Most of the attention this season has been focused on Bama's fledgling coach, but from the start Shula has insisted his players deserve all the credit. "They're extremely proud to play for Alabama. That's evident. Their effort has been great. Personally I've benefited from their character and effort."
It's still early, but so far Alabama's defense has played well, yielding only 268.7 yards per game. The Tide stop unit has held opponents to only 18 points per game.
"They definitely have come out with an attitude to prove to people that Alabama has a good defensive football team," Shula said. "They're high energy. Talent-wise we've got a lot of guys with speed, and we've got some size up inside. That's a good combination."
New Defensive Coordinator Joe Kines was also praised. "The players respond extremely well to Joe Kines, not only scheme-wise but his coaching," Shula said. "He's a great motivator. The players do a nice job of executing the plan."
Early on protecting the quarterback has been a problem for Alabama. After three games Brodie Croyle has been sacked eight times, though opponents are only credited with five pressures.
"(Against Kentucky) there were a couple of things that we missed," Shula acknowledged. "We missed assignments rather than getting beat physically. Oklahoma had some guys that were real good pass rushers. We knew what we were doing, but if you're not right on top of your own technique you're going to get beat. (Saturday) night we had two busted assignments."
As Shula explained, a team like Oklahoma is going to make its share of plays. Despite the two miscues, Alabama's pass protection against Kentucky was pretty good.
"But several other times we had some real nice protection that enabled us to stand back there," Shula added. "Once on the first drive Brodie had all day to throw and there was no one within four yards of him."
Improvement is needed, but Shula isn't ready to panic. "We're doing some things (in pass protection)," he said. "We'll continue to get better as long as we keep working and understanding our assignments. We've got a few different type protections. When teams are blitzing, which Kentucky did a lot, it's important to stay sound."
One defensive concern involves turnovers, or rather the lack thereof. After three games the Tide has just one interception, which came on a tipped ball and two fumble recoveries, one of which came via the kicking game.
Shula commented, "We keep preaching it, but we don't want to harp on it, because turnovers are going to come. When we get the effort from our guys that we've had the last three weeks, they're going to come."
Shula is convinced the Tide defense is doing things right. "We just need to keep getting after the quarterback," he said. "In the running game keep getting penetration up front and the linebackers swarming the football."
What can the coaches do to help? "Sometimes you can talk about (turnovers) too much," Shula replied. "In practice you can continue to work on stripping the ball. As long as the players keep it in their minds, those things are going to come."
There is improvement to be made on both sides of the ball. Offensively the Tide was relatively poor Saturday in red zone, coming away empty-handed sometimes and being forced to settle for field goals on others.
But the so-called "hammer offense," used to pound away at a defense with your rushing attack late in the game, eating clock and putting your opponent away, has performed quite well. Against both South Florida and Kentucky, the Tide has taken over in the four quarter and played keep-away with the football to end the game.
Shula commented, "This game (against Kentucky) and the first game it worked. That starts with our guys up front. It's nice to be able to play keep-away, so to speak."
Credit goes to the offensive line. Saturday the Tide enjoyed a size advantage over Kentucky's defensive line. "We told the offensive linemen early in the game to stay after them and keep pushing those guys," Shula related. "We told our backs to be ready to run through some arm tackles. Stay on the field, and we'll have a chance to use our size and try to wear them down."
Just like last season, Alabama has shown the ability to run the football and control the game clock. Shula commented, "That's what came up later in the game. That allowed us to ice the game. 36 minutes of time possession--if we can do that each week we feel like we've got a pretty good chance to win some ball games."