By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
ATLANTA — Christion Jones had a very special season opener — and it's a good thing because Alabama's offense wasn't always as explosive as it was cracked out to be.
The speedster took the top-ranked Tide's very first touch of the 2013 campaign for a touchdown on a 72-yard punt return and later tacked on another score on a now-you-have-me, now-you-don't 94-yard kickoff return. Jones added one more touchdown on a 38-yard heave from A.J. McCarron to cap off a sizzling special teams and all-around performance in the top-ranked Tide's 35-10 win over Virginia Tech.
Jones' kickoff return will likely remain on Alabama's highlight reel for the rest of the season. The junior took a lick around his own 30-yard line but somehow stayed upright and snuck to the left sideline, which he clung to the rest of the way to the end zone.
The Hokies continued to kick to Jones in the second half — for some reason — and he made them pay for it. The wideout went off for a 19-yard return to Virginia Tech's 47 a little more than midway through the third quarter, setting up his 38-yard pass-and-catch with McCarron four plays later.
“You really don't ever want them to ever stop kicking to you,” Jones said. “But the blocking scheme set up great for me tonight, and we could have even had a few more great returns.”
Other than that deep scoring connection, big plays were few and far between for the Tide's highly touted offense.
T.J. Yeldon showed early signs of a sophomore slump with plenty of ineffective carries — his 2-yard touchdown late in the first quarter was a plus, though — and McCarron had trouble standing still and upright behind a new-look offensive line missing three All-Americans from a year ago. The fact the quarterback was spotted wearing a walking boot due to an ingrown toenail probably didn't help matters any, though McCarron claimed otherwise.
“It didn't affect me,” he said. “I'm good.”
Yeldon had 17 carries for 75 yards, and McCarron, the nation's most-efficient passer in 2012, was just 10 of 23 for 110 yards and an interception. The senior, who many are counting on to mount a Heisman campaign this season, was also sacked four times.
And if Alabama's offense struggled so mightily to get in sync against the Hokies, widely considered a middle-of-the-pack ACC squad, just how well can the squad expect to fare against SEC rivals Texas A&M and LSU?
We'll find out sooner than later with the Aggies, who took care of Rice 53-21 on Saturday and will host the Tide in two weeks.
After returning from a one-half suspension, Johnny Manziel tossed three touchdowns for the Aggies. The reigning Heisman winner was tagged with a 15-yard penalty for taunting, though, leading coach Kevin Sumlin to pull the sophomore signal-caller on Texas A&M's final drive.
“I think everybody realizes that we need to improve,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I think when you play good opponents like this, it makes your players realize where they are, what they need to be committed to, to play to the standard that it's going to take to beat good teams in our league. I think we learned that tonight.”
Conduct issues like Manziel's were far from a problem for McCarron and Co. out east in Atlanta. Having time in the pocket to throw was, however, a major concern Alabama will have more than enough time to work on with an early extended break coming up.
“Next week we have a bye to work out the kinks,” offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandijo said. “Nothing happened out there tonight that we can't work on.”
While the offense can still use a bit of work, the Tide D appeared to already be in midseason form.
The unit's only blemish was a 77-yard touchdown run by Trey Edmunds on Virginia Tech's very first play of its fourth drive.
Alabama looked to be right at home in the Georgia Dome and did a good job of making sure Hokie quarterback Logan Thomas felt like an outsider.
Vinnie Sunseri swiped a strike from Thomas at the Virginia Tech 38 early in the second quarter and sprinted untouched all the way to the end zone.
Thomas was limited to just five completions and 59 yards — 34 of which came on a connection to D.J. Coles early in the first quarter — on 26 attempts. He was also sacked once and was unable to successfully contribute on a number of option runs.
“They've got some great athletes over there, especially the front four,” Thomas said. “They're a little bit of a different breed than anything we've seen.”
No matter how dominant the Tide's defense turned out to be, the night clearly belonged to Jones, who became the first Alabama player with two returns in one game since 1944.
“It's every kid's dream to come in and have a game like that,” he said. “I've got 24 hours to celebrate, then we'll start preparing for Week 2.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.