This week I exchanged emails with Brent from RollBamaRoll. Brent is actually the guy who accumulated and normalized all the national SPARQ data that I’ve used the last two years to write some of my favorite posts the last two off-seasons. This week, he was kind of enough to help Kentucky fans learn more about Alabama’s football team.
1. UK fans are still sore about running back Damien Harris committing to Alabama over Kentucky a few years ago. Harris is having a tremendous season averaging over 8.6 yards per carry, but he suffered an injury against Kent State. What are the odds you think he plays Saturday, and what do you see as his strengths and weaknesses this season?
Well, it was a pretty nasty looking high-ankle sprain at the beginning of the game against Kent State. Nick Saban says that the injury is “day-to-day,” but I absolutely don’t expect Harris to play at all this week. Not when freshman Joshua Jacobs showed so much promise in his stead last week. Ankle sprains are one of those injuries that really only heal when you don’t do anything for a while, so that’s his most likely path.
As for his game, he’s shown a lot of improvement this season. As a freshman, he looked quick, but struggled with his vision, balance, and cutting up field. With a year in the system, that’s really changed. He’s shown tremendous vision and lateral agility, often making almost inhuman jump cuts in the backfield before accelerating through a hole that we could not even see on TV. He’s displayed decent power and, as Nick Saban said, had some “grown man” runs where he pushed a pile.
His main weakness to this point is his breakaway speed. Three times this season he’s broken through the front seven for a long run, and was caught from behind on all three.
2. Watching Alabama this season, I've gotten the impression the defensive backfield has great players, but is a bit thinner than normal. This hit home for me watching Ole Miss go tempo and find success throwing for 400 yards. I've read cornerback Tony Brown is set to return from suspension against Kentucky, so the depth should be improved a bit, but to date how would you categorize 'Bama's secondary?
That’s spot on. I really don’t even have to say much after your analysis. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey is a tremendous cover guy in man-to-man coverage with track-star speed, not to mention his willingness and size in run support. Second year nickel corner Minkah Fitzpatrick is even bigger and almost as fast, with a penchant for making impact plays. Senior safety Eddie Jackson is an experienced ballhawk who almost always scores when he gets an interception.
The other safety, Ronnie Harrison, is a rangy player at 6’3”, and he can really lay the wood and cover TE’s, though he can be a bit undisciplined with his coverage.
That said, there is almost no depth behind them. Our blog almost had a civil war over that specific issue this offseason, with half predicting doomsday while the other side thought that only the exceptional assortment of starters mattered. The starting group has played as well as we had expected, but when the second group of corners consists of a walk-on and two true freshmen, that’s a bit scary. We saw some of that in the final quarter of the Ole Miss game after Fitzpatrick went down to injury.
We’re banking a lot on Tony Brown. He’s the fastest player on the team (tied with wide receiver Robert Foster), and was a starter some as a true freshman before dealing with injuries and the emergence of Humphrey and Fitzpatrick his sophomore year. As a junior, he expected to fit somewhere in the rotation, as he can play any corner or safety position needed, but the suspension has delayed that. We’ll see where he fits, but the idea is that his presence can prevent that 4th quarter meltdown they had against Ole Miss.
3. While the secondary may not have proven depth, the front seven is absolutely scary, and Kentucky is questionable - to put it mildly - at both offensive tackles. Which of the players along the defensive line and linebacking corps should UK fans expect to wreak havoc in the 'Cats backfield?
Would I sound like too much of a homer if I said “all of them?” This is the best pass rush as a total unit I have ever seen at Alabama, and possibly one of the best I’ve ever seen in college.
The main two, though, are Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams. Allen is the heart and soul of this team. The 290 pound senior moves and hits like a linebacker with the size of most team’s defensive tackles. He will rush the edge, attack the guard, or even line up as a nose tackle sometimes in 3rd down situations. He’s the best all around player on this team.
Tim Williams, on the other hand, is probably the best pure pass rusher. The senior outside linebacker/defensive end played solely as a pass rush specialist in 2015, a season during which he averaged a quarterback hurry every 2.8 snaps he was on the field. He’s insanely quick off the edge, and has the hand technique and pass rush moves to boot.
4. Alabama is starting a freshman at quarterback named Jalen Hurts. For a freshman, I thought he played well against P5 foes Southern California and Ole Miss. As a freshman still learning the game, what do you think are Hurts best assets are so far?
After the first few answers, I will try to tone it down a little bit. Hurts has showed incredible poise as a true freshman. He has a command and leadership aura about him that instills confidence in us. Mistakes don’t rattle him.
Obviously, he’s an exceptional dual threat with a silky-smooth elusiveness, if not extremely fast.
He has a quick release and great footwork and form in the pocket, and has been almost perfectly accurate in the short-to-medium passing game. However, though he’s got the arm strength, his accuracy and touch on deep balls has been a bit scattershot to this point.
It’s easy to forget he’s an 18 year-old freshman, but he still locks onto his first receiver more often than not, and hasn’t shown much in the way of going through his progressions.
5. 'Bama is pretty clearly a huge favorite in this game, and rightfully should be. With that in mind, which UK players do you think 'Bama focuses on this week on the offensive and defensive side of the ball to further ensure victory?
The obvious candidate is Boom Williams. Kentucky has rushed the ball like no one’s business so far this season, and Williams’ 8.0 YPC is outstanding. Alabama’s front seven did a great job against USC, but has not faced much of a rushing attack with any of the three teams since. And the interior of the defensive line, while held up by defensive tackles Da’Ron Payne and Dalvin Tomlinson, has very little depth behind them. You might see a bit of a gameplan shift to see Jonathan Allen focusing more on slowing down the run than going after the quarterback.
On defense, Denzil Ware’s 3 sacks and 4.5 TFL worries me. The Alabama offensive line has been nothing if not inconsistent all season. Right tackle Jonah Williams is a true freshman who’s had some amazing moments, but also plenty of times where he just forgot to block the man in front of him. Small, quick pass rushers have consistently given Alabama fits for years, and a 250-pound defensive end with a reputation of making plays in the backfield gives me all sorts of nightmares.
6. Which of Alabama's players do you expect to have big days against UK?
Look for Jalen Hurts to have a big day. If I know Lane Kiffin, he will use this game to try and force Hurts to get better at throwing deep balls. By the end of the day, his accuracy may not be spectacular, but I bet there’s going to be a lot of yards. If not Calvin Ridley catching them, Kiffin seems to be trying to work 6’5” receiver Cam Sims into the offensive game plan going forward.
7. What's your prediction of the outcome, and what are one or two leading factors?
I’ll be honest, I expect this one to be all but over by halftime. Alabama almost never struggles against a team that specializes in running the ball. Kentucky’s best strength is the run game, and the Tide front seven should neutralize that. If Kentucky scores more than 14, I’ll be surprised.
The interesting battle will be the Tide offense vs. the Kentucky defense. The Alabama offense has been an enigma so far this season, seemingly using a different version of the playbook in every single game. After the explosion last week, I get the feeling that the offense won’t do as well against the Kentucky defense.
Final prediction: 31-10, Alabama.