise of A-Day was true freshman tight end Miller Forristall leading everyone with eight receptions for 53 yards while playing with the second-team offense. Thanks to a 33-yard catch, the game’s longest, Ridley topped the yardage with 54 on four receptions.
Yet even with the offense struggling that afternoon, when the play-calling was vanilla on both sides and JK Scott ended up punting 15 times, the big-play potential was still obvious.
Defenses trying to key on one player—or even one aspect of the field—and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin can simply go in another direction, like the way he dialed up tight end O.J. Howard in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
The tight end scored two touchdowns and racked up 208 receiving yards, setting both the championship game record and the Alabama record for a bowl/playoff game.
“We can do that almost like every other game,” Howard said “Just have guys, not even me having that many yards in one game, every guy could do that. That’s how we could be, and that’s how I think we’re going to be once we get everything going.”
Of course, that’s making one big assumption, a quality starting quarterback emerges in the fall between Blake Barnett, Cooper Bateman and David Cornwell—although Alabama has an impressive track record of late in that regard (i.e. Blake Sims and Jake Coker).
Will he be someone who is primarily known for his efficiency, or will it be a quarterback who can effectively attack downfield without turning the ball over as well?
Time will tell with that part of the equation, but in the meantime, it’s already clear that position coach Billy Napier has something going on with this group, which might be the deepest on the 2016 Crimson Tide and already has a little swagger.
“Oh, we’re already great,” Stewart added about the receiving corps. “We’re just trying to compete to get better, build on what we have.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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