TUSCALOOSA _ When asked if he'd like to catch more passes this season University of Alabama tight end/H-back Preston Dial couldn't help but give an eager "Yes sir" response, but then quickly tempered his enthusiasm.
"If that's the way our offense pans out, I want to make sure I'm reliable and that Greg (McElroy)knows he can count on me," Dial said. "All the receivers, we're all on the same page. But I'll be honest with you, if I catch three or four balls again next year and we win every game I'll be perfectly happy, because I know my role. "I do enjoy catching it and getting upfield, and playmaking, but I also love coming through the hole and banging on guys."
Although Alabama's running game (and stout defense) carried the Crimson Tide to last season's national championship, improving the passing game is clear priority this spring as evidenced by the statistics from last Friday's scrimmage.
While the top two quarterbacks, McElroy and A.J. McCarron, combined to throw 50 passes, no running back had more than nine carries (Mark Ingram and Eddie Lacy). Saturday's second scrimmage could see more of the same, especially with the inexperienced defensive backs also needing snaps.
"When we took shots downfield they were making plays," Ingram said. "They weren't dropping balls. Greg was making the right reads. So that showed up. Instead of incomplete passes or interceptions, those were big, explosive plays."
"Explosive plays" is more than a catch phrase with the Crimson Tide, but a statistic that Coach Nick Saban charts and frequently mentions. By his definition an explosive play is a carry of 13 yards or more or a pass of 17 yards or more, and every game he wants to see at least nine.
Alabama failed to reach that in six of its last seven games last season, the lone exception being Florida in the Southeastern Championship Game.
Even so, the vast majority came on the ground, with an overwhelming number occurring when a certain person touched the ball:
Explosive plays (2009) Mark Ingram 43 Trent Richardson 11 Marquis Maze 9 Julio Jones 8 Roy Upchurch 7 Darius Hanks 6 Colin Peek 6 Mike McCoy 4 Terry Grant 3 Demetrius Goode 2 Preston Dial 1 Brandon Gibson 1 P.J. Fitzgerald 1 Earl Alexander 1 Greg McElroy 1
The long gains were obviously a huge reason why Ingram won the Heisman Trophy, as the sophomore had an explosive play against every opponent minus one, Auburn. Of his 43 (41 percent of the team's total), five came on receptions.
Just as telling were the numbers for Jones, who was one yard short of an explosive play against Virginia Tech and then took a helmet to the knee against Florida International. Until his backbreaking 73-yard touchdown catch-and-run against LSU he had exactly the same number of explosive plays as punter P.J. Fitzgerald (who got his on a fake against Kentucky), one.
Last week, Jones apparently put on quite a show for those who were able to watch the scrimmage, with eight catches for 105 yards.
"I don't see any difference, he's always been a workhorse," Ingram said. "He was just a little banged up last year, but he looks good. He's strong fast, going up and getting the ball. He busts his butt no matter what, whether he's getting the ball or the ball's going away from him."
But getting yards from the perimeter isn't limited to Jones. While Maze and Hanks aim to improve as well, others are beginning to enter the mix. Freshman Kenny Bell is challenging for more playing time along with freshman Kevin Norwood, and freshman Kendell Kelly has been getting in extra work learning safety as a precaution due to depth concerns.
Sophomore Michael Williams appears poised to replace Peek, while Dial's five catches in the scrimmage were more than he had all of last season (three for 25 yards).
"We left a lot of plays out on the field last year, a scary amount," Dial said.
Alabama appears to have more playmakers ready to make contributions, which coaches are figuring out how to incorporate into the offense. While that doesn't necessarily mean a change in the identity, the ability to better stretch the defense could really open things up for the offense, which last year frequently saw eight-plus defenders in the box and ran anyway.
"I feel really good about the way we're going on offense," Saban said. "The quarterbacks are playing well. We've got good skill players all the way around, and they've done a really good job.
"I think we've improved the passing game."
Which in turn should mean more explosive plays in 2010.
"We've really just only scratched the surface," McElroy said.