Q&A with Roll 'Bama Roll

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Todd at the outstanding SB Nation blog Roll 'Bama Roll traded questions with me over the email this week, and this morning is a fine time to put it up for all to see.  The Kentucky at Alabama game is easily one of the more interesting games of this weekend in the SEC along with Auburn @ Vanderbilt (can you believe a Vandy game is "interesting?"  Amazing job so far by the 'Dores) and ... well, nothing.  Actually, I am looking forward to seeing South Carolina at Mississippi -- if the Gamecocks can win this game, my estimation of them would go up significantly.

But with regards to Alabama, I think you will find Todd's answers to be most illuminating.  I consider Alabama football fans to be the only fans in the SEC that match the intensity and passion of Kentucky basketball fans, and you can see why below or just visit Roll 'Bama Roll anytime during football season and it will jump right out at you why I think the way I do.  By the way, you can find my answers to Todd's questions over at Roll 'Bama Roll at approximately 9:00 AM or so today.

So without further gilding the lily and with no more ado, I give you Todd of Roll 'Bama Roll.  My questions are in boldface, and Todd's answers are just below:

1. Knowing that 'Bama fans are as rabid about football as Kentucky is about basketball, I wonder if you could describe what being in the national conversation (and in a good way) again means to Alabama fans.

It's a wonderful, glorious feeling.  Alabama fans have clearly been on tough times the past decade or so, and for the kids that don't really know or remember the glory days before the post-Stallings era began I can only imagine what this must be like.  But for those of us old enough to remember them, it's been tough times and to be perfectly honest, it's nice feeling smug about it again.  I'm sure I'm jinxing us into a three game skid by just saying that, but after hearing nothing but the constant chattering from our rivals about everything from "Alabama's time is past" to "Nick Saban is overrated" to "BEAR IZ DED WOOOOO!!!111", it's more than a little satisfying to look back at the last five weeks and think "eat it, haters."

2. People look at Nick Saban's salary and think, "There is no way he could be worth that much," but if Alabama continues to play this kind of football, that thinking may become obsolete. How much the sudden rise of the Tide changed the way Alabama looks at Saban through the lens of his salary?

We thought it was a bargain to begin with, actually.  He's a proven commodity as a college head coach, he built an LSU program that had been wallowing in mediocrity for decades to two SEC Titles and a National Title, and he's known as one of the best recruiters to ever walk through a five star prospect's door.  If he wasn't worth the money, he wouldn't have been offered it in the first place, and all he's done so far is earn every penny of it.

3. John Parker Wilson has been variously reviled and revered by Crimson Tide fans. Is Wilson consistent enough now to take the Tide back to the promised land? If not, in what area does he come up short?

Before last weekend I would have made the comment that he isn't hitting the deep ball well yet and there are still some concerns about how he'll handle an elite SEC defense, but so far the Georgia win was his best game.  We only threw the ball 16 times (he hit 13 of them for 205 yds and a TD) in that game, but new OC Jim McElwain, who flew under the radar when he was hired because of the much ballyhooed switch to the high octane spread offenses of Dave Clawson and Tony Franklin at UT and Auburn, has really turned Wilson into a savvy game manager and concocted an offensive philosophy and approach that prizes brutal efficiency over gaudy stats and the idea of "explosive" plays.  Considering that, Wilson is the guy to run it, and he's improved by leaps and bounds over his very up and down career now that he finds himself in a position where he can trust everyone around him to do their jobs as opposed to having to take responsibility for the offense all on his own shoulders.  The o-line is blocking for him now, the running game is effective, all of his receivers are running clean routes and looking for the ball instead of slacking off is they don't think he's coming their way, and he's got a guy calling plays that he knows Wilson can make.  The only knock we can put on him so far is that we don't know how he'll handle any real adversity considering the Tide hasn't trailed yet, and at some point we're going to find ourselves in a hole needing a scoring drive, and then we'll really know what we have in John Parker Wilson.  From what I've seen so far this year, it doesn't concern me at all that he'll be the guy leading that drive.

4. Which player on the Alabama offense who doesn't get a lot of press clippings should we worry about? On defense?

That's actually a tough question considering the hype that has surrouned Alabama so far.  I don't know if I can name one person on offense, but I will say that, aside from Julio Jones who has shown that he deserves every ounce of hype he's gotten so far, the receiving corps has really kind of flown under the radar with all the focus being on how well Alabama is running the ball.  We have a ton of talent at that position, and those runs wouldn't be quite as effective if they weren't doing the stuff you really don't think of when talking about receivers (i.e. run blocking).  Mike McCoy will likely sit this game (he tweaked his hamstring early against Georgia), and it's kind of a toss up as to who will fill in for him.  Nikita Stover and Will Oakley are both seniors that are likely to get some increased snap with McCoy out, but there really isn't a significant drop off between McCoy and the next three or four guys.  Our biggest strength there is, as mentioned before, they all play every down like the ball is coming to them and when you have three (and at times four) guys out there that are a threat to break something it really gives defenses something to think about.

On defense, our defensive ends have played a huge role but are understandably lost in the all the talk over Terrance Cody.  Cody is the biggest reason (literally and figuratively) that the defense is doing so well, especially against the run.  Saban's 3-4 is designed to take away the inside runs and force everything outside where the speed of the linebackers and defensive backs can shut down the cutback lanes, but until Cody arrived we didn't have the size inside to actually do that.  But also key in this are the ends, who don't function like rush ends in a typical 4-3, but instead act more like tackles and are more responsible for occupying blockers and clogging up gaps.  To that end, guys like Bobby Greenwood, Lorenzo Washington, Brandon Deaderick, and Luther Davis all struggled last year because they didn't have anyone in the middle taking up multiple blockers and it made their jobs almost impossible, but now that Cody (and backup Josh Chapman, who is a great NT in his own right and usually comes in on passing downs) is freeing them up more, they have become a very disruptive force and are getting a great push into the pocket.

5. Kentucky is currently sporting one of the top defenses in the country. The only common opponent between Kentucky and Alabama is Western Kentucky, whom Kentucky held to 157 total yards and Alabama held to 158, but 'Bama allowed more passing yards and UK more running yards. What, if anything, can we learn about the defenses from this common opponent that might indicate how the game will go on Saturday?

Not a whole lot, really.  The Hilltoppers aren't a particularly good team, and any respectable defense should shut them down.  The key part of that, though, would probably be that if they could rush against Kentucky, Alabama should definitely be able to rush aganst Kentucky.  On the flip side, though, the Hilltoppers do run a spread offense that likes to throw a lot of quick passes, and the Tide's passing D has left something to be desired at times, so if Kentucky can get that part of their offense going they could have some success moving the ball with a steady dink and dunk approach.

6. Which Kentucky offensive player most impresses you, and why? Which defensive player and why?

On offense, I'm going with Dicky Lyons.  There was some concern before the start of the season that he wouldn't be able to function as well being the primary go to guy, but he's put up solid numbers so far and is a great punt returner.  For a team that's kick coverage has been very disappointing so far this year, he's someone that really concerns me.

On defense, first instinct is Micah Johnson, a very solid linebacker that could start anywhere in the SEC, but since he's likely out for the game I'll show some respect to Mr. Braxton Kelly, another great linebacker that looks like a beast of a pass rusher off the edge.

7. Kentucky has been perceived historically been little more than an automatic win for Alabama. Has this perception really changed at all in light of Kentucky's recent success?

Definitely, I know several folks have made the comment "thank God we didn't have to play them last year."  Nothing is really a gimme in the SEC anymore, and there are plenty of people down here nervous about the prospects of a letdown game.  We remember the upset of LSU last year, and we remember some close games the last time our teams met.  In fact, last time we were in Lexington a lucky break on a busted punt (Bo Freeland was forced to kick again after an offisides and the second time he pulled the ball down and ran for the first after a UK defender broke free) was what finally got the team going and turned a very uncomfortable game into a convincing win.  So yeah, we aren't taking the Wildcats for granted in football anymore.

8. Give me the 3 things that you think have contributed most to Alabama's sudden turnaround from last year.

First and foremost has to be the development of the upper classmen.  There was the expectation that we were going to be starting true freshman any and everywhere on the field, but a lot of the battles for starting positions once the freshmen reported never materialized.  Drew Davis grabbed RT and never looked back, Corey Reamer solidified his hold on the outside linebacker position that most thought was Jerrell Harris's the minute he walked through the door, Justin Woodall finally emerged as a solid playmaker at strong safety after struggling to learn the defense last year, Javier Arenas has turned into a shutdown corner when everyone thought Alonzo Lawrence would be starting opposite Kareem Jackson, and etc.

Second, we've been able to get production out of both the true freshman and the older guys where we have lacked depth the past few years, and even though some of our key backups are true freshman, just the overall upgrade in talent is huge.  Last season there was a significant dropoff from starter to backup and, especially on defense, Saban rotates so many guys that you could almost consider the second team players as more co-starters than second team.  Now that we are able to rotate guys without that dropoff it's really helped keep everyone fresh and is a big reason we are able to play such a physical brand of both offense and defense for the full 60 minutes.

Third, the production we've gotten from the true freshman starters has been key.  Alabama really needed two things on offense coming into this season, and those were a big play threat at receiver and a tough, between the tackles runner in the backfield.  Julio Jones has lived up to his hype by being both a downfield threat and a guy that can turn short passes into big plays, while Mark Ingram has become our red zone back because he's a tough yardage kid with a great burst once he gets to the second level, always falls forward, is just hell to bring down, and he's already shown that he is a complete back (has great hands out of the backfield as well and has also shown he understands the protections and pass blocks like a veteran).

9. What is the one most important thing on offense Alabama must do to win? On defense?

I can handle both of those with one answer; continue the physical line play.  The biggest reason we are dominating opponents on offense is the fact that this is the best offensive line Alabama has fielded since 1999.  We've had some great run blocking lines since then, don't get me wrong, but these guys are both run and pass blocking like a veteran line with two future first round draft picks (LT Andre Smith and C Antoine Caldwell) on it should.  If you look back at the only game in which Alabama didn't completely dominate, vs Tulane, the biggest key there was that both Smith and Marlon Davis (RG) were out and the guys filling in for them were playing out of position.  Tulane was able to get more pressure on Wilson than any other team, and once those two players returned against WKU, the Alabama offense was back to being as brutally efficient as it was against Clemson.  So long as we can continue to control the line of scrimmage, the offense will be firing on all cylinders.

As for defense, I've already talked a little bit about how Cody has completely changed the way the line functions, and that has made things so much easier on the rest of the defense.  Last year we were having to bring way too many guys to try and get pressure in the backfield, and our pass D suffered tremendously because of it because, well, we didn't have as many guys in pass coverage and we also just weren't getting any pressure on the QB.  Now, if you look at the first half of the UGA game, you can see how Saban's defense is supposed to work.  By being able to both shutdown the run and disrupt the pocket with essentially only the three down linemen and one linebacker (typically the Jack, the DE/OLB hybrid unique to the 3-4, but it can come from anywhere which is why this defense makes me happy in ways that it shouldn't), it gives the coaches all kinds of options as far as mixing up their coverages and blitz packages to keep the opposing offense off balance.  All of that, though, is predicated on the d-line being able to do so much with so little, so as long as we can keep that up we should still be able to play very effectively on that side of the ball.

I want to thank Todd and all the denizens of Roll 'Bama Roll for linking and visiting us here at A Sea of Blue, and generally being great sports during the run-up to this game.  I have gained a ton of respect for the Tide just over the past few days, and they have earned it with their knowledgeable discussion, passion, and sportsmanship.  If the game goes as well as the pre-game blogging, we should all be in for a treat.

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