We sent some questions to the guys at Roll Bama Roll earlier in the week, and they got them back to me late last night. Better late than never I guess. Enjoy.
How would you assess Alabama's performance in week one? Were there any disappointments or pleasant surprises?
I think the most pleasant surprise was the focus and execution from the first snap on. I was honestly a little worried that we might come out looking a little rusty after an offseason's worth of hype, the #1 ranking, spending a summer preparing for a cupcake instead of the marquee opponents we played the last two years, and etc. But right out of the gate the team looked focused and poised on both sides of the ball and clearly looked like a team that had no intention of resting on it's laurels. There were also a few other pleasant surprises like the kicking game and speed of the defense, but we'll get more into that later.
As for disappointments, the injury bug biting early wasn't a welcome sight. Starting Jack linebacker (for those not versed in Saban's 3-4 defense, the Jack is an outside linebacker that's essentially a DE/OLB tweener) Courtney Upshaw and starting RT D.J. Fluker both left the game early with ankle injuries and, even though both have been practicing and are expected to play, it's still a little up in the air how effective they will be. Upshaw is not only one of our top three pass rushers, he is arguably our best linebacker against the run behind Dont'a Hightower and if he is limited on Saturday then that could force a shuffling of the front seven. Fluker is probably the closest to being 100% but as a first year starter he was in the game a lot longer than the rest of the starting o-line because, quite frankly, he needed the extra experience, so having him limited in practice before a big game like this isn't the best thing that could happen for him.
At this point it looks like Mark Ingram and Marcel Dareus are not going to play. How big of an impact do you think this is going to play in the game?
I've been really struck by how blase Alabama fans have been about Ingram's absence, honestly, but at the same time I've been a little guilty of it myself because, let's face it, Trent Richardson is just that good and the third back is no slouch either. To put it another way, the combo of Richardson and Eddie Lacy in 2010 is at least as good as the combo of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson in 2009.
As for Dareus, that's a different story. With Terrence Cody gone to the NFL, we find ourselves without a truly dominant defensive lineman at the nose. Don't get me wrong, both Josh Chapman and Kerry Murphy are physical specimens in their own right and give us a definite upgrade as far as pass rushing goes, but neither is quite as physically dominant as Cody was. We're definitely quicker on the defensive line, but without Dareus we really just don't have that one guy that demands double teams based solely on his physicality. Plus, if Upshaw really isn't close to 100% that leaves us without our top two edge rushers and I'm sure Saban and DC Kirby Smart are really wanting to get a lot of pressure on Bolden early. Without Dareus and with Upshaw limited, suddenly the front seven isn't quite the beast it can be.
Do you think Greg McElroy gets the credit he deserves? What would you consider to be his strengths and weaknesses?
I really don't think he gets the credit he deserves, honeslty, which is weird since the kid has never lost a game he started and really had the light come on for him by the end of last season. He had the game of a lifetime against Florida and even though he looked fairly pedestrian against Texas, he was playing with a cracked rib and managed the game well without turning the ball over or trying to force anything. His biggest problem is that he signed with Alabama as almost an afterthought (Mike Shula signed him, but only after Tim Tebow ultimately chose Florida), was the backup behind John Parker Wilson in 2007, a year where Wilson struggled mightily (the general consensus was if he can't beat out JPW, he must not be that good), and then had a pretty rough patch during the heart of the schedule last year. Now he's got a future all everything guy in A.J. McCarron behind him (who threw a TD on his second collegiate attempt, so...yeah) and, as you know, the second string QB is always the best player on the team so the poor guy has always been in the middle of one unfortunate set of circumstances or another his entire tenure at Alabama.
Personally, I think he's a great QB for the offense that we run. OC Jim McElwain is a perfect fit for Nick Saban's staff since he has zero problems adjusting the offense year to year based on personnel. We have certain things that we want to do, sure, but just like Saban and Smart tailor their defense to what the players can handle and how well they progress from week to week, he's been very open about his pragmatic approach to game planning and play calling. In '08, we were a run run run and occasionally throw to Julio Jones kind of team because that's what we were best at. Both Saban and McElwain expressed their faith in John Parker Wilson's ability to learn a more complex offensive attack, but when it came down to it we had the best run blocking offensive line Alabama had fielded in a decade, two capable backs in Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram, and not a whole heck of a lot of consistency from the wide receivers. Instead of putting Wilson into a position of weakness, they made him a game manager and it worked out pretty well. Same for McElroy. He's a smart kid and a student of the game, but his inexperience showed at times so we leaned on the ground game. This year he's shown that he can handle being more of a passer, and now that we actually have some depth and consistency at WR look for the offense to air it out more. His biggest knock, though, and one that I tend to agree with, is that his downfield passing isn't as crisp as we would like. He's hit some strikes in his time, but he hasn't shown the power and accuracy to really stretch the field consistently and that's something we've really worked on over the offseason. Whether it happens or not is still up in the air, but if we can start getting the ball downfield to Julio Jones and Marquis Maze more it would really open up a lot more possibilities for the offense.
Penn State fans are trying to figure out how Alabama can have to replace so many players on defense this year and still maintain a No. 1 ranking, but I get the impression from Alabama fans that they're not that concerned. How concerned are you about the Alabama defense going into this season?
On a scale of 1 to 10 I was about a seven. Yes, we lost a lot of players, but the guys replacing them are all arguably more talented and athletic than who they replaced (with the possible exception of Terrence Cody and Rolando McClain) and a good many of them have significant playing time because of how much we rotate players, especially in the front seven. So even though we technically lost a lot of starters, the guys behind them got just about as many snaps as they did last season anyway.
The secondary is the exception, though. Mark Barron is back at safety and he's a phenomenal talent (led the SEC in INTs last year with 7), but the offseason was not kind to our safety position. Robby Green should have started opposite Barron but he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for this season and has to sit. Likewise, Rod Woodson showed a lot of potential but ultimately transferred after some time in Saban's doghouse. We've got Robert Lester starting opposite Barron right now, but he's been inconsistent so far, getting a pick and a sack against SJSU but also taking bad angles and whiffing on tackles to give up big gains. We've also got a walk on in Will Lowery playing a significant role as the deep safety in our dime package right now, and expect to see true freshman Jarrick Williams getting in a good bit as well. The corners are also pretty inexperienced. Dre Kirkpatrick and Dequan Menzie are the top two, with true freshman DeMarcus Milliner coming as the third corner in the nickel package. Kirkpatrick (a true sophomore) and Menzie (a JUCO transfer) looked very impressive on Saturday, and Milliner has loads of potential, but that was the first real game experience any of them has had. Milliner at least enrolled early and took part in spring camp, so he's a little better off than your typical true freshman, but it's still a little unnerving having so much youth and inexperience back there.
I get the impression from reading RBR that special teams is a concern for Alabama. What are the concerns there?
If you think we lost a lot on defense last season, then let me tell you a little bit about our special teams. First, we graduated two multi-year starters at P and K and none of our recent recruits have really panned out, so we are going with a true freshmen at both of those positions right now. Second, we also lost Javier Arenas, who's kick returns last season kept the offense in good field position during their worst struggles and often times provided a spark we desperately needed. Third, we lost a multi-year long snapper in Brian Selman, and fourth we graduated a handful of special teams stalwarts like Corey Reamer, Ali Sharrief, and Chris Rogers, all guys who worked their tails off and allowed us to keep as few starters off of special teams as possible.
The good news (for us at least), was that we actually looked pretty good on Saturday. Cade Foster showed a big leg on kickoffs and Cody Mandell boomed a couple of 50+ yard punts, plus our kick coverage was better than it's been the last few seasons as well. I did notice we were playing a lot of starters and key reserves, though, so I imagine that's an unfortunate acknowledgment by the coaching staff that we are going to have to use our best players on special teams if we intend to have a good unit this season.
What are your thoughts on Penn State? What do you think Alabama can exploit and what is going to give them problems?
First, I'm extremely excited about this game (and next year's, too). Growing up in the 80s and really becoming a fan at that time, Penn State was always a big part of the season. The first game I made a conscious effort to watch on my own was actually the '89 contest (last second blocked kick, thank you Thomas Rayam) and that memory is still a big part of my Tide fandom. So all the respect in the world is there for your Nittany Lions, and I honestly wish the two schools would schedule a home and home series at least once a decade because this rivalry needs to be tended to, darn it!
As for this year's contest, though, I really think we should be able to have some success on offense since we've been able to open things up this year and because Julio Jones is finally 100% healthy for the first time in his collegiate career. He's a matchup nightmare for anyone he lines up against, and even without being 100% he's still been a dominant force the past two seasons. Hopefully he'll stay healthy this year and we can finally see what this kid is really capable of. As for what concerns me, I'm nervous about our front seven against the run. As I said before, we're lighter in the middle, we'll be without our most dominant lineman (Dareus), our best OLB against the run may not be 100% (Upshaw), and we've gotten lighter against the run with our ILBs as well. Dont'a Hightower is a force to reckon with at Mike (where he took over for McClain), but Jerrell Harris replacing him at Will represents another upgrade in speed but downgrade in size. I'm worried that we'll have to shuffle the front seven around to cope with y'all's way more experienced and physical offensive line, and stopping the run and putting the game on Bolden's shoulders is likely the defensive game plan. If y'all can lean on Royster and co. and have some success early and make us commit more against the run, the secondary becomes even more of a weakness than it already is and...I just don't want to even think about that.
Thanks to the guys at Roll Bama Roll for participating.