BamaInsider – What we learned: Alabama has a new playmaker at tight end


ATLANTA — Bryce Young doesn’t play favorites. That’s obvious from the nine different receivers the sophomore quarterback delivered the ball to during Alabama’s 44-13 victory over Miami on Saturday. Although, when it comes to scoring touchdowns, he might have found his go-to man.

Two of Young’s four touchdown passes during Saturday’s season-opener were caught by tight end Cameron Latu, a converted outside linebacker who might just be the Crimson Tide’s next big playmaker on offense.

Heading into the game, Latu had yet to record a reception at the college level. That changed during Alabama’s third possession as Young hit the redshirt junior for a 9-yard touchdown strike in the second quarter. The two connected again later in the quarter as Young hit an open Latu at the Miami 17-yard line before the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder bowled over one Hurricanes defender before stiff-arming another one on his way for a 25-yard score. Young would then hit Latu one more time for a 9-yard pass on third-and-8 in the third quarter as the tight end finished the afternoon with three receptions for 43 yards.

Latu, who played both tight end and defensive end in high school, was originally recruited as an outside linebacker in the 2018 class. After redshirting his first season on campus, the former four-star recruit flipped to the offensive side the following year to provide more depth at the tight end position. Now, that move appears to be finally paying off.

“Before last season, I said, ‘You know, I think you have a lot better shot to be a tight end. You got good hands, you got great size, you’re a good athlete.’ And he bought into it,” head coach Nick Saban said of his decision to switch Latu to the offensive side of the ball. “And it’s taken a little bit of time for him to develop and feel comfortable and confident at the position. But I was encouraged. And I think the success that he had today will build confidence.”

Latu’s big day comes after a stellar offseason in which he caught five touchdowns from Young over the Tide’s five scrimmages. Following Saturday’s game, both players sounded off about what appears to be a promising connection moving forward.

“It’s a lot of work in the offseason,” Young said. “It’s a lot of reps in practice, a lot of reps after practice. We’re on the same page, and I think that’s key with any good offense. We need to make sure everyone’s on the same page and just building that connection.”

Added Latu: “I’d say we got a good connection, but it just all comes from the hard work that we put in day-in and day-out. Everybody does each and every piece of that on the offense, and it’s just repetition.”

Alabama was deadly on third down 

Alabama bullied Miami for most of the afternoon. However, the Tide was especially efficient when it mattered most. Alabama’s offense went 10-for-16 (62.5 percent) on third down while its defense limited Miami to 6 of 14 (42.8 percent), stopping the Hurricanes on their first four third-down attempts.

No one was better than Young, who completed 8 of his 10 third-down passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns.

“Well, we played really well in the first half,” Saban said. “We had good energy, we had good enthusiasm. We did a good job executing things. We affected the quarterback on defense. They gave us a lot of stuff. They did a lot things, a lot of formations. All the receivers over on one side. A lot of stuff that we were constantly adjusting to. And probably limited a little bit what we did because, you know, we were trying to make a lot of adjustments. So we were trying to make it simpler for the players.

“But I thought we did a pretty good job in the first half, both sides of the ball on third down. Really did a nice job on offense. I mean, what, did we score the first five, four possessions? I was really pleased with that.”

Trey Sanders still has it 

It’s going to take more than back-to-back season-ending injuries to stop Trey Sanders. Playing in his first game since injuring his hip in a car accident last November, the redshirt sophomore back flashed his five-star potential, rushing for 41 yards on eight carries, including a 20-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

Sanders came to Alabama as the top running back and No. 3 overall player in the 2019 class. He suffered his first season-ending injury when he broke his foot during the fall of 2019. Last year’s season-ending hip injury came after he had rushed for 134 yards on 30 carries over four games.

“There’s probably nobody on our team that has had more adversity and more things to overcome,” Saban said following Saturday’s game. “So I was as happy as all get out to see him score a touchdown today. Most people don’t know how hard this guy’s worked to try to get back as a football player. So anyway, I was really, really pleased about that.”

Patience still needed in the punting game 

Alabama’s kicking game is still going strong as Will Reichard carried over last season’s perfect streak by connecting on all three of his field-goal attempts Saturday. As for the Tide’s punting game, that still needs a bit of improvement.

Last season, Alabama ranked No. 118 out of 127 Division I teams, averaging just 38 yards per punt. Things weren’t much better Saturday as first-year punter James Burnip averaged 31 yards on his two boots.

The Australian’s first punt went for 36 yards, landing out of bounds at the Miami 20-yard line. His second attempt traveled just 21 yards, landing out of bounds at the Miami 21-yard line.

While first impressions could have been better, Alabama will look to remain patient with its new special teams addition. It’s worth noting that Reichard missed both his field-goal attempts during his debut inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2019. Things turned out pretty well for him over time.

Tide bits 

— Alabama had nine players make their first career start against Miami, including five on offense, two on defense and two on special teams. New offensive starters included left guard Javion Cohen, center Darrian Dalcourt, running back Brian Robinson Jr., wide receiver Jameson Williams and Young at quarterback. On the defensive side, cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis and linebacker Henry To’oTo’o both started their first game for the Tide. Special teams debuts were handed to Burnip and snapper Kneeland Hibbett.

— Alabama moved to 15-0 in season openers under Saban. The Tide has outscored its opponents 610-176 in those games and has outgained the opposition, 6,658-3,273.

— Alabama has forced at least one turnover in 79 of the last 86 contests dating back to the start of the 2015 season. Saturday, outside linebacker Chris Allen forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis. In addition, defensive back Malachi Moore and Jaylen Moody both had interceptions. During the current run, Alabama has forced 145 turnovers (93 interceptions, 52 fumbles) and returned 29 of those miscues for touchdowns.

— Young’s 94-yard touchdown pass to Williams in the third quarter is tied for the second-longest touchdown pass in program history. The score is tied with Freddie Kitchens’ pass to Michael Vaughn vs. Florida on Dec. 7, 1996 and Mac Jones’ pass to Jaylen Waddle vs. Louisiana on Sept. 29, 2018. The longest touchdown pass in program history is AJ McCarron’s 99-yard connection with Amari Cooper at Auburn on Nov. 30, 2013.

— Young’s four touchdown passes against Miami are the most touchdown passes by any Alabama quarterback in their debut as a starter. He passed Mac Jones and Joe Namath, who collected three touchdown passes in 2019 and 1962, respectively.

— The Crimson Tide has won 42 straight games when scoring a touchdown on the first offensive possession of the game. The Tide’s last loss after finding the end zone on its first drive was to the Oklahoma Sooners in the 2014 Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Alabama tight end Cameron Latu (81) celebrates after scoring his second touchdown of the first half against Miami at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Photo | USA Today

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