Did Alshon Jeffery have a subpar season because he slumped, or are there other reasons we should consider?
With the news that Alshon Jeffery is going to the NFL, pro teams are probably going to be scrutinizing Jeffery's stats at least some -- though they will probably dismiss most of them as having been accumulated in this strange game we call "college football." In any case, one point that is likely to be pored over the most is the drop-off in Jeffery's production this season.
In fact, with 762 yards and eight touchdowns, Jeffery's 2011 season looks a lot more like his 2009 freshman campaign than his breakout season of 2010. Last season, Jeffery had 1,517 yards and and nine touchdowns on 88 catches; in 2009, the numbers were 46 catches for 763 yards and six touchdowns.
The game-by-game numbers aren't that much more encouraging. More than a third of his yardage and touchdowns came against possibly the three worst South Carolina opponents of the season -- East Carolina (92 yards), Kentucky (95 yards, two touchdowns) and The Citadel (81 yards, one touchdown). The 148-yard performance against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl is the only game in triple-digits for Jeffery all season.
So did Jeffery lose a step in 2011, or were there other things that could explain an off year?
A lot of people are going to point to the "out of shape" pictures that circulated around the Internet at the beginning of the year, something that was explained away by supporters as the new uniforms provided by Jeffery being smaller than they were supposed to. But was Jeffery really out of shape? I don't know, and I think it's slightly irresponsible to speculate on that unless we can come up with no other reason for the drop-off or unless we're regularly weighing him, which I'm guessing most of the readers of this blog have not done.
Are there other suspects for Jeffery's decline this year? Yes.
The most obvious one is that South Carolina has thrown less this year, by about 20 percent -- dropping from 389 pass attempts in 2010 to 317 attempts this year. As a South Carolina fan, I could tell that there were times this year -- the Navy game being a prime example -- where Spurrier seemed terrified to throw the ball. Part of that was Stephen Garcia being as erratic as he was early on and part of it was Connor Shaw being new when he took over.
You'll recall that Shaw's first two games with meaningful playing time -- in which he threw two game-sealing interceptions against Auburn in 2010 and fell well behind East Carolina early in that game this year -- were reason enough for Spurrier to take it slow at first.
How much did that affect Jeffery? Since there's not targeting data that I've been able to find for college football, I went with completions -- Jeffery's 49 this year were about 15 percent of South Carolina's throws, down from 88 last year, for about 23 percent of the throws. All of which is to say that Jeffery's share of completions from South Carolina declined this year, but the Gamecocks were also throwing the ball less. Had Jeffery caught the same 23 percent of the passes as he did last year, that would be about 73 receptions. By that benchmark, Jeffery is actually down by about a third, instead of being down 43 percent on the straight comparison.
The one thing that kind of plays into the idea that something is wrong with Jeffery is yards per catch, down from 17.2 to 15.6, so I guess you could argue that he's not stretching the field quite as much as he did last year. But as he showed at times during the Capital One Bowl, there's not much doubt that Jeffery can still stretch the field if you need him to.
Finally, football is a team game, and you have to consider that Jeffery lost his best complimentary receiver after last season and the Gamecocks' star running back in the seventh game of the season. When the team lost powerful running back Marcus Lattimore, that was the last thing besides Jeffery that defenses really had to worry about.
Consider this: Jeffery had at least five receptions in five of the seven games through the Mississippi State game. He had five receptions in one of the five games that followed it. That's not to say that Jeffery shouldn't be expected to make plays as the best wide receiver on the team -- but when you take away the best secondary receiver from last year and then South Carolina's other major offensive threat, it's not very surprising that the numbers went down -- slowly at first and then pretty dramatically starting with the MSU game.
Which isn't to say there's no reason for NFL scouts to ask about Jeffery's fall-off in 2011. But there are plenty of other explanations for why his numbers declined, and they might want to consider those other reasons and decide to give Jeffery a shot.