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August 8, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ Ask University of Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones about the Crimson Tide's offensive strategy and he'll give an answer that appears to be overly simplistic.
"We're going to take what the defense gives us," Jones said.
Opponents load the box to stop the run, and the countermove is to "throw the ball. If they don't, we'll run the ball."
Granted, it's not quite that easy, but multi-faceted attacks balanced between game-changing running backs and receivers are what everyone covets, or what Florida's Urban Meyer recently called a "coach's dream." Like with a boxer if you focus on one hand the good fighters will subsequently pummel you with the other.
In 2009, Alabama did a lot of pounding with the running game en route to the national championship, led by Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram. With opponents likely to key on him even more this season, Jones becomes that much more important to the Tide.
"A lot of guys kind of attempt to say he had a sophomore slump last year but I really don't think so," sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower said. "He had a lot of key plays in a lot of wins last year including the LSU game.
"I expect great things from Julio. He's a great player, a great contributor to our team."
Back for his junior season, which could potentially be his last, fans are still wondering how high the bar can go, especially statistically.
While Jones' 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame can be used to both shield passes and take out defenders he's had two injury-plagued seasons. In 2008, he played through shoulder and wrist injuries in addition to a painful sports hernia while setting Tide freshman records for receptions (58), yards (924) and touchdown catches (four).
Last year he took a helmet square on the knee against Florida International, didn't play against North Texas and returned to finish with 43 catches for 596 yards and four touchdowns.
"When he did it, it hurt," Jones said of the knee hit. "I went to go out for the next play, but I could barely walk. I didn't know what to think."
Although he returned to face Arkansas and scored his first touchdown, 50 yards on a trick play out of the wildcat formation, Jones still looked a little out of sync at times and wound up leading the team in dropped passes. While he's credited some of that being too keyed up at the start of games it's obviously still a bit of a sore subject.
"Last year was last year," Jones said. "I dropped a couple balls, but this year I'm going to make up for it."
How has filled his offseason, getting bigger, faster, stronger by hitting the weight room so "Everything's going to be improved," in addition to finally being injury-free.
The other part was he and Greg McElroy working extra on their timing, with the senior quarterback trying to anticipate better and be more trusting of his receiver.
"That's something we didn't do last year," Jones said. "We're trying to be better together."
"He's so strong," McElroy said. "He gets up field, he's not a juker, which I like. He doesn't move side to side he's straight north and south. I think that's a great thing because he really brakes a lot of arm tackles. He's a lot bigger than a lot of defensive backs. He kind of poses a mismatch in the open field because of his strength and his length as well. He's a long-strider, he's a fast guy. I don't think people realize how fast he is."
In short, the goods are all there, it's now primarily a matter of how best to use them and execution. Here's how the coach explained it, in general:
"Our philosophy is we want to utilize the players we have on offense, let's start with that," Nick Saban said. "There were times at LSU we led the league in passing and there were times we led the league in rushing. There were times we scored a lot of points and there were times we were hard to score on on defense.
"Last year's team was a very good defensive team that controlled the ball on offense. We had a relatively inexperienced quarterback, we didn't want to put the game in his hands and we were good enough to control it with some very good players like Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson and a good offensive line and good enough skill guys outside to keep people honest. But we probably didn't make enough explosive plays passing.
"This year's team may be a little bit different. Right now it probably don't have the experience on defense to have the expectation that we're only going to give up 11 points a game like we did last year. So we may need to score more points, we may need to make more explosive plays, we have a little more experienced quarterback, we have three receivers who have gained a lot of experience in the last two years in terms of the starts they have. Those guys need to be more productive, and we need to make them more productive."
A quick glance at the roster tells why the Crimson Tide is ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls, eight returning starters on offense and numerous returning contributors.
In addition to Ingram and Richardson, the line looks to again be formidable should massive D.J. Fluker continue to develop at right tackle. Tight ends Michael Williams and Preston Dial are also comfortable in their roles, while McElroy has that key year under his belt. As for the receivers, after Jones, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks coaches are looking for others to step up.
"We should have more diversity in our offense because of the personnel that we have," Saban said.
That could mean more multiple-receiver sets, different looks and formations, all sorts of personnel combinations, all in an effort to dictate the tempo and make those explosive plays - which doesn't necessarily mean throwing deeper passes.
Saban gave the example of his years with the Houston Oilers (1988-89).
"We were going to run the run-and-shoot no matter what because the guy running the offense was a run-and-shoot guy and he thought that was the best offense in the world and the only offense that you could score lots of points with," Saban said. "It was more about that philosophy of the offense than it was about our team, actually.
"I'm not saying that in a bad way, because we were pretty good doing it and we had the right kind of people to do it, but that's not how we are. We don't have, 'We're going to do this no matter what.' We feel it's important to control the line of scrimmage, have balance and utilize the personnel that we have, so we're not locked into anything."
Yet the primary aim remains the same, getting the ball to the best playmakers. Even with his injuries the Southeastern Conference's top cornerback called Jones and Georgia's A.J. Green the toughest to face despite being such different receivers.
"Julio is more stocky, might block you a bit and try to bully you around," Peterson said. "A.J. Green is a more slimmer guy, pretty fast and he go goes up for the ball like no other receiver does. I have to try and take my game to another level against both those guys."
Twice, though, Peterson's been on the losing side to Jones. In 2008, he had a career-high seven receptions for 128 yards and his 24-yard catch on the Tide's first play of overtime set up the winning 1-yard touchdown at Baton Rouge.
Last November, Jones took a screen 73 yards for a touchdown, the longest play of his collegiate career, to key the 24-15 home victory. That too is a bit of a sore subject, but for the other guy.
"It's almost a year ago," Peterson said. "It's in the back of my mind, we have to play Alabama again."