We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team-specific sites to work with during game weeks. The first edition of our 2017 Opponent Q&A series features a chat with Brent C. Taylor, Executive Editor at Roll Bama Roll. We discuss ’Bama’s knack for big Week One performances, a new offensive coordinator, and what to expect from the Tide in Atlanta.
TN: Season-opening games often feature volatile performances, particularly in high profile matchups. Well, except for those involving Alabama, it seems. What has enabled Nick Saban's Crimson Tide to repeatedly deliver quality, often dominant efforts in these situations?
RBR: As Alabama fans, we like to say that it is because our team works harder over the preseason than anyone else. And maybe that’s true. Or maybe not. It’s hard to know for sure unless I was a coach for like 10 different teams to get a feel for what everyone does over an preseason.
That said, the results can’t be argued. Nick Saban’s teams have nearly always dominated the high profile matchups in week 1 (with Virginia Tech a few years ago being the only one to give us much trouble). I may be totally wrong, but here’s my guess: The recruits that Alabama brings in year in and year out are already so talented that the coaches don’t have to spend as much time in the preseason teaching fundamentals, and can instead focus on gameplanning for an opponent. That extra time gained from being able to start ahead of everyone else is what makes the difference.
TN: Brian Daboll brings what will presumably be a new system to Tuscaloosa for 2017. From what y'all have been able to glean so far, what do you expect the Tide offense to look like this season? As Saban and Jimbo are cut from the same information control cloth, I'm sure you can only speculate as to some things, but what do you hope the offense looks like under Daboll? Which play-makers do you hope emerge in 2017?
RBR: The coaches and players have generally been pretty coy about it, but they have let some tidbits slip here and there. Many thought the hire was in response to our failure to remember the run the ball in the National Championship, so Saban went on a mini rant about all the fans making assumptions, and that he is bringing in Daboll to improve the pro-style mid- and deep-range passing game.
Another section of our fanbase expects to see an offense similar to the New England Patriots, with option routes and running backs catching out of the backfield. However, Daboll was NOT the offensive coordinator in New England, but a tight end coach. So that may not be an accurate reflection of his style.
Daboll himself has also made the comment that he is not a coach to have a specific scheme and try to make his players conform to it. He wants to build his scheme around the strengths of his players. So expect to still see a sprinkling of QB runs with Jalen Hurts, not an offense trying to force him to play like Tom Brady. Our best two receivers, Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster, are sub 4.4 speed guys who excel on fly routes, so expect to see some deep shots down the field.
And of course, expect to see a lot of running. The running back stable is extremely deep and talented. But I’ll get to that in your next question.
TN: The ’Bama backfield presents an embarrassment of riches in the running game, from Scarbrough, to Jacobs, to both the elder and junior Harris, not to mention the quarterback. If you would, give FSU fans an idea of what to expect from the Alabama ground game on Saturday.
RBR: Damien Harris, the 221-pound junior, is the constant force. He led the team in rushes, yards, and yards per carry last year, despite all the hype for Scarbrough. He’s a stocky back with exceptional lateral agility and vision. He can make any jump-cut in the backfield to slip through a hole and then fight through arm tackles and keep his balance in ridiculous situations to get 6 more yards than he should. The only real weakness to his game is his long speed. I swear he had at least 5 breakaway runs last year where someone chased him down from behind 10 yards before making it to the endzone.
Next up is the heralded Bo Scarbrough. At 6’2” 240, he’s a monster of a back that looks more like a galloping Clydesdale horse on the field that a real human. He’s got a long, powerful stride that lets him outrun any defensive back despite his size. He may not be the most agile of backs (usually hits a predetermined hole head on or stretches to the sideline, rather than looking for cutbacks), but he wins by simple physics. When something that big moves forward at that kind of speed, it’s really hard to stop. But his balance and agility are where his skills falter, so hitting his ankles behind the line of scrimmage can often topple the big man for a loss.
Josh Jacobs burst onto the scene last year as a true freshman, and has a slippery elusiveness and style that will make you shake your head and smile as he embarrasses defenders in the open field. He has an innate feel for changing directions at just the right time to get defenders turned around, and can duck and slip away from reaching arms with seemingly no effort at all. He’s been used extensively as a pass receiver too. However, he’s been dealing with a hamstring injury the last few weeks, so I’m not even sure you’ll see him in this game.
Lastly, there is freshman Najee Harris. Sized similarly to Scarbrough, Harris has a much different body build and style. He’s powerful, yes, but his short area agility and explosion are off the charts. We’ve only seen a little of him in the spring game so far, but hopes are really high for the former #1 overall recruit.
Most likely, you’ll see Damien Harris start the game and do a lot of the grinding work early on while the FSU defense is still hyped up to stop the run, and as the game goes on, Scarbrough will probably see more and more time to try and break big plays and demoralize the defense. If Jacobs is ready to go, he’ll come in and out at random times as a change of pace guy. And Najee Harris will likely see a few carries too, though probably not in any critical situations.
TN: I think my biggest concern in facing the Crimson Tide offense is the big play ability that the wideouts have and the matchups they'll face over the top, assuming the Tide can protect Jalen Hurts and that he can deliver accurate throws. Simply asked - do you think these pieces come together for a few home runs against the ’Noles in Atlanta?
RBR: After the spring game, we’re all hopeful it all comes together. The deep ball game was what the team sorely lacked last year, so getting it back has supposedly been a bit of a priority. As I mentioned earlier, Calvin Ridley and Robert Foster are both extremely speedy wide outs with a penchant for the deep ball. Jalen Hurts lacked the accuracy there last year, but has supposedly made great strides this offseason.
The offensive line is as good as it gets with Jonah Williams, Ross Pierschbacher, and Bradley Bozeman on the left side. However, the right side boasts two new starters. Lester Cotton played a good bit last year and should be fine at guard, but the right tackle still is not settled, and we’re only days away from gameday. Matt Womack is the front runner, and the 6’7” sophomore should be a decent starter, but is known as more of a run blocker than a pass blocker. His chief competition comes from true freshmen Jedrick Wills and Alex Leatherwood. Leatherwood was a more highly rated recruit, but is also being groomed as back-up left tackle, so Wills looks to be the main challenger at right tackle. He’s extremely athletic and has drawn some good reviews, but has only been on campus for a few months.
I’d expect your defensive coordinator to send quite a few zone blitzes and stunts at the right side of the line to try and confuse the new starters there.
TN: The Alabama defense reloads yet again, despite losing a ton of talent to the NFL from one of the best defenses we've seen in the modern era. How do you expect the 2017 defense to differ from the 2016 group? Which position groups might be weaker, and might any be (gulp) stronger?
RBR: There is a ton of talent returning on defensive, and a lot more unproven talent waiting in the wings. But despite that, replacing 3 first round draft picks, 2 second rounders, and 2 third rounders is a tall task, and I don’t see any way the defense doesn’t take a step back. The Defensive line returns Da’Ron Payne, a freaky athlete of a defensive tackle who will have a good shot at being a 1st rounder this year, but the rest of the line is unproven. D’Shawn Hand is a senior and former top 5 recruit that has plenty of experience in a reserve role behind Jonathan Allen over the last three years, but we have yet to see him in as a full-time starter. Raekwon Davis, a 6’7” mountain of a man looked to be the third starter, but just had an incident this weekend that involved him taking a gun wound to the leg. As of this conversation, we still don’t have any real details about that.
The linebackers consist of two seniors, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Rashaan Evans, at middle linebacker who have both played and started many games over the last few years. Hamilton is coming off a season ending injury, but all reports say he’s good to go. He’s a smart, instinctual player who excels at stopping the run and jumping passing routes. Evans is more of a fast-twitch athlete who was an edger rusher his first two years before moving to middle linebacker last year. He’s often excelled as a roving blitzer and a QB spy against mobile QBs.
The outside linebacker, however, are a bit unproven. Christian Miller is an explosive junior who’s rotated in to speed rush on third downs in the past, but has not been an every down player. Terrell Lewis is 6’6” sophomore with exceptional athleticism (and intimidation factor) that got some playing time as a freshman last year. He also did this: https://twitter.com/geauxsohard/status/855876760638017536
The cornerbacks return Anthony Averett, a speedy senior who was exceptional in his first year as a starter last year, but is otherwise unsettled after the loss of Marlon Humphrey. Tony Brown is a freak athlete that’s been a contributing player for the past three years, but has been plagued by boneheaded mistakes, on and off the field, the whole time. He’s expected to be the starting nickel corner, but that’s far from a given. The biggest concern though is the other outside corner. Right now, it looks like sophomore Trevon Diggs is going to take that role. He was a receiver last year. He’s an athletic and talented player, but the lack of experience on defense is unsettling. As is the fact that he was repeatedly torched for long touchdowns during the spring game.
Safety is definitely the strongest position for Alabama though, as we return two third-year starters in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison. Fitz is a unanimous All-American that has excelled both as a slot corner and a safety. He’s extremely athletic, instinctual, and well built. It’s hard to find any sort of flaw in his game. Harrison is a bigger, rangy strong safety at 6’3” 215, and is known for being one to bring the wood and play with a hot head (sometimes going a little too far with the intensity).
So, all that said, I don’t expect this year’s team to be quite as effective at rushing the passer as they were the previous two years. And the right cornerback might end up being a major weakness. But the team is still led by a lot of veteran presences in the center that should prevent any kind of defensive collapse.
TN: Teams that have beaten the Tide in recent history have typically done so with some combination of tempo and monster days from big wideouts, to simplify matters a bit. Florida State decidedly does not employ the former tactic, but it does feature bigger, albeit unproven wide receivers this season. If there is a match-up with FSU's offense that worries you, is that it?
RBR: Seriously. Look to the sideline. Throw the ball to tall receivers one on one against Alabama corners on fly routes and fades. Profit.
The tempo thing gave us problems a few years ago when the defense was still built as a base 3-4 with 260 pound linebackers meant for running situations that the other team would trap on the field with a hurry up game. Saban has since found linemen and linebackers more suited to handle that style of offense, if maybe not so intimidating.
But deep balls and fades have consistently given our secondary problems for the last 5 years. It had gotten a little better last year, but now Humphrey is gone and we have former wide receiver who may be out of his league out there at corner.
Find some big receivers, throw it up to them, even if they may not look open. Don’t get cute and try to balance that by running the ball more. Just keep throwing fades to the sideline. That’s how every one else has done it over last few years.
Well, unless you’re Ole Miss. In which case you can just throw touchdowns by bouncing your passes off of other player’s helmets.
TN: In what looks like it might be a lower-scoring affair, special teams could play a critical role. FSU fans probably already know that JK Scott is a stud, but what can we expect from the rest of Bama's special teams unit?
RBR: Uhhh, not much. Special teams coverage has been a problem in the past, though 2016 was a pretty decent unit. Hard to say how they’ll perform this year.
Our return game was only one step above abysmal last year, and it looks like the same guys, Trevon Diggs and Xavian Marks, will be the main two again. True freshman Henry Ruggs is a talented player with the ball in his hands, so many of us are hoping he comes out of nowhere to be the savior. But relying on a true freshman before the season starts is never a happy place to be.
The kicking game is uhhhh…. Well… let’s just say that if this game comes down to a field goal, I will probably have to leave the room. Senior kicker Adam Griffith left, and now grad transfer Andy Pappanastos and true freshman Joseph Bulovas are competing for the job. Well, Pappanastos missed everything this spring, while word from camp is that Bulovas has been even more inconsistent.
So, don’t be surprised if the coaching staff gives up on both of them and you see All-world punter J.K. Scott trying his hand at field goals too.
Truthfully, I think I might rather be given a sound beating by you guys than have to deal with the indigestion that will come with a game winning field goal attempt from us.
TN: Finally, give us a prediction. Vegas currently sees the Tide as about a 7-point favorite with an over/under sitting around 49. How do you see the biggest opening game in history unfolding?
RBR: I’ve been going back and forth on this for a while, and I think it all hinges on our outside linebackers vs. your offensive tackles. If they can win the matchup and put pressure on Francios, then I don’t think he’ll be able to take advantage of our cornerback situation. With the defense keeping you from being a threat, then I think Jalen Hurts can implement the new system and passing game without pressure, and we win by three scores. Something along the lines of 28-10.
If our now outside linebackers can’t win, then I think the opposite happens. Francios takes advantage of Trevon Diggs over the top until we’re forced to move our safeties to the deep sides of the field, effectively opening up the middle for an onslaught of 15 yard gains in both the running and passing game. Our offense is now playing with a lot of pressure, and Hurts reverts back to the inaccurate and disjointed mess we saw over the last few games of 2016, where the only positive plays came from his legs. In that case, we see about the same margin of victory, just with a different winner and a higher score. Say around 17-38, FSU.
So, either way, I think this ends up being a game that is put away by the end of the third quarter, much to the disappointment of everyone in the nation except the winning fanbase. Problem is, my mind has it on about a 50/50 coin flip. But, since my people at Roll Bama Roll will likely exile me if I predict a loss, I’ll go ahead and put my coin on Alabama winning. Final score 28-10.