Unless he makes a big mistake, the only one watching an offensive tackle is the offensive tackle’s mother and girlfriend.
Alabama senior tackle Austin Shepherd hasn’t made many mistakes this year. He will be challenged Thursday when the Crimson Tide meets Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl in the Louisiana Superdome. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. CST with television coverage by ESPN.
Alabama is 12-1 and ranked first in the nation. Ohio State, also 12-1, is ranked fourth in the nation. The winner advances to the finals of the inaugural College Football Playoff to be played in Dallas Jan. 12.
Shepherd, who played in the 2012 BCS national championship game against Notre Dame in South Florida, said the Sugar Bowl doesn’t seem like a national championship game, but that it doesn’t seem like a bowl game, either. “Bowl games are supposed to be fun, I think,” Shepherd said. “This game is another game for us for our future. Everyone’s relaxed, not doing much, just watching film and stuff. So it’s a little bit different.”
Is that like a Southeastern Conference Championship Game?
“It’s just the playoffs, I guess,” he said. “You win, you’re in; you lose, you’re out.”
Alabama lost once this season, in the fifth game of the year at Ole Miss. After that, Shepherd said, the Tide had to win every game to reach being the number one seed in the playoff. That did not panic Shepherd.
“Every team I’ve been on here has never had an undefeated season,” he said. “One loss has never killed us. We won two national championships with one loss. That kind of was our message after that game. We knew we couldn’t lose. We had to win out. That’s what we tried to do, and we did it.”
ON BLAKE SIMS
When did Blake Sims really become your leader?
“He’s always been a leader. I think the Arkansas is when everybody kind of stepped up when we needed it in crunch time of that game. He kind of pulled us all in and said what he had to say. That’s when he stepped up as a leader.”
What did he say?
“He said it was make it or break it. We had just come off a loss. We had to have a touchdown on one of the last drives. We had to pull together. We had to do it now, or it was never going to happen for us.”
About Blake caring for other people:
“He’s all about other people. He’s one of the most humble people I’ve met for all the stuff he’s done and all the accolades. He’s just a humble dude. He’s just so caring. He’s always worried about everyone else; he’s not worried about himself.”
What’s Blake Sims like in the huddle?
“Practice or game?”
Either or both.
“Practice he’s just trying to get everyone to listen to him. He’s a simple guy. He’s kind of like Coach Kiffin. He’s relaxed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him nervous. He’s just a relaxed guy who tries to get us where we’re going.”
What about a guy like Blake who waited so long to have good things happen for him?
“I think I’m one of the few people that has known him since he was in middle school. I couldn’t be more happy for him. He went to middle school with my cousin. He deserves every bit of it. We came in together and I’ve seen him see about 20 different positions – scout team wide receiver, scout team running back, scout team quarterback, punt returner…you name it, he’s done it. He finally got his chance and proved himself.”
A lot of people questioned whether he would be Alabama’s quarterback.
“Yeah, when you have someone like A.J. (McCarron) leave, people are going to question whether he belongs.”
Was Blake confident, was he nervous about it? What?
“He was the hardest worker. He was there early and he was there late. When there was a break, he was with the quarterbacks coach doing more. He was always doing something.”
What did Blake Sims do for this team?
“It was good bcause he didn’t get nervous. For instance against Arkansas, where it was unusually tight. He pulled us together and told us this was the time, kind of pulled us together, not freaking out or anything. He was just there running the plays.”
How did Blake change as the year went along?
How is he now?
“Still the most humble person I’ve ever met.”
What was he like in middle school?
“Same person. Just younger. He’s more mature.”
He moved around a lot early. If he could have stayed at one position, where would he have been a star?
“Probably wide receiver. He’s a fast guy. Probably can jump high. May have been like Amari.”
Did he show frustration as a back-up?
“No, but I know he was. I know I was frustrated my first three years.”
What was biggest play by Blake Sims this year?
“Not play; I would say drive, probably, at LSU when he took us down the field to force overtime, and then to win in overtime.”
What was he like in that huddle in the last minute at LSU?
“Calm. Just calm and relaxed and telling us to go out there and play.”
Did that surprise you?
“Yes, because I was nervous. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
ON LANE KIFFIN
How much percentagewise has Coach Lane Kiffin brought to offense, or what percent is different from last year?
“I wouldn’t say it’s a huge percentage. It’s the same offense with different names for things. He changed the numbering system and stuff like that. But he brings in different things weekly. It’s not exactly what we did early in the season; one or two nw plays a week.”
Have you seen video of Lane Kiffin throw his arms up in “Touchdown” before play is over? Is that just him?
“He just knows football. I guess he sees it before anyone else does. He’s an offensive mastermind. That’s how I put it.”
Did you get a kick out of it?
“Yes. I laugh at him. He’s a funny guy. I just like him.”
What did you think when you heard Lane Kiffin was coming in as offensive coordinator?
“Probably ‘Wow!’ I had heard so much about him. I just want’ sure. After I met him I really liked him and thought he’d be a good addition.”
“He’s just a good coach.”
What’s he brought from a personality standpoint to the team?
“He’s just a Cali guy. You know anyone from California? They are just different. Laid back. Relaxed. He doesn’t really yell. He’s a real player’s coach.”
Seems like he would be comnpletely at odds with Coach Saban. If someone is a Calif guy, Nick Saban would be the opposite of a Cali guy.
“Yeah. They are good for each other. They obviously make it work. I don’t see when it’s closed doors, but at practice they are fine.”
How do they interact?
“We’re kind of on separate fields and then come together, so there’s not a lot of interaction.”
What kind of personality does Coach Kiffin bring?
“He’s just a Cali guy, laid back, relaxed. He’s not really one of the angry coaches who is yelling a lot. He’d rather just fix you.”
Does he put his hands on the O-Line a lot?
“No. He leaves that to Coach Cristobal. He (Kiffin) worries more about the skill positions.”
How does he deal with them?
“If they mess up, he just pulls them aside and tries to fix them. He’s not going to yell. He’s just going to tell you what you did wrong and fix you.”
Did anything change about the style of offense with the arrival of Kiffin?
“Not really. Just a couple of plays every now and then. He puts a couple of new plays in every week that we have to learn how to block, but we still want to be smash-mouth football and that’s what we try to be every week.”
On the offensive line, do you get fixers or yellers?
“Mostly O-Line you’re going to get yellers.”
Is Coach Kiffin a contrast to Coach Saban…yeller or not yeller?
“They are good for each other. Coach Kiffin is an offensive mastermind. A good coach who brings new things to the table.”
How are they good for each other?
“I don’t see behind closed doors, but at practice if Coach Kiffin see something, he’s going to tell Coach (Saban), and if Coach (Saban) sees something he’s going to tell Coach Kiffin. They are both geniuses.”
ON OHIO STATE DEFENSE
What jumps out to you about Ohio State’s defense?
“A high caliber defense that we play against every week. They are an SEC style of defense. Really good front seven. Everybody’s good.”
A few years ago Big Ten had reputation of not being athletic, particularly on defensive front, as SEC team. Is that no longer the case?
“I don’t know if it ever was. They are very athletic. They are extremely good. I think Michael Bennett and the other D-tackle can move really well laterally and cause chaos. They are a really good defensive line.”
How do you describe Bosa?
“Extremely good. One of the best D-linemen I’ve watched. Long, rangy, a ton of power. Just great.”
Is there a team that you played that reminds you of Ohio State?
“Not really. They are Ohio State. I think they are one of the best defenses we’ve played.”
When they have a guy like Bosa, how much do you game plan around him?
“Personally, I love it. I like challenges, and I think it’s a challenge for us. We face people like that every week of the season. I think they are an SEC style of defense. I love challenges and I think it will be good for us.”
What do you have to do against Ohio State?
“We just have to play hard. On tape, they are one of the best D-lines I’ve watched. I think all four of their D-linemen are great players, especially on the outside. They have two guys who can really get up the field and get to the quarterback from both sides. They have two guys who can just wreak havoc. They are well-rounded.”
Ohio State moves Bosa around. How does that affect you?
“It doesn’t matter. We’re going to block how we block. We don’t try to center around one person. I think our offensive line is good enough so that we can block whatever they put at us, so we just go out and play.”
Does he line up against you more or against Cam Robinson more?
“I think he lines up against me more. He lines up against Cam some, but I think against me more.”
How do you like that?
“I love the games when I play against the best player on the D-Line. That’s just who I am. I just want to prove myself.”
Can you compare him to anyone you played against this year?
“Not really. He’s his own player.”
ON ALABAMA OFFENSIVE LINE
How good are the defensive lines in the SEC – how good, how strong, how fast?
“Look how many of them are in the NFL. I think we’ve blocked a lot of first rounders this year. There’s just so much talent we face every week.”
Do you think you can wear down opposing defenses lines; is that something you take pride in?
“Yes. That’s one of our goals each week. We want to keep grinding for three quarters and get to the fourth quarter and keep wearing them down and hopefully they lay down for us.”
You are playing a little differently this year with more spread. Is that still the priority?
“Yes. Every chance we get to run the ball we’re trying to finish our play, trying to open holes for T.J. (Yeldon) and Derrick (Henry) and everybody. So just ground and pound.”
Some say this Alabama offensive line may not be as talented as previous ones, but maybe more cohesive. Can you see that, or do you take offense?
“No, we don’t take offense. We just try to work harder every day. That’s prety much our M.O. Coach (Mario) Cristobal puts that in our heads. Work hard and finish plays.”
Do you think you guys are more talented than you get credit for?
“I don’t know. I think we’re the best offensive line in the country.”
Does Alabama having more tempo offense this year help your defense a little bit?
“Yes. We try to practice fast tempo every day, so it kind of helps us and them. We want to play fast and they have to play against fast, so it helps us.”
Do you feel it when the opponent is wearing down? Does that happen; does it work; have you felt it in a lot of games?
“Yes. I think in the last game we opened with seven or eight plays and six or seven of them were fast ball. You can sense that on offense, the defense getting tired as the game goes on.”
What did you think about offensive line going back to fall camp and evolving?
“I thought we needed to step up and be the leaders of the offense. I think the offensive line is what gets the offense going every game. We have to set the tempo for smash mouth football, and that’s kind of what our message was to try to lead this team.”
I assume you knew people thought offensive line was a weak point?
“Yes. We knew we had some key players leaving that had to be replaced and then Leon Brown got hurt in camp and we knew we had to step up. We tried to fight through it. Everyone knew what people were saying, so we tried to prove a point.”
West Virginia (first game) wasn’t so hot. How did it come together?
“For five people to have comraderie is pretty hard; everyone has to be on the same page and it just takes time. That’s why the first couple of games were pretty rough. Five guys had to build together and come together.”
When did you see that happening?
“Probably a couple of games in. Maybe the fourth game, Florida.”
What do offensive linemen do to try to build together?
“We try to eat dinner together every Thursday.”
“We either cook at my house or we go out to a restaurant and everyone pays for himself.”
What do you cook when you cook at your house; grilling?
“Yeah, just hamburgers or hot dogs.”
You the guy on the grill?
“Yeah, I’m the guy out there sweating.”
Are you good on the grill?
“One time I burned a lot of it and they kind of kicked me off for a night.”
What’s that feeling like when you go into the fourth quarter and you are controlling the defensive line, punishing people, which you seem to do better than anyone in the country?
“It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world when you dominate, when you take over a game. You work hard all game to get to that point, and when you get there you want to finish. That’s one of the greatest feelings in the world when you finish with a couple of touchdowns.”
Is there a time when you know it?
“Yes. When they (D-linemen) lose their gap responsibility and try to make plays; when they go where they’re not supposed to be. That’s when a huge hole opens up and you break runs.”
What do you remember about the Arkansas game and was it turning point in season?
“I think it was. I think that set the tone for the rest of the season. I’ve never seen the fight in our team like that up to that point. It proved what we wanted in the long run.”
What about using Amari Cooper and getting the mismatches?
“I don’t know anything about mismatches. I’m just focused on trying to block a defensive lineman. Coop is an amazing player. I don’t know who you could put on him. I’d put full defense on him. He’s just a great player.”
What does Ryan Kelly mean to the offensive line?
“Huge. He’s pretty much the commander-in-chief of the offensive line. He makes the calls, tells everyone what to do. Without him, I don’t know what would happen.”
Do you think this game is more important to him because he’s from Ohio?
“I think he likes it. He never gets to play any teams from up there, so I’m sure it is.”
You have gone a couple of games last year and this year because of injuries. How tough was that?
“Last year when he went down, we had Chad Lindsey. Chad was a vet and knew what he was doing. But Ryan is huge. He knows every in and out. He probably knows the offense as well as Blake. He sees everything, sees everything coming, makes the appropriate call. It’s just important to have him in there.”
BEING IN New Orleans
Would you rather be practicing in Tuscaloosa or down here?
“We’re in Tuscaloosa so long practicing over Christmas break, probably down here with different scenery.”