SEC: Nick Saban
The Gators were in man coverage against Toledo last season and Hargreaves, in his first game no less, was playing press. Hargreaves was already close to receiver Alonzo Russell, so once his opponent started going into a post route, Hargreaves already had it in his mind that he was going to undercut his man and the route.
Quarterback Terrance Owens was finished before he even released the ball. Hargreaves jumped the route, making a controlled guess that sealed Owens' fate.
"As soon as I undercut it, the quarterback threw it to me," Hargreaves said.
It was the first of a handful of outstanding plays he would make in his debut season. Hargreaves, who led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended, earned All-American honors and entered the 2014 season labeled by many as the nation's best cornerback.
Through two games, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound phenom already leads the SEC with five passes defended.
His speed, instincts, vision and natural playing ability make him a feared cover man and ball hawk. Equipped with more experience and skills, Hargreaves could be even better this season. After two solid performances, he will get his greatest test to date on Saturday in Tuscaloosa: Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper.
"We knew this was coming," Hargreaves said of covering Cooper, who leads the nation with 33 receptions and is third overall with 454 yards. "He's excited. I'm excited. We both know the magnitude of the game and it's going to be a great matchup on Saturday.
"Everybody knows what's coming. Obviously I'm going to be covering him. I'm excited for it."
How exactly will he go about covering his toughest opponent yet? For Hargreaves, it's more instinctual than anything. He said he doesn't like to think too much on the field.
BEFORE THE SNAP
Hargreaves zeros in on opponents, trying quickly to recognize the offensive personnel. He counts the number of receivers, then shifts his focus back to the defensive call.
He concentrates on what his defense is doing, what the play is and what the calls are. Once the assignment is clear, his eyes move back to the receivers.
"Most teams nowadays don't really huddle, so you can't really get a lot of indicators when they break out of the huddle," Hargreaves said. "Really for me, it's the receivers."
Once the offense lines up, Hargreaves figures out his leverage. A receiver lining up really wide forces him to play with inside leverage. An inside receiver means outside leverage.
He plants his feet, balls firm, yet light enough for him to explode out of his stance and glide along the field. His hips are loose, making turning smooth in case the receiver pulls a move.
AFTER THE SNAP
"I understand what [receivers] might do and what they like to do, but other than that, I'm not out there trying to guess routes," Hargreaves said. "It's just all instincts . . . You can't really play off what they might do. You react to what they do do."
His feet are as quick -- if not quicker -- than most of the receivers he covers. His hands snap into position and his arms push as fast as his legs churn, pulling him stride-for-stride with his opponent.
"He's very instinctive, he's fast, quick," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday. "But I think probably his greatest asset besides having great ability is he's a very instinctive player."
BALL IN FLIGHT
What's impressive -- and for opponents quite frustrating -- is how Hargreaves plays with his back turned. He relies on his technique and trusts his instincts. If a receiver gets behind him, Hargreaves stays patient. He doesn't panic because he knows he has time.
Hargreaves' eyes shift to the receiver's eyes, which are planted on the ball. Once their hands go up, the ball is close, meaning it's time for Hargreaves to pounce.
"It's something you can work on, you certainly can enhance, but the guy really has a lot of poise with his back to the football," Florida coach Will Muschamp said.
Hargreaves is still young and learning. His brain is still dissecting new information about players and formations each time he sits down for his film sessions during the week.
"Most of my decisions are calculated," Hargreaves said. "I understand the situation, I understand what's going on in the game."
He'll have to be as calculated as ever against the nation's best Saturday.
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.
Sims is Alabama’s starting quarterback.
Through three games, the redshirt senior hasn’t done anything to lose the job. He’s connected on 75 percent of his passes, throwing for 646 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also run for 102 yards and two scores. His total QBR of 89.6 ranks sixth nationally, ahead of Jameis Winston and Trevor Knight.
Coker may get there before it’s all said and done, but in the meantime there’s no doubt who is in charge. And who would have guessed a month ago it would be Sims?
Ken Mastrole says he saw it coming. The former NFL quarterback turned personal QB coach worked with Sims for nearly 100 hours this offseason, working on the mechanics of Sims' throwing motion, his release point and the way his feet move when he delivers the football.
But the specifics of Sims’ game that everyone seems so concerned with didn’t bother Mastrole all that much. There were always going to be questions about Sims’ arm strength, he understood. There was always going to be some hitch in his delivery. Rather than starting over, he wanted to make the best, most confident version of Sims.
In conversations, in phone calls and in text messages, Mastrole coached Sims on how to do the job of a quarterback. He told Sims about having his teammates’ backs, taking his linemen out to dinner and handling adversity. They even spoke about how to handle “the transfer situation,” as Mastrole put it.
“Embrace it, get to know each other,” he told Sims of Coker’s late arrival.
Sims won the locker room early, but the way it translated on the field wasn’t expected by many. Not after what we saw during the spring game, when Sims looked out of sorts, throwing two interceptions and lucking out when a defensive back dropped a third.
“He just wanted to get back to work,” Mastrole said. “When he got down here, we just shut it out. We didn’t talk about A-Day.”
Now Sims is a new man.
“He’s gelling very well for a first year in the offense,” Mastrole said. “He looks very confident and very poised. I love his demeanor.”
His teammates do, too.
Brian Vogler, a fellow senior at tight end, said he hasn’t been surprised by how far Sims has come.
“He’s a smart football player,” Vogler said. “He makes the right decisions and he has the great ability to make things happen with his feet. It’s a whole new dimension to our offense.
“He’s really matured over these last three games.”
Maybe it was during the summer or maybe it was the spring, Vogler couldn’t remember. But at some point he saw things click for Sims.
“He zoned in and said, ‘It’s time to lock down. I haven’t taken these last four years as seriously. It’s time to lock in and do what I can to be the best quarterback,’” Vogler said.
Cyrus Jones, a junior cornerback, goes against Sims every day in practice. To him, it was just a matter of time before Sims gelled within the offense. As Jones put it, “Experience is definitely in the key. ... You can’t play this game without confidence.
“I had confidence in Blake since Day 1,” he said. “I know what kind of athlete he is. I know what type of drive he has and what type of focus he has. I’m not surprised he’s playing as well as he is.”
But this much better? How many people in their heart of hearts expected that?
“Do we want to continue working both quarterbacks and work both guys? Absolutely,” Saban said. “Jake needs to play and develop confidence, but I think we’re going to have to make decisions on a week-to-week basis on who gives us the best opportunity to win. Right now Blake is probably more confident. If that remains that way, he’s probably going to start.”
"The first game I was trusting the line,” Sims said. “I was trusting the wide receivers. And as the games go by, I'm trusting them more and more, and they're trusting me that I'll get the ball there.”
If he continues to play well Saturday against SEC rival Florida, Sims may never surrender the starting job. But that’s a big if. The Gators have one of the best defenses in the SEC and boast one of the top cornerbacks in the country in Vernon Hargreaves III. Those quick passes to Amari Cooper and all the yards after catch he’s accumulated might not be so easy to come by.
Mastrole’s advice to Sims heading into the biggest test of his career? Don’t change.
“Just trust your offense,” Mastrole said. “Play within the system. No stage is too big. It’s just another opportunity to go out there and play the game you love.
“It’s a kid’s game. Take all the pressure off and just go out there, trust your preparation during the week and go out there and executing the offense. Don’t even worry about the jerseys lining up on the other side.”
Those might all be typical coaching cliches, but they’ve gotten Sims this far. Now we’ll see if they can carry him to the next level.
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.
Around the SEC
- Tennessee's rebuilt offensive line needs work after a five-sacks-allowed performance vs. Oklahoma, but Butch Jones said he's sticking with his current group.
- The 369 passing yards allowed by Florida was the most the Gators have given up since 2007. It is cause for concern in the Florida secondary.
- Steve Spurrier said he doesn't know how high his team's confidence is or how much South Carolina is supposed to have after the win over Georgia.
- Maty Mauk throws a lot of touchdowns. His percentage is higher than that of predecessors James Franklin, Blaine Gabbert, Chase Daniel and Brad Smith.
- Freshman running back Ralph Webb has given Vanderbilt a consistent effort through three games.
- Mark Richt discusses two pivotal penalties in Georgia' loss to South Carolina
Hahahaha, Billy Horschel doing the Gator Chomp on 18 after winning the Tour Championship and getting booed by Georgia fans.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) September 14, 2014
I missed this earlier this week but couldn't resist posting it. Any time Nick Saban says something you don't necessarily expect to hear, it's interesting. This time, it was Saban using the words "beast mode" in a press conference. This isn't the first time Saban has used "beast" (he used it after motivational speaker Eric Thomas visited Alabama) but this is the first time I can recall he has used "beast mode" in this setting and he was referencing his players and Thomas' words, saying "everybody wants to be a beast."
And in case you missed it, the parents of Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill are working on trademarking the nickname "Kenny Trill" which blew up last week after the sophomore quarterback said he liked the nickname. I get the sense that this is as much about protecting Hill and keeping others from profiting off of it (someone else filed for it before Hill's parents did) than it is the Hills trying to profit off of their son's name down the road. Even so, I find it interesting, and maybe even puzzling, that fans, media and others in between feel it necessary that Hill has a nickname. Just because his predecessor, Johnny Manziel, had a cool nickname "Johnny Football," doesn't mean Hill needs one, especially after only two starts. For what it's worth, I like the nickname as a lifelong Houston resident (Houston rapper Bun B, who originally hails from Port Arthur, Texas, popularized the word "Trill," which is a hybrid of "true" and "real"), but if Bun B says Hill has to earn it first, then I'm on team Bun. To Hill's credit, he said he doesn't care too much about the nickname, but his teammates love it.
Around the SEC
- Tennessee's defensive line gets ready for a test against Oklahoma's offensive line, which is full of "big son-of-a-guns."
- Jojo Kemp's words might have infuriated Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, but bulletin-board material is overrated.
- Cameron Artis-Payne has made a big impact on the Auburn running game.
- Mississippi State is convinced that the 548 yards they allowed to UAB won't become a trend.
- LSU wide receiver John Diarse has become a key third-down contributor.
According to veteran safety Nick Perry, “He made it his mission to be back for the season.”
Whether anyone involved knew it or not, Alabama needed Eddie Jackson back on the football field sooner rather than later.
What we saw Week 1 against West Virginia showed us as much. The 350 yards Alabama allowed through the air in that game could have been worse if not for so many dropped passes. Bradley Sylve struggled against the Mountaineers’ taller, more physical receivers. Cyrus Jones looked a little better but wasn’t the shutdown corner the Crimson Tide needed.
Watching frustrated on the sidelines was a possible answer.
“It was really tough,” Jackson said of missing the season opener. “I wanted to be out there so bad, but there was nothing I could do except cheer my teammates on.”
Jackson felt ready to go after weeks and weeks of rehabbing twice or even three times a day. Doctors had cleared him, coach Nick Saban said, but the staff erred on the side of caution.
But when Week 2 rolled around and the secondary was reeling, the timing was right. Saban increased Jackson’s reps in practice, liked what he saw and decided to let him start in the home opener against Florida Atlantic.
Reggie Ragland, a junior linebacker, said he expected Jackson to “come out slow” in his first start back from injury. But he said Jackson “came out thudding people up.”
“He caused a fumble I recovered,” Ragland said. “Eddie looked great [Saturday].”
Said Jones: “He’s definitely one of our more physical DBs. [He] definitely doesn’t shy away from contact.”
Jackson's mobility didn’t seem the least bit limited. He racked up four tackles, including one tackle for loss. He barely missed out on an interception, too. Coaches had him on a pitch count of roughly 40 snaps, and even though the game was shortened by lightning, he came close to reaching that benchmark.
The only thing that betrayed Jackson was the ice pack wrapped around his knee after the game. Even so, he said he felt fine.
“Pretty close,” Jackson said of being 100 percent healthy. “I felt great. My knee wasn’t bothering me at all.”
Saban said he didn’t see any kind of drop off from Jackson. In fact, the technology the team employs in practice confirmed as much.
Alabama test drove the Catapult GPS system last season and agreed to use the company full time this year. The technology uses GPS, gyroscopes and magnetometers to measure an athlete’s movement and exertion during competition. Tracking Jackson’s “explosive movement,” Saban said he was able to see Jackson was ready to go.
“All those things are the same standard as before he got hurt,” Saban said.
“He made some good plays out there. I’m sure the more he plays, the better he’ll get.”
That’s good news for Alabama’s still-unproven secondary. If Jackson can become an anchor at corner, it will make fitting the rest of the pieces of the puzzle together easier, especially given safety Jarrick Williams’ injury that has him out three more weeks.
Saturday’s shutout was a move in the right direction, even if it came against Florida Atlantic, which was blown out Week 1 by a Nebraska team that barely escaped McNeese State 31-24 in Week 2.
No matter, said Alabama All-SEC safety Landon Collins. With him leading the charge in the secondary, Trey DePriest back handling the front seven at inside linebacker and Jackson’s return to the fold, Collins liked the way the entire defense came together.
“As a group, we were all focused on our keys and our concepts, and we were all one defense,” Collins said. “As a whole, we had a lot of talking going on and keeping each other on the right page, and that’s the type of defense that we want. Once we do that, we are going to make unbelievable stops.”
But if you’re going to continue referring to Alabama’s quarterback battle, you must now admit that Blake Sims is well ahead of Jake Coker, maybe far enough out of reach to call the race.
It’s not the result many people expected, to be sure, but all you had to do was watch the reaction of players and coaches during Saturday’s game against Florida Atlantic to see where the quarterbacks stood.
Nick Saban threw his headset to the ground when Coker took an ill-advised sack.
Lane Kiffin held his arms out in disbelief when Coker failed to manage the play clock.
Amari Cooper pointed toward the sky when Coker threw a back shoulder pass instead of a fade to the corner of the end zone.
Some of it was Coker shaking off the rust. Some of it was his own self-inflicted mistakes. But whatever the reason, he didn't look sharp against an inferior Florida Atlantic defense, completing 15 of 24 passes for 202 yards and one touchdown. Though he didn’t turn the ball over, he did miss a number of open receivers, sailed a few passes high and wide, and generally looked uncomfortable within the offense.
Meanwhile, Sims was in total command, with the exception of an incorrect call that resulted in a fumble. The fifth-year senior didn’t stretch the field nearly as much as Coker, but he didn’t have to. Instead, Sims took what the defense gave him, time and time again. And boy was it effective as he ran in one score and finished 11-of-13 for 202 yards and two touchdowns passing. He was accurate, decisive and reliable.
In other words, he was everything Coker was not.
“He has strengths where my weakness are,” Sims said, “and I’ve got strengths where his weaknesses are.
“We’re a team.”
And that team seems to be headed in the direction of the ever diplomatic Sims. As someone who takes care of the football and manages the offense well, he’s earned the coaches’ trust, which is the end-all be-all for Saban, who values results far more than potential.
With two weeks remaining until a home date with Florida, one has to think that Coker has fallen too far behind, despite his big arm, prototypical size and affinity for staying within the pocket. Even though he looks like what Alabama values in a quarterback, he simply hasn’t performed like what we’ve come to expect from the position.
Things can certainly change in a hurry, though. There is, after all, one more audition left (Southern Miss) before the real test against the Gators.
After Saturday’s game, Saban didn’t tip his hand one way or the other. In fact, he was complimentary of both quarterbacks. He said he was pleased that Coker got some much-needed experience against Florida Atlantic, which he hoped would help “his confidence and his ability to play with a little better rhythm.” He even said that Coker would learn from his mistakes in the first half, most notably that sack he took with time expiring.
But as a team competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, how much on-the-job training can Alabama afford? How long before it's forced to pull the trigger and name a starter?
It’s clearly been Saban’s hope to have one quarterback take the reins, but he’s not taking sides this early, despite the battle that rages on among fans and pundits.
“I really don’t care what side they take,” Saban said. “The only side that matters is the side we take, which is me, our staff.”
The way they practice, the way they prepare, the way they improve; those are things that matter to Saban when evaluating Sims and Coker, he said.
“This is not one that’s going to be a popularity contest. It will be what’s best for our team.”
What’s best for Alabama now is Sims.
If Coker wants to change that, he better start gaining ground in a hurry.
Too many utterly overmatched opponents got their brains bashed in by the hands of superior SEC opponents, leaving most viewers yawning by sundown and SEC haters lambasting the conference for not challenging itself.
Hey, the haters were right. Oregon-Michigan State, Stanford-USC and Ohio State-Virginia Tech blew the SEC's slate out of the Mississippi River. After a decent opening week, the SEC went soft with its scheduling to pad stats and work some kinks out before things get a little tougher going forward.
Outside of Vanderbilt, which was throttled at home by Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, which forgot how to play defense against UAB, every SEC team improved.
While we scoffed at the games, this wasn't a throwaway weekend for teams still looking to work through things before conference season gears up.
A perfect example of that is Florida. Coming off a disastrous 4-8 season and a canceled opener, the Gators stomped Eastern Michigan with 655 yards, scored on their first five possessions and averaged 7.6 yards per play with new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper running things. Quarterback Jeff Driskel, who has had an up-and-down Florida career, completed 31 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown.
It was Eastern Michigan, which failed to master the art of the pregame run-out, but for a program desperately looking for an offensive pulse, this is exactly what the Gators needed.
"We needed a win and to get out and play," coach Will Muschamp said. "We're much improved. That's not false bravado. It's real. We are a better football team, and we are much improved."
Same for Arkansas. The Razorbacks thrashed Nicholls State 73-7 behind 684 yards. The Hogs needed to stop a 10-game losing streak, and they needed to shake off a bad second half against Auburn. They did with 495 rushing yards and quarterback Brandon Allen throwing for 117 yards and four touchdowns on just four completions.
Alabama's secondary played much better and was much more composed against FAU, while Nick Saban figured out more about his quarterback situation. Blake Sims is ahead and is the more composed player, but he is limited with his arm, unlike Jake Coker.
LSU played a complete game, Leonard Fournette shook off the nerves (13 carries, 92 yards and a touchdown), and we saw a more relaxed and confident Anthony Jennings at quarterback (188 yards and three touchdowns) in a 56-0 win over Sam Houston State.
Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk looked like a seasoned veteran on the road, throwing for 325 yards and five touchdowns in what could have been a trap game against Toledo.
Auburn's offense clicked with Nick Marshall back at quarterback and the defense made vast improvements in a 59-13 win over San Jose State.
Texas A&M's offense is still scoring on Lamar, but the defense didn't allow a touchdown and didn't allow at least 430 yards for the first time since last year's UTEP game (Nov. 2).
And South Carolina got a must-win over a feisty East Carolina team that took it down to the fourth quarter. But the Gamecocks got their running game back just in time for Georgia. Now, if they can figure things out on defense.
Many won't cheer the SEC's past weekend, and that's totally legitimate, but the league did what it needed to, considering the circumstances. It might have been ugly scheduling, but at least the outcomes didn't look like the Big Ten's weekend.
Sims' hot start
Alabama’s opening drive was Sims at his very best. He was decisive, accurate and made smart decisions with the football. Lane Kiffin drew up one quick pass after another, and Sims put the ball right where it needed to be. Amari Cooper and Chris Black took it from there, picking up good yards after the catch and moving the chains. But on 3rd-and-5, Sims had to take the game into his own hands, and rather than force a pass to a covered receiver, he tucked the ball and scrambled 7 yards, diving into the end zone for the game’s first score.
"Going fast helps me out a lot," Sims said of running Alabama's new-look up-tempo offense. "It gives us a chance to get the defense off-balance, because they’re not very used to us doing that. When you think of Alabama, you don’t think of a fast-paced team.
"It gives you the chance for the players to get open quick. ... When you have playmakers like Amari Cooper and Chris Black, they do the job for you."
Coker gains confidence
How would he respond? That was the question facing Coker after a terrible end to the first half in which he took a sack with time expiring, prompting Nick Saban to throw his headset in disgust. But Coker showed some moxie in his first series of the second half. On his first pass attempt, he found Cooper for 20 yards. After another pass to Cooper for 6 yards, Coker decided to take a shot downfield. With a defender bearing down on him, Coker zeroed in on ArDarius Stewart, letting go of the ball right as he was hit in the back. Still, the pass was on target and Stewart picked up 40 yards, moving the ball inside the red zone. Kenyan Drake would do the rest, carrying the ball twice before scoring a touchdown.
"Jake played just as well in the second half as he did the first," Saban said. "He played a little better as time went on.
"Missing the guy in the flat down in the red zone wide open, nobody feels worse about that than him. He’ll definitely get better because of it."
What it means
Coker has some work to do if he wants to stay in this race. Sims was just too sharp, completing 11 of 13 passes for 214 yards and two touchdowns. Barring an epic meltdown next week, there hasn’t been anything he has done to surrender the starting quarterback job heading into Alabama’s SEC opener against Florida. Sims been accurate with the football and managed the offense well.
Coker, meanwhile, has struggled in both areas. Against FAU, he was 15-of-24 for 202 yards and one touchdown. But it was his mental mistakes that set him back most, failing to get the offense in the right alignment and struggling to manage the play clock.
A lot was made during the offseason about the talent disparity between Sims and Coker, and maybe some of that is true. But the ability to execute is the most important thing to Saban and his coaching staff. And, frankly, with the skill players Alabama has at receiver and running back, it doesn’t need a herculean effort from its quarterback.
Just look at what Cooper can do. All you have to do is get him the ball in space, and he will handle the rest.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Forget for a second that you ever watched Kiffin Cam. For that matter, forget that you followed the saga of Lane Kiffin’s hiring at Alabama all offseason. Forget all the talk about his pearly white visor, his new ideas and his colorful history. Forget that he and Nick Saban do indeed represent college football's odd couple.
Take a second to wipe that from your memory, and then think back to the game we saw last Saturday in Atlanta. Think about the way Alabama’s offense looked: how the line played, how the running backs carried the football, how the quarterback managed the pocket. Remember the actual plays and let the melodrama fall by the wayside.
Do that and you’ll be left with something oddly familiar: Alabama football. Saban’s brand of ball-control, pro-style offense didn’t change much with Kiffin calling the plays. It was still a matter of running to set up the pass. In fact, it was still a matter of running between the tackles. As Saban said after the game, "We’re one of the few teams in the world that still plays regular people."
"You know what 'regular people' means?" he asked. “A tight end, two backs and two wideouts. When I played, that was like getting in empty. Now we’re like the dinosaur age when it comes to that."
Despite all the speculation otherwise, Kiffin hasn’t single-handedly brought Alabama’s offense into the 21st century. Instead, he’s done exactly what he was asked to do: Keep what existed and make it better. It’s what Kiffin said he would do, remember? During his only media obligation this year, he said, "The last thing we would want to do is come in here and change a bunch of stuff."
Kiffin didn’t go entirely unnoticed on Saturday, though. His effect just wasn’t on the nuts-and-bolts of the offense. If he had gone exclusively to four-receiver sets or went no-huddle for more than series or two, maybe then we would have seen sparks fly on the sideline between he and Saban. But he didn’t, and Kiffin Cam yielded very little in the way of drama.
Instead, Kiffin worked the sideline quite effectively, huddling up with quarterback Blake Sims between series and during timeouts. If there was a check at the line, Kiffin whistled to Sims on the field and signaled the change. And judging by Sims’ final stats -- 24 of 33 for 250 yards and one interception -- it worked out well. Alabama racked up 33 points and 528 yards of offense, won the time of possession battle handily and was balanced with two 100-yard rushers.
"If he wasn't on the sidelines, we would have had a lot more issues, maybe more issues than we could overcome to be successful in the game," Saban said on Monday. "He did a really good job of managing Blake and helped him manage the game as much as you could ever do it."
Kiffin clearly passed his first test as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, but many more remain. Saban wants competition between Sims and Jake Coker at quarterback, injuries are bound to happen, and in some games either the run or the pass won’t come so easily. Adjustments will have to be made.
For now, though, the Kiffin/Saban drama has been much adieu about nothing.
Forget all the offseason talk and speculation, if you wish, but remember that we've got a long way to go before the whole story has played out.
There are no more workhorses
College football has, for the most part, stopped relying on one running back to shoulder the load. Alabama doesn't ask T.J. Yeldon to tote the rock 30 times a game. LSU spreads it around, too. At Wisconsin, Heisman Trophy contender Melvin Gordon splits carries with Corey Clement.
Despite having fewer feature backs, running games haven't diminished. Last season, 30 teams averaged 200 yards rushing per game. In 2004, only 19 teams reached that magic number.
By rotating in fresh legs, both overall production and effectiveness have improved. In 2004, 57 teams averaged 4 yards per rush or more. Last season 83 teams hit that number. Over that same period of time, the number of teams with a touchdown-per-rush percentage of at least 6.0 rose from 11 to 29.
In 2004, FBS teams averaged 58 runs of 10 yards or more. In 2013, that number rose to 70.
Two backs means double trouble for defenses
Over the past decade or so, coaches have learned that featuring multiple running backs is better not just for the player's health, but for the team.
In the SEC, only former Auburn player Tre Mason had more than 220 carries last season. Thirty-four players in the league had at least 400 yards rushing, compared to 18 in 2004.
When the defense wears down, Alabama can substitute in fresh legs. If Yeldon has carried the ball on consecutive plays, coach Nick Saban can bring on Derrick Henry. Good luck to the tired linebacker trying to hold on to that 6-foot-3, 240-pound truck.
And if that's not enough, late in the fourth quarter, Kenyan Drake can pop off the bench and sprint past the gassed defense.
"I would rather have guys touch the ball 15-20 times a game for every game all year than a guy that has to be a workhorse and do it 30 or 35 times, and at some point in the season he's not the same kind of guy," Saban said.
Take Georgia's Todd Gurley, for instance. Instead of hitting the defense over the head with Gurley, coach Mark Richt can vary the looks he gives offensively, throwing a change-up with the slippery Keith Marshall, a fastball with burner Sony Michel or a brush-back pitch with the physically imposing Nick Chubb.
During the first half on Saturday, Georgia had just 45 yards on 12 carries. In the second half, it turned up the heat on Clemson, rushing for 283 yards on 29 carries.
The NFL agrees
If you're a running back in high school, think about trying out a new position. As Saban explained, "It's the position that has the shortest shelf life relative to your career."
ESPN.com's Chris Low detailed the decline in the value of running backs for ESPN The Magazine. In his piece, he raised the non-existent interest of Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, who won the Pac-12's offensive player of the year award one year, posted even better numbers the next and then fell all the way to the fourth round of the NFL draft. Low went on to cite this eye-catching statistic: In the past five NFL drafts, only three running backs have been top-20 picks.
Like the college game, the NFL has seen the number of one-back offenses dwindle. Even in Seattle, star running back Marshawn Lynch accounted for slightly less than 60 percent of all Seahawks' rushing attempts last season, sharing carries with the likes of Robert Turbin. LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing attempts last season with 314. But that number pales in comparison to a decade earlier when Ricky Williams ran the ball 392 times.
It just doesn't pay to be a workhorse anymore. According to NFL.com, none of the NFL's 20 richest contracts for 2014 belong to running backs, and only Peterson cracks the top 28.
Missing the good 'ol days
The Heisman Trophy is, in all its bronzed glory, a sculpture of Ed Smith.
Who is Ed Smith you ask? Well, he was a running back at NYU in the early 1930s.
Unless you live in a time capsule, that should seem like a long time ago. NYU, after all, doesn't have a football team anymore. What's more, the Heisman rarely goes to running backs now. It used to, with 17 of the first 25 award recipients playing the position, but today quarterbacks have confiscated the trophy.
The past four Heisman winners -- Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton -- all played quarterback. Since 2000, 12 QBs have won the award, with only Alabama's Mark Ingram and USC's Reggie Bush breaking up the streak. And in the case of Bush, he had to return the trophy at the behest of NCAA investigators.
There's some hope this season with Gurley leading the Heisman charge after his three-TD performance in Week 1, but even so there are concerns about his durability. Yeldon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah are in the mix, too, according to ESPN's panel of experts, but whether they'll get enough carries to post eye-popping numbers is up for debate. Nonetheless, the majority of Heisman contenders are quarterbacks.
Don't expect that to change anytime soon. Because while multiple running back systems pay dividends for teams on the field and for players' careers at the next level, it does nothing to help their chase for the game's ultimate trophy.
2. Mississippi State's football team was met with tragedy this weekend after wide receiver Jameon Lewis' brother, Tyriunce, was shot and killed Sunday morning in their hometown of Tylertown, Mississippi. Lewis, who is Mississippi State's top returning receiver, returned to campus on Monday, but his availability for Saturday's game against UAB is still uncertain. Coach Dan Mullen made it clear that he wasn't worried about Lewis taking the field Saturday. His concern is with Lewis' emotions. Our thoughts are with Lewis and his family.
3. Last weekend, we saw Saban face West Virginia. Why was that significant? Well, Saban is from West Virginia, so there was a little bit of a storyline there. But for Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, Saturday's game with Toledo actually means a lot to him. Why, you ask? Well, he coached at Toledo from 1991-2000, becoming the school's all-time leader in wins after going 73-37-3 with the Rockets. Man, three ties? That's so old school. Toledo might hold a special place in Pinkel's heart, but he won't let that get to him this weekend. “Great people, great community. It was a big part of my life, big part of my career,” Pinkel said. “I’ll always be a Toledo Rocket. Not this weekend, but I’ll always be a Toledo Rocket.”
- Auburn running back Corey Grant is impressing coach Gus Malzahn by "looking to finish and run people over."
- Arkansas coach Bret Bielema the Razorbacks' progress will be rewarded with wins.
- After their season opener against Idaho was rained out, the Florida Gators are eager to actually play in their new opener.
- Georgia ran, ran and ran some more on Clemson over the weekend, but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo wasn't pleased with the Dawgs' passing game.
- Kentucky got a large donation for the new practice facility.
- In a bit of a surprise move, Derrick Jones appears to be moving from cornerback to wide receiver at Ole Miss.
But Kiffin Cam and the QB battle didn’t yield much in the way of controversy. There were no sideline sparks between Kiffin and Saban, and Sims played well enough to hang on at quarterback until the game was essentially over. Coker came on for the final series, only to turn and hand the ball off to the running backs until the clock struck zero.
The game everyone expected to see against West Virginia wound up being turned on its ear. Alabama’s defense -- you know, the one everyone assumed would return to its 2009-2012 form -- instead laid an egg in the Georgia Dome. Tempo got the best of them once again. West Virginia’s running backs gashed the front seven. Its wide receivers ran roughshod over the secondary. Had it not been for a number of dropped passes, quarterback Clint Trickett might have led the Mountaineers to within reach of a monumental upset.
Returning to Tuscaloosa, Saban took stock of the hard-fought win on Monday. He started out optimistically, praising the team’s effort and the “intangible things” it did, like playing with toughness, competing and not letting one bad play carry over to the next. He pointed out that his defense made “two huge stops inside the 10-yard line” and that when Sims did turn the ball over, it responded by forcing a three-and-out.
That was the good news. But there was plenty of bad. Nearly 400 yards of offense and nine trips inside Alabama’s 40-yard line said so.
“We didn't play very well in the secondary at all,” Saban explained. “We didn't play very well at linebacker. We had too many miscommunications, too many missed coverages, too many missed assignments."
On one play, Jarran Reed doubled back nicely on a screen pass and helped force a minimal gain. But then, Saban said, there was another screen where the lineman didn’t get back and it ended up resulting in a 17-yard pickup.
“I think we have a lot to improve on defensively, all the way around,” he said. “So I'm not disappointed. It is what it is. This is where we are. This is the starting point.”
If Alabama hopes to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it better hope so. Because while West Virginia is certainly talented offensively, there are a handful of teams on the schedule that could give the defense even more trouble. Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M all have explosive offenses that like to push the pace. Even Mississippi State, with the improvements its made at receiver and running back, can move the ball in a hurry.
There’s plenty of time to improve, though. Florida Atlantic, which lost 55-7 to Nebraska on Saturday, is up next, and its starting quarterback might not even be available to play. After that it’s Southern Miss, which has won one game since 2011. Neither opponent figures to challenge the defense.
Taking advantage of those tune-ups will be crucial.
By the time Week 4 and Florida comes around, Alabama's defense could take on a different look, especially in the secondary.
Cyrus Jones has shown signs of improvement at corner, but Bradley Sylve had a rough go of it on Saturday. Five-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey are itching to take their spots in the starting lineup, but for now the fear is that their inexperience will lead to busts in coverage. Eddie Jackson might be the answer, but the sophomore is only five months removed from a torn ACL. He was cleared to play recently, according to Saban, but his status is uncertain as of today.
On top of that, veteran nickel back Jarrick Williams is out for the next four weeks with a fractured foot.
The good news is there’s time to find the right personnel and fix some of the issues we saw against West Virginia. The bad news is there are so many issues in the first place.
Maybe after so much time and energy devoted to Kiffin and the quarterbacks this offseason, it’s worth finally turning our attention to the other side of the football. It’s there where the most things are happening.
2. You guys have to feel bad for the Gators, right? I mean put your college colors aside for a second and think about the fact that a program looking to rebound from a disaster of a season was soooooo ready to get back on the field and debut its new offense only to be washed away by a swamp inside the Swamp. So instead of joining all the fun with everyone else in the country, Florida and Idaho huddled inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for hours while it poured and lightening bolts shot through the skies. Florida coach Will Muschamp, who is very much coaching for his job this year, said he supported the officials' decision to suspend the game due to weather and unsafe field conditions. Whether or not that game will be played at a future date is unknown at this point. They both have a bye week on Oct. 25, which just so happens to be the week before Florida's crucial game with Georgia. Yeah, you try convincing Muschamp and athletic director Jeremy Foley to play a game during the open week before Georgia. No, seriously. ... Well, the good news for the Gators is that when their season officially opens this Saturday against Eastern Michigan they'll have three suspended players back. Now, before you bash Mushcamp, remember that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin did something similar in 2012 with the postponed Louisiana Tech game.
3. Georgia coach Mark Richt thinks the running back group that he has now is the best he's ever had. Yeah, I'd agree with that when you consider that the Bulldogs had 328 rushing yards and averaged 8 yards per carry against Clemson. Todd Gurley, who I think is the nation's best player, got 198 of those yards and had three rushing touchdowns. Chubb had 70 yards and a touchdown on four carries and Sony Michel had 33 yards on six carries. By the way, those two are true freshmen. And Keith Marshall will only get better as he comes back from his knee injury.
More from around the league
- Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne -- and his 177 yards -- is running with a chip on his shoulder.
- Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles is standing tall for the Wildcats in more ways than one, writes John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
- Here's a film room session on LSU's 28-24 comeback win over Wisconsin with The Baton Rouge Advocate's staff.
- Tennessee displayed a deeper pool of playmakers in the Vols' 38-7 win over Utah State.
Tyson Clabo's workout w/Cards went well enough that they were interested in signing him, but both sides couldn't come to an agreement.— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) June 9, 2014
Regardless of whether Sims ever worried about beating out Jacob Coker during fall camp, the starting job is his, and after a decent first start -- and win -- it’s clear his team has the utmost trust in him to be the leader in Tuscaloosa.
“He earned that position to start and did a fantastic job at it,” safety Landon Collins said.
Sims knows he was far from perfect, but he also knows he rebounded well after some poor plays to march the Tide down the field for scoring drives. He actually directed back-to-back scoring drives twice in the first half of his debut. He was a leader who calmed guys down in the huddle. And he learned from his own mistakes as the game went on.
Most importantly, he learned that handing the ball off to T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry will make his job much easier, and targeting Amari Cooper is a very, very good thing. He hit Cooper 12 times for 130 yards, and it’s no surprise that his first attempt went Cooper’s way, which resulted in a 24-yard pickup.
“It got the nerves out. That let me know that everybody’s behind me,” Sims said.
Oh, and they were. Players said they never got down on Sims when he struggled or got out of rhythm in the second half. His coach even went against his own nature and implemented some no-huddle in the second half to get Sims more comfortable and loosen him up after a slow start.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the guy,” offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. “I’ve been here five years with him and I’m happy [for him]. He played an awesome game.
“I told him before the game, ‘Man, we got you. Don’t worry about a thing. Whatever you do, we’ll back you 100 percent and we’ll get you out of it.’”
Coach Nick Saban said Sims got a little rattled in the second half and called some formations incorrectly that forced the Tide to burn a couple of timeouts. Saban even flirted with the idea of bringing Coker in, but decided to leave Sims in and see how the no-huddle helped him.
“That one little stretch in the second quarter where we got a little bit out of sync was really the only time, but I thought Blake did a really good job,” Saban said. “… But all in all for him to throw for 250 yards, he did a pretty good job of executing, and I’m happy with his progress.”
Sims was happy with his performance but understands he still has a ways to go. There were easy throws that he just plain missed on, but he turned around and stood tall with some big passes to extend drives. He threw out of bounds when he needed. He checked down when he had to. And his legs got him out of a few sticky situations.
“I feel like I did OK,” Sims said. “I can get better in all situations.”
He’ll have to, and the next few tuneups before facing Florida’s defense should help him do that.
12:00 PM ET Troy 13 Georgia 3:30 PM ET 6 Texas A&M SMU 3:30 PM ET Florida 3 Alabama 4:00 PM ET Indiana 18 Missouri 7:00 PM ET Northern Illinois Arkansas 7:00 PM ET Mississippi State 8 LSU 7:30 PM ET 14 South Carolina Vanderbilt