Muschamp known to overcome adversity

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
12:38
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Will Muschamp has a 17-inch steel rod on display in his office.

It was implanted in his leg following a high school baseball injury that nearly ended his college football career before it started.

If you ask him about it, the first words from his mouth are those of his father: Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you handle it.

It's something he says all the time now. As a tribute to his father's wisdom, Muschamp often turns to this thought in times of trial.

There is no doubt he has seen some of his toughest trials in the past year.

In his third season as coach of the Florida Gators, his team crumbled under a rash of injuries and posted a 4-8 record, the school's worst since 1979.

Off the field was worse. In May, Muschamp's father, Larry, died suddenly at 79 after complications following intestinal surgery.

"He was very close to Larry," Will's mother, Sally, said this week, "and I know that he, like all of us, is hurting. But I don't think the others have had the adversity that Will's had."

Muschamp has chosen to embrace adversity. That's the advice his father always gave. But in his youth, Will didn't always see positives in the struggle.

Click here to read the rest of this story.

And for an inside look at Muschamp's office, including the steel rod he keeps behind his desk, click here.

Watch: SEC Spreecast, 3 ET

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
8:30
AM ET
Join ESPN.com writers Edward Aschoff, David Ching, Greg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough at 3 p.m. ET as they debate the hottest topics in the SEC as well as preview this weekend's biggest games, including Auburn-Kansas State, Florida-Alabama and Mississippi State-LSU.

SEC morning links

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
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Much was made of offensive coordinator Kurt Roper's hire at Florida this offseason. He was brought to inject life into a struggling unit and so far, he has done that -- hiccups in the first half against Kentucky notwithstanding. The true measuring stick for the Gators' offensive progress will come this week at Alabama. Fortunately for the Gators, Roper has experience against the Crimson Tide, though it wasn't a good experience (Duke lost to Alabama 62-13 in 2010 when Roper was with the Blue Devils). These are different circumstances and Roper has Will Muschamp -- who knows the Tide well from his days there -- as a resource. While Florida still has plenty of room for improvement, Saturday's clash in Tuscaloosa will be revealing when it comes to understanding how far the Gators' offense has come in a short time.

Texas A&M hasn't taken a step back -- like many thought they would in the post Johnny Manziel-era -- and contributions from the Aggies' freshmen is a big part of that equation. So far, 14 true freshmen from the Aggies' fourth-ranked 2014 recruiting class have seen the field and several have become impact players immediately: defensive end Myles Garrett, safety Armani Watts and receiver Speedy Noil, just to name a few. The Aggies' move to the SEC did quite a bit for the program in terms of visibility, fundraising, image but the impact has probably been felt most in recruiting, where the Aggies have hauled in two consecutive top-10 recruiting classes and are on track for a third straight this fall.

Vanderbilt started three different quarterbacks in their first three games, and suffice it to say, it has been an adventure. Against Massachusetts, true freshman Wade Freebeck started but Patton Robinette -- the Game 1 starter -- came in later to lead a comeback victory. What to make of the way coach Derek Mason has handled quarterbacks? It certainly has been a guessing game for fans and observers. This week, Mason said Robinette is starting and he's sticking with him until there's a reason to go another direction. Here's hoping that is the case. Robinette was pulled quickly in the opener against Temple but perhaps gained confidence from his relief performance last week. Confidence can be a fragile thing with a quarterback since it's a position of high visibility. Hopefully Mason can help Robinette keep that confidence up and stick with him through thick and thin, which would show the rest of the team that it should be confident in him as well.

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September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
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Not many people would hold on to a metal rod that was inserted into their leg. Florida head coach Will Muschamp did. And he explains why he keeps it in his office.
Jeff Driskel's baptism into the SEC probably couldn’t have gone any worse in 2011.

The stud freshman quarterback anointed to be Florida’s next Tim Tebow was fresh off relief duty in a blowout win over Kentucky when he was unexpectedly thrust into playing No. 3 Alabama after starter John Brantley went down late in the second quarter with a leg injury.

Not even the Swamp’s friendly confines could save Driskel from the Crimson Tide’s frightening defense, creating unpleasant memories of that early October night.

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel gets another crack at Alabama four years after a difficult debut.
“They weren’t good,” Driskel said Monday. “Definitely underprepared. Didn’t know how to prepare at that time to play anybody, especially Alabama as good as they were. Just going in not knowing what you’re doing is not a good situation.”

Honestly, with how historically good Alabama’s eventual national-championship defense was and how unprepared Driskel was, he never stood a chance. The constant bombardment from Alabama’s defense left Driskel completing 2 of 6 passes for 14 yards, rushing for 18 yards and getting sacked twice.

He also suffered an ankle injury during his already painful performance, causing him to finish the game hobbled against an already ravenous defense.

“If I remember correctly, I think I fumbled the snap and I tried to pick it up and got rolled up on,” Driskel said of how he was injured. “That’s how freshmen get hurt when they’re not ready right there, dropping the snap, don’t remember what the play was.”

Three years ago, Driskel introduced himself to the SEC. Now, things have come full circle, as he tries to resurrect Florida’s program and redefine his legacy with No. 3 Alabama yet again waiting.

So much has happened to Driskel and Florida since these two crossed paths with Alabama in 2011. While Alabama has won two BCS titles, Florida went from just missing out on a national championship berth to last year’s 4-8 disaster.

Driskel awkwardly maneuvered his way through Florida’s 11-win 2012 season, only for a bone to snap in his leg months later in the third game of his 2013 season. He’s currently on his third offensive coordinator, and while reviews out of preseason camp were that he’s much more comfortable in Kurt Roper’s spread, uptempo offense, he went from incredibly efficient in a Week 1 thrashing of Eastern Michigan to Jekyll and Hyde in Saturday’s triple-overtime win over Kentucky.

Driskel won’t call Saturday’s showdown with Alabama a statement game, but it has that feel for a quarterback who has ventured into enigma territory and has a chance to steer Florida's program back in the right direction. With an offense that actually suits his skill set, Driskel has no choice but to play better.

On Driskel’s new path to improvement and success, he must once again face the very team that served him his first bitter taste of collegiate defeat and misery. This is a chance to prove himself and really challenge one of the best teams in the nation in search of a renaissance for himself and Florida.

For all the skepticism still surrounding Driskel, there's no doubt he's more confident about his trip to Tuscaloosa than he was three years ago as that jittery freshman who was terrorized by the Tide.

“Going in as the starting quarterback, you know what you’ve got to prepare for, you know what you’re getting into,” Driskel said. “At that time, I didn’t know how close I was to playing. You don’t realize you’re one snap away from playing. That’s where I went wrong as a freshman.”

Three years ago, Florida fans were eager just to see Driskel play, hostile conditions or not. He was pegged as the next great thing in orange and blue after arriving in Gainesville as the nation’s No. 1 high school quarterback in the 2011 class.

Now, the Gator Nation has mixed feelings about its starting quarterback, who heads into Saturday with less than 3,000 career passing yards and 18 touchdown passes to 11 interceptions.

People have been quick to pounce on any of Driskel's shortcomings -- win or lose. So despite the fact he is averaging 271.5 passing yards through two games and has four touchdowns to one interception, last week’s wash of a first half against Kentucky carries more weight than his clutch third quarter and overtime performances.

It doesn’t matter if there were communication issues or protection breakdowns, Driskel is the quarterback at the University of Florida, a program fighting to return to SEC -- and national -- relevancy. He has to be better and he’s going to face the harshest criticism not reserved for head coach Will Muschamp, who his fighting for his job this year.

And while few are giving the Gators a chance this weekend, this is a game that could change Driskel’s legacy. Underwhelm, and it’s the same ol’ Driskel. Win or even impress and keep things close, and some hope will be renewed for Driskel and his Gators.

“I’m going to be prepared this time around,” he said.

“I’m not going to let that happen again. I’m going to do whatever I can this week to prepare and be as ready as I can. I know that’s best for the football team.”
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Heather Dinich explains who has the most to gain, and who has the most to lose when it comes to the drive to the national championship this weekend.

SEC Heisman watch: Week 3

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
12:00
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Despite Saturday's loss to South Carolina, Todd Gurley is still among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy this season.

Georgia's stud running back did just about everything he could have to win that game Saturday. He broke through tackles, changed the field on a dime during a wild 17-yard gain, drug Gamecocks -- likely kicking and screaming -- on his back and legs, and flattened guys in his way inside Williams-Brice Stadium.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley did everything he could do to get Georgia a big road victory at South Carolina. Although the Bulldogs lost, he's still a top Heisman candidate.
Call this hyperbole if you want, but it wouldn't shock me if the lightning that delayed Saturday's game and the thunder heard in the distance that day wasn't linked to Gurley's presence in Columbia.

Still, it wasn't enough, but who knows what would have happened if he'd been given the ball on that first-and-goal from South Carolina's 4-yard line with 5:24 left in the fourth quarter. I know Bulldogs fans are wondering how the Dawgs went away from their workhorse back at such a critical moment ...

Through two games, Gurley is second in the SEC with 329 rushing yards on 35 attempts. He's averaging a whopping 9.4 yards per carry and has four rushing touchdowns. He also has a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Gurley is your leader in the Heisman clubhouse nationally and the unquestioned one when it comes to SEC candidates. He has that special, rare blend of power, speed and agility that Playstation footballers wish they could compute.

But we already knew all that. So today, I thought we'd talk a little bit about the quarterbacks.

We can't have 10 legitimate Heisman candidates in the SEC. It's just not logical. But we can talk about a handful of guys who could throw themselves into the mix as the season goes on.

  • Kenny Hill, Texas A&M: Obviously, he's the leader out of the quarterback gate. He leads the SEC with 1,094 passing yards and has 11 passing touchdowns with zero interceptions. It doesn't matter who he's played since that phenomenal performance at South Carolina, the kid deserves Heisman love.
  • Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: He's the SEC's best dual-threat quarterback with his 696 passing yards and 273 rushing yards. Prescott has accounted for 11 touchdowns and looks much sharper as a passer in the pocket. The next step is seeing how he performs in SEC play. Oh, hello road trip to LSU.
  • Bo Wallace, Ole Miss: OK, so we never really know which Wallace we'll get in games, but when he's on, he's not too shabby. He's second in the SEC with 1,023 yards and has nine touchdowns to four interceptions (three in the opener). With his 316 yards in a blowout win over Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday, Wallace tied Eli Manning's mark of 10 300-yard passing games at Ole Miss, which is a school record. Wallace will break that record soon enough.
  • Maty Mauk, Missouri: It's pretty obvious that the Tigers are just fine at quarterback with Mauk. All he's done as the full-time starter is throw for 647 yards and a league-high 12 touchdowns. Mauk can run if he needs to, and has really improved his pocket footwork, but he'd rather just stand and throw down field, which he does really well.

Now, will all of these guys be in the Heisman discussion in November? No. In fact, there's a good chance that by October most of this list will be eliminated from serious contention. But at this early part of the season, it was necessary to mention what these guys had done so far.

Here are a couple of other players to watch when it comes to SEC Heisman chances:

  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: Still the best receiver around. Leads the SEC and the nation with 33 receptions and has a conference-leading 454 yards with two touchdowns.
  • Arkansas RBs: Alex Collins leads the SEC 411 rushing yards and has five touchdowns. Jonathan Williams is third with 322 yards and leads the league with six rushing touchdowns. Honestly, just take your pick with either back because they are both averaging more than 8 yards per carry.
  • Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: He was off this weekend, but is still fourth in the SEC with 289 rushing yards and has four touchdowns.
  • Travin Dural, WR, LSU: He was finally kept out of the end zone against Louisiana-Monroe, but is still second in the SEC with 370 receiving yards and has a league-leading four touchdowns.
  • Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida: Through two games, he has 21 receptions for 339 yards and three touchdowns. If he's not on the field, Florida doesn't beat Kentucky Saturday.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
10:00
AM ET
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As always, there was a ton of recruiting news from around the SEC this past weekend. Ole Miss picked up a commitment, while the Rebels, Gators and Gamecocks all had big visitors for their games Saturday. Here’s a closer look at the top recruiting news from around the conference.

SEC morning links

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
8:00
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It's a fact frequently brought up in Missouri circles but not necessarily around the league, and it's one I find fascinating. The Tigers continued their nation-long active streak of forcing turnovers to 47 consecutive games on Saturday and it started with an interception by Missouri defensive tackle Josh Augusta. That triggered a run that would see the Tigers collect four turnovers in a 38-10 rout of Central Florida. It was one of the highlights of a great day by the Tigers' defensive line, including a strong performance from Shane Ray, who was eventually named SEC Defensive Player of the Week. The Tigers continue to simply play well and win. They have one more non-conference game (Indiana) before getting their chance to defend their SEC East division crown.

If Florida wants to be successful defensively, pressuring quarterbacks is paramount. On Saturday against Kentucky, Dante Fowler Jr. did a good job of it but didn't have a ton of help. That has to change when the Gators play Alabama this week. The individual matchup involving Fowler should be interesting -- he is facing Alabama true freshman Cam Robinson, the No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2014 recruiting class. For what its worth, the Gators said they needed some adversity, like Saturday's game provided, before going to Tuscaloosa.

Days after its loss at South Carolina, Georgia is still the subject of much conversation. A lot of it centers around the offensive playcalling and coordinator Mike Bobo. My colleague Edward Aschoff said not giving the ball to running back Todd Gurley near the goal line late in the game was the wrong call. That topic was even the first question posed to Mark Richt by a caller on his weekly radio show and he admitted that “I think we were all thinking the same thing on the ride home.” The Bulldogs play Troy this week, so don't expect that chatter to calm anytime soon.

Read more here.

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ESPN 300 OL Matt Burrell names a leader 

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
9:20
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ESPN 300 offensive lineman Matt Burrell Jr. has already taken an official visit to Ohio State, and that trip has resonated with the No. 61 ranked prospect. He still has four more official visits to take, but Burrell says he has his list in order as it stands.


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Gators handled adversity well

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
9:01
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Muschamp says the Florida Gators controlled the majority of the game in their 36-30 win over Kentucky.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It was 2013 all over again for the Florida Gators, and then suddenly it wasn't.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Rob Foldy/Getty ImagesWill Muschamp acknowledged that his Gators have plenty to work on following a triple overtime win over Kentucky.
Against an opponent Florida used to beat year after year, the miscues and maladies returned and a mighty streak in the Swamp was in doubt. Pass-protection gaffes, blown assignments on defense, bad penalties, key drops, and a missed field goal -- it was hard not to think about Florida's disastrous 4-8 season a year ago.

"We certainly made it interesting," said a visibly disappointed Florida coach Will Muschamp afterward.

His Gators squeaked past Kentucky, 36-30 in triple overtime Saturday night. They were down to their last breath on more than one occasion. Talk of Muschamp's future at UF swirled on social media.

When it was over, stunned fans walked out of the stadium with dazed looks in their eyes, not sure of what they had just seen.

But there was one overwhelming difference -- Florida won the game.

"Never a doubt," athletic director Jeremy Foley joked.

Foley and Muschamp exited the field arm in arm after the Gators dodged what would have been a crushing upset by Kentucky.

"I don't really feel relief after games," said Muschamp, who acknowledged his team has a lot to work on. "I look at it from a technical standpoint of we've got to clean some things up in the back end.

"Our guys fought. It wasn't always pretty at times."

This time the Gators didn't give in when an inspired opponent wrestled away momentum in the third quarter. The "woe is me" mentality that Muschamp said infected his team in 2013 was not on display.

These 2014 Gators stayed together.

"It's so different," sophomore safety Keanu Neal said. "I think it's because we're more of a unit this year. Offensively you can tell that we're together. Defensively you can tell we're together. And as a team we're just all here for one purpose. You can see that this year versus last year."

Fortified by a much stronger belief in their offensive system, the Gators say there was no panic.

“Not at all, and that's what I think was so great about the victory," said senior left tackle Chaz Green. "It's good that we faced a game like this early in the season. It's good for our team, and I think it shows we're willing and ready to respond to any situation. ...

"I would say that was a big step. You could say [last year's team would have lost], but that's behind us. We just want to focus on this year."

The biggest difference in Florida one year later, according to Muschamp, is an offense that can pull its weight and keep up in a shootout.

The Gators and Wildcats combined for nearly 1,000 total yards of offense on Saturday night. Last year, Florida and its opponents combined to average just under 621 yards a game in 12 contests.

"We're explosive enough offensively to get in a game like that and know we can make some plays," Muschamp said. "We gave up some things on the back end secondary-wise, but we didn't blink on the side. We knew no matter if we got down one score, two scores, we're explosive enough offensively to go make some plays.

"Quite frankly, as we moved forward in the season last year we weren't. As a competitor you don't ever want to admit something like that, but it's hard not to at times when you struggle to score 10 points."

Nine months later it's easy for Muschamp to admit how badly his team struggled in 2013. It's even easier to highlight the positives on display in this new season when your team is still undefeated.

Winning has a way of brightening every mood, and the beleaguered coach was no different late Saturday night. While some folks walked away with frazzled nerves, Muschamp found humor in providing Gator fans with bonus football.

"More than anything we missed us some football in the [cancelled] Idaho game," he said. "We figured we'd give you all a little extra shot of some ball. It's paying the fans back."

At first glance: SEC Week 4

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
12:00
PM ET
What do we know about the SEC right now? Not as much as we thought we did on Friday, before Kentucky put a triple-overtime scare into Florida, South Carolina toppled Georgia and other conference teams gave us reason to doubt previous assumptions about the SEC hierarchy.

The uncertainty is part of what makes following the league fun, though. With a couple more SEC teams jumping into conference play this week, we should soon gain a better understanding of where things actually stand within the conference. But for now -- with a couple of key SEC games and a huge nonconference matchup on Thursday ahead -- let’s celebrate how many SEC fan bases truly believe their teams have a legitimate chance to make it to Atlanta in December.

A quick look at the week ahead:

Game of the week: Florida at Alabama
Little did we know before the season that Florida’s first major challenge of the fall would come from Kentucky and not from Nick Saban’s juggernaut in Tuscaloosa. Will Muschamp’s team (2-0, 1-0 SEC) needed an all-star performance from receiver Demarcus Robinson (15 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns) and an assist from the back judge who was minding the play clock on a key fourth-down play to beat the Wildcats (2-1, 0-1) in overtime. The Gators need to make a lot of progress in a little time if they’re to have a chance against No. 3 Alabama (3-0), despite the Crimson Tide’s over reliance on dump-off passes to Amari Cooper and occasionally shoddy pass defense. Florida has the ability to make this a competitive game, but it must look a lot more like the team that destroyed Eastern Michigan, 65-0, two weeks ago than the one that easily could have lost to Kentucky.

Player under pressure: Dak Prescott
Mississippi State’s quarterback has been great against three overmatched teams so far (Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama). When they visit No. 8 LSU this weekend, Prescott and the Bulldogs will gain their first real opportunity to prove they’ll be more than a middle-of-the-pack program in the SEC West this season. LSU hasn’t allowed a single point in nine quarters and has outscored opponents 108-0 since falling behind Wisconsin, 24-7, early in the second half of the opener. The Tigers traditionally win comfortably in this series, so the pressure is on Prescott to keep the Bulldogs afloat against by far the best team they will have faced to date.

Coaches under the microscope: Georgia coordinators Mike Bobo and Jeremy Pruitt
A longtime Mark Richt assistant, Bobo has fielded some of the most productive offenses in school history in recent seasons, but he has taken plenty of heat for not handing the ball to Todd Gurley on Saturday with Georgia knocking at the South Carolina goal line with the chance to take a late lead. That decision blew up in Bobo’s face when the drive sputtered and normally solid kicker Marshall Morgan missed a chip-shot field goal. Meanwhile, newcomer Pruitt’s defense was atrocious, surrendering 447 yards of total offense following a solid debut two weeks ago against Clemson. This Saturday’s matchup against Troy shouldn’t provide a major challenge for the Bulldogs, but it will be their next opportunity to get bad tastes out of their mouths.

Storyline to watch: Auburn’s travel schedule
Playing a Thursday night game halfway across the country can’t help but be disruptive for Gus Malzahn’s No. 5 Auburn Tigers (2-0, 1-0). It might be a competitive challenge, too, as the 1,000-mile trip to Manhattan, Kansas, will culminate with Malzahn’s team facing No. 20 Kansas State (2-0). The sunny side of the unusual trip is that Auburn was off last weekend, so it will not play on short rest. Plus the Tigers will have nine days until they host Louisiana Tech on Sept. 27, so they have extra recovery time built into the back end of this trip and a relatively easy nonconference game between K-State and a huge SEC matchup with LSU on Oct. 4. Nonetheless, this odd piece of scheduling will probably create a couple of headaches for Malzahn and his staff.

Intriguing matchup: Arkansas running game against Northern Illinois defense
Fresh off a 438-yard outing in Saturday’s win at Texas Tech, Arkansas’ impressive rushing attack seems to rank among the nation’s best. Jonathan Williams (22 carries, 145 yards, four TDs against Texas Tech) and Alex Collins (27-212, 2 TDs) might be the best tandem in the SEC and the Razorbacks’ offensive line is doing fine work. Let’s see how they fare on Saturday against a Northern Illinois defense that ranks 13th nationally against the run, surrendering 81 yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry. The Huskies posted those numbers in wins against Presbyterian, Northwestern and UNLV, so they certainly haven’t seen the likes of Arkansas’ running game yet. It seems highly likely NIU’s opponent averages might rise a bit after Saturday’s game.

SEC morning links

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
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Arkansas' 49-28 win at Texas Tech was a big one for the Hogs in the Bret Bielema era, perhaps the biggest to date. It's a sign of a program showing improvement after a rough 2013. In the aftermath, much of the discussion focused on the Razorbacks' running game, led by Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and that big Arkansas offensive line. Rightfully so. But what is easy to overlook is the performance of the Razorbacks' defense, which took some body blows early but had an impressive second half, holding the high-powered Red Raiders to just seven points. New defensive coordinator Robb Smith's crew stood up to the challenge Texas Tech presented and helped Arkansas score a seminal win as a result.

Though they lost, Kentucky opened a lot of eyes on Saturday night in the Swamp. Taking Florida to three overtimes in a 36-30 loss is notable for a program that has been a cellar dweller. One of the reasons for the Wildcats' ability to compete is the increased talent on the field they've gathered in recruiting under coach Mark Stoops. Several of those young Wildcats, especially receiver Garrett Johnson, give Kentucky reason for hope in the future.

Alabama coach Nick Saban is often cited as one of the most detailed-oriented coaches around. That may be true, but it doesn't apply to every part of the game, apparently. Asked after Saturday's win over Southern Mississippi about the play of left guard Leon Brown, Saban admitted that he doesn't pay much attention to the offensive linemen. As a former quarterback and defensive back, he focuses on the skill players. He emphasized that the linemen are important but that he doesn't even "watch them during individual [drills]." You can see the video, where Saban smiles and jokes his way through the soliloquy, here.

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