'BAMA Newsletter 2

Inside this Newsletter: Tide, Stadium Shine In Opener; Depth Chart; Coach Shula Says; Vanderbilt Scouting Report




Number 2 - September 6, 2006



Tide Needs To Make Improvement
By Kirk McNair

Next thing you know they'll be saying it's not the Tooth Fairy who exchanges cash for those pearly whites left under the pillow. With Bama between its season-opening win over Hawaii and its Southeastern Conference opener against Vanderbilt, both Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula and Offensive Coordinator David Rader were playing down the coach's adage that a football team makes the most progress between the first game and the second game.

"We didn't last year against Southern Miss until (Tyrone) Prothro got us jump-started with the catch just before halftime," Rader said.

"I don't think that's necessarily true," Shula said of the bromide. "Last year I don't think we did. I think maybe what happens is that individuals who haven't played before can make a lot of progress after playing a first game."

If that's true, this should be a good week for Bama, because a lot of Crimson Tide players got their first significant playing time in last week's victory over Hawaii.

Of course, usually when a team is playing its second game, so is its opponent, which perhaps levels that part of the playing field. Vanderbilt also played its first game last week and will play its second game this week when the Commodores come to Tuscaloosa. Vandy didn't have it as good as Bama in Week One as the Commodores were roughed up by Michigan.

Almost all Alabama coaches and players were saying this week that they could do a lot better, and that's probably true. But it doesn't mean that some didn't do awfully well in the win over Hawaii. Everyone in the Crimson Tide camp had to be pleased with most everything on offense, starting with the long-maligned offensive line. An infusion of Andre Smith seemed to help that up front group. The tight ends caught some passes. Keith Brown had an excellent game. The fullbacks had some nice moments. John Parker Wilson had a very satisfactory debut as quarterback. Which leaves only the Tide's top star, halfback Kenneth Darby, as the biggest disappointment.

Although Darby was injured in the hip area, that was being downplayed during preparation week. If Darby is healthy, no one would expect anything less than a stellar season. If Wilson continues to throw well and the tight ends and wide receivers play as they did against Hawaii, opponents will not be able to sell out to stop the run and Darby becomes a greater weapon.

A reasonable goal this week would be to improve performance in the Red Zone, turning those field goal opportunities into touchdowns.

The defense gave up a lot of yards (350), but not many points by Hawaii standards (17). This looks like another fine Joe Kines outfit in the making.

As for special teams, kicking was good, but kick coverage and kick returns were not special enough. Leigh Tiffin stole the show as he was pressed into duty for the injured Jamie Christensen and hit three of four field goals and a pair of extra points. Punter P.J. Fitzgerald also had a good night against Hawaii.

Alabama's coaches may have lower expectations for the Vanderbilt game. It is not likely that fans will buy into the revised theory regarding a team's progress between the first and second game. Alabama's opener didn't impress the poll voters too much (Bama stayed just out of the top 25 in the Associated Press rankings and fell from 24th to 25th in the Coaches Poll), but it was a victory against a team that is difficult to play. Hawaii is somewhat unconventional in both offensive and defensive philosophy.

That's one down and a dozen or so to go. Last week's performance might be good enough against Vanderbilt, but in order to have a successful season there will have to be improvement. It remains to be seen how much improvement will be made between the first game and the second.

Crimson Tide, Bryant-Denny Stadium Shine In Opener
By Kirk McNair

Alabama wide receiver Keith Brown delivered most of the good receiving Saturday night, but when Lionel Mitchell caught the final pass of the game as part of the Crimson Tide's prevent defense, Bama had hung on for a season opening 25-17 win over the Hawaii Warriors.

Alabama's team had to share star billing with Alabama's stadium. Saturday's game was played in remodeled and expanded Bryant-Denny Stadium before a sellout 92,138, the most ever to see a football game in Alabama.

Alabama seemed to have the game in good shape when officials signaled a fourth quarter touchdown on a pass from first-time starting quarterback John Parker Wilson to junior wide receiver Keith Brown. The two had previously connected on two touchdown passes. But a review of the play wiped out the touchdown and the likely 29-10 lead and a field goal kept Hawaii in reach at 25-10.

The Warriors, behind their record-setting quarterback Colt Brennan, nearly delivered a comeback to send the game into overtime. Brennan moved the Warriors 85 yards in seven plays, the final 31 on a perfect strike to Ryan Grice-Mullen. Hawaii made the correct decision to kick the extra point to pull to within a touchdown and two-point conversion of the Tide. (To go for two and miss would leave the Warriors down two scores with only seven minutes to play.)

Hawaii got its chance. With the Tide having a sub-par rushing night, primarily because star tailback Kenneth Darby had 16 carries for a net of only 25 yards, Bama was unable to run out the clock. The Tide did get the clock down to 2:40 when forced to punt back to the Warriors.

Hawaii took every second of the remaining time, getting to the Alabama 26 and throwing on the final play of the game. But Tide back-up cornerback Lionel Mitchell was in perfect position in the end zone and hauled in the game-ending interception, the only one of the night.

Hawaii scored on its opening drive to give the Warriors a bried 3-0 lead. Bama kickoff coverage was less than excellent much of the night, including on the opening return that gave Hawaii a start at midfield. Seven plays and 26 yards later the visitors got a 42-yard field goal from Dan Kelly.

Alabama evened the score with a 31-yard field goal from true freshman Leigh Tiffin on the Crimson Tide's first possession. Tiffin kicked in place of the injured Jamie Christensen. John Parker Wilson, making his first start at quarterback, completed passes of 10 yards to Matt Caddell and 22 yards to Keith Brown and fullback Le'Ron McClain had a 15-yard run in the nine-play, 65-yard drive.

Alabama squandered several second quarter opportunities, but still extended its lead over the Warriors from 3-3 at the end of the first quarter to 15-3 at halftime.

Most of the damage on Alabama's first touchdown drive of the year came in the first quarter as the Tide marched from its 39 to the Hawaii five-yard line and a third-and-one as the first quarter ended. Bama came up short on its third down run, but Castille ran it to the three for a first down on fourth down. On the next play, Castille rushed in to complete the 10-play, 61-yard drive and a 10-3 Alabama lead.

Then came missed chances that might have broken the game open.

On Hawaii's first play following the kickoff, Tide defensive end Ezekial Knight forced a fumble that was recovered by Prince Hall at the Hawaii 28. Two incomplete passes stopped the drive, and then Tiffin missed a 31-yard field goal.

On the Tide's second possession, a nine-yard run by Jimmy Johns on first down led to nothing because Bama couldn't pick up the first down with two runs up the middle.

Disappointing, but the correct call, was Roy Upchurch's near miss of a touchdown recovery. Official review determined Upchurch did not have control of the ball while in the end zone. The result was still a safety for Alabama and a 12-3 lead. Hawaii was punting and the punter misplayed the ball. Upchurch rushed in and nearly made the tackle on the punter, but the Warriors kicker was able to sling the ball towards the back of the end zone. Upchurch almost got it for a touchdown, but instead the Tide had to settle for a safety with 5:13 to play in the second quarter. It was 12-3.

Late in the quarter Bama got a 36-yard pass to Brown and the Tide went to a first-and-goal at the eight. But two runs netted only six yards and then an incomplete pass forced the Tide to settle for a 23-yard field goal and a 15-3 lead at intermission.

Wilson gave Bama some breathing room with a nice touchdown drive following halftime. Wilson connected with Brown on a 35-yard scoring pass. Brown was interfered with an still made an excellent catch for the score to give the Crimson Tide a 22-3 third quarter lead. Wilson had connected with Will Oakley on a 20-yard pass on a third-and-10 on the play before the touchdown toss. Wilson also had a completion to tight end Travis McCall for 15 yards in the drive.

Hawaii came back to close the gap to 22-10 with a three-play, 50-yard drive. The Warriors had driven deep into Alabama territory, but the drive was stopped when Marcus Carter caused a fumble and Simeon Castille recovered for the Tide. But Bama couldn't move and punted back to Hawaii. Hawaii's Colt Brennan hit running back Reagan Mauia on a shovel pass for 16 yards.

Wilson just missed on another third quarter 35-yard touchdown pass to Brown with a ball caught just out of bounds. But it was still a nice drive. Starting at its own 22, Alabama went to the Hawaii ten-yard line as the third stanza ended. Along the way Wilson hit Brown for 17 yards, tight end Nick Walker for 16, Oakley for five, Caddell for nine, and Walker for 22.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Wilson hit Brown for an apparent touchdown, but Hawaii Coach June Jones used the new challenge rule for review and on review the touchdown was disallowed, the ruling that Brown was out of bounds. Wilson tried for Brown again, but the pass was incomplete. Bama had to settle for a 27-yard Tiffin field goal and a 25-10 lead.

Alabama got good field position after holding Hawaii. A poor punt started the Tide at the Warriors' 46 with 12:45 to play. But it was a curious series, to say the least. Kenneth Darby had a nice run, but it was offset by a penalty. Wilson then hit a couple of passes around an incompletion and the Tide faced fourth and one. An attempt to draw Hawaii offsides failed and the Tide punted, having killed only a couple of minutes.

That set up the taut second half of the fourth quarter. Hawaii got its quick-strike touchdown to pull within eight points with seven minutes to play.

Bama was relatively penalty-free and didn't allow a sack through the first 37 minutes of the game, but an illegal procedure penalty and the only sack of Wilson on the night prevented the Tide from running out the clock. Bama punted back to Hawaii at its own 25 with 2:40 to play. There was one second to play when the Warriors ran the final play of the night, a pass that was intercepted by Mitchell.

TIDE NOTES–Alabama sophomore center Antoine Caldwell (Montgomery) was chosen as the Southeastern Conference Offensive Lineman of the Week, the league office announced Monday afternoon.

Caldwell was the only Alabama offensive lineman to play all 67 snaps of the Crimson Tide's 25-17 season opening win over Hawaii. on September 2 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. He had six knockdowns and graded out 90 per cent in his second career start at center.

Alabama's coaching staff selected wide receiver Keith Brown as the Tide's offensive player of the week, end Wallace Gilberry as the defensive player, and placekicker Leigh Tiffin for special teams.

Hawaii and Alabama had played twice previously, both games in Honolulu with each team having won a game. The Warriors were added to the Tide schedule for the purpose of opening the expanded and remodeled stadium.

After opening every 2005 game with a pass, Bama was in a two-tight end formation on its first offensive play of 2006 and—to the surprise of no one—the first play was a run by All-America candidate halfback Kenneth Darby.

For the fifth consecutive season opening game, the Alabama defense provided a score for the Crimson Tide. Bama recorded a safety when a mishandled snap on a punt went out of the end zone for a safety. Other opening day scores by the defense include Freddie Roach with a 41-yard interception return against Middle Tennessee in 2002, Charlie Peprah with a 51-yard interception return against South Florida in 2003, Simeon Castille a 31-yard interception return vs. Utah State in 2004, and safeties against MTSU last year and Hawaii this year.

One interesting Alabama strategy: After a nice completion from John Parker Wilson to Keith Brown near the sidelines, Bama went into hurry-up mode with a quick play that reduced time for a review of the play.

Some 600 former Alabama players were on the field prior to the game. In a twist on the tradition of a former player presenting the game ball to the officials, four former players participated in the ceremony. The common thread is that the four are battling serious health problems. They are Ken James, Kareem McNeal, John O'Linger, and Jack Rutledge.

Former Alabama players the late Jim Loftin, Bobby Luna, and Mal Moore were selected as this year's winners of the Paul W. Bryant Alumni Award for service to The University. Usually only two former players are selected, but this year the committee unanimously agreed that Moore—Bama's athletics director—should be included among the honorees.

Official attendance for the game was 92,138 as Alabama opened remodeled and expanded (by about 9,000 seats) Bryant-Denny Stadium. It is the largest crowd ever in a state stadium for a football game.

Alabama graduate and Sylacauga native Jim Nabors, a resident of Hawaii, sang the National Anthem in pre-game ceremonies.

Alabama Depth Chart Vs. Hawaii
By Kirk McNair
A few days before Alabama opened the 2006 football season against Hawaii, Crimson Tide Coach Mike Shula said that he would dress at least the 105 men who had been on the reporting roster for pre-season camp. After the beginning of classes on August 23, that roster swelled to about 130, and Shula said some of the additions might also be dressed for the game against the Warriors.

When Alabama went onto the field for pre-game warm-ups there were 105 men in full uniform. Additionally, Tyrone Prothro, who was part of the 105 even though he is expected to spend all this year rehabilitating from his 2005 broken leg, was on the sidelines in his jersey and warm-up pants. Then another handful of Tiders joined warm-ups and there were 113 in full uniform.

Shula had pointed out that because it was a non-conference game there was no limit on the number who could be dressed. (In Southeastern Conference games the visiting team is limited to 70 men and the home team is limited to 95 men dressed, of which 80 are designated as allowed to participate in the game.) Because it was a home game, Bama could also afford to have a number of players dressed who were not on the "travel roster," meaning the players assigned rooms at the Sheraton Four Points, where Alabama's team stays the night before a home game.

Alabama had five first-time starters against Hawaii, including a rare true freshman starter in offensive left tackle Andre Smith. Although freshmen have been eligible for varsity play at various times in college football history, the current rule allowing true freshmen to play was instituted in 1972. Since that time there had been only six true freshmen to start on offense or defense in opening games. Oddly, half of those were—like Smith—men who played offensive tackle.

Previous true freshmen starters in season opening games for Alabama were offensive tackle Larry Rose in 1985, offensive tackle Jon Stevenson in 1991, tight end Terry Jones, Jr., in 1998, offensive tackle Dante Ellington in 1999, linebacker Saleem Rasheed in 1999, and current Tide fullback Tim Castille in 2003.

Other first time starters for Alabama against Hawaii were sophomore quarterback John Parker Wilson, junior defensive end Keith Saunders, junior middle linebacker Matt Collins, junior safety Marcus Carter, and sophomore Rashad Johnson, who started at nickel back.

Although there were reports that junior left guard Justin Britt and senior strong safety Jeffrey Dukes were making their first starts, Britt had a handful of starts at defensive tackle last year and Dukes started as the nickel back in the Cotton Bowl at the end of last season.

Another true freshman seeing notable action in the season-opener was placekicker Leigh Tiffin. Regular placekicker Jamie Christensen was dressed out, but did not play as he is recovering from a groin pull.

Other Tiders who had their first game action were linebacker Prince Hall, cornerback Marquis Johnson, linebacker Zach Schreiber, running back Roy Upchurch, cornerback Chris Rogers, running back Ali Sharrief, wide receiver Mike McCoy, cornerback Javier Arenas, running back Terry Grant, fullback Baron Huber, center Evan Cardwell, safety Sam Burnthall, snapper Luke Spaulding, offensive guard Mike Johnson, defensive tackle Brandon Deaderick, punter P.J. Fitzgerald, and placekicker Andrew Friedman.

Senior offensive right tackle Kyle Tatum saw his streak of 24 consecutive starts (dating back to the 2003 Hawaii game) come to an end as Smith started at left tackle and former left tackle Chris Capps started at right tackle. Those extending long starting streaks included Capps, center Antoine Caldwell, halfback Kenneth Darby, defensive end Wallace Gilberry, and linebacker Juwan Simpson extending to 13, and cornerback Ramzee Robinson and offensive guard B.J. Stabler extending to 11.

There had been some question about Simpson playing in the game because of an off-season incident. One player missing action, wide receiver D.J. Hall, was held out with a sprained ankle, but was also not scheduled to play for disciplinary reasons, Coach Mike Shula said after the game.

Alabama opened both offensively and defensively in slightly altered alignments. Normally, the Tide has four defensive linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs, but against Hawaii Dominic Lee did not start at defensive tackle and, instead, Bama went with a fifth defensive back, nickel back Rashad Johnson. On offense, Bama normally has two wide receivers and one tight end, but against the Warriors Keith Brown was the lone wide receiver and Bama started with two tight ends, Travis McCall and Nick Walker.

Alabama played 60 men in the season opener. The Tide used 21 on offense, 24 on defense, and 15 just on special teams. Here are those who played with starters listed first and the number of plays in parenthesis. If there are two numbers, the second is the number of plays on special teams.

OFFENSE
Split End—Matt Caddell (48), Will Oakley (20)
Left Tackle—Andre Smith (62-6), Cody Davis (4)
Left Guard—Justin Britt (61), Mike Johnson (5-6)
Center—Antoine Caldwell (66)
Right Guard—B.J. Stabler (61), Marlon Davis (5)
Right Tackle—Chris Capps (46), Kyle Tatum (20)
Tight End—Travis McCall (46-10), Nick Walker (43-6), Charles Hoke (2-6)
Quarterback—John Parker Wilson (66)
Halfback—Kenneth Darby (42), Jimmy Johns (14-11)
Fullback—Le'Ron McClain (40-15), Tim Castille (27)
Flanker—Keith Brown (46), Mike McCoy (2)

DEFENSE
Left End—Wallace Gilberry (41), Chris Harris (17)
Left Tackle—Jeremy Clark (28), Brandon Deaderick (12)
Right Tackle—Dominic Lee (9), J.P. Adams (15)
Right End—Keith Saunders (34), Bobby Greenwood (11), Zeke Knight (24-6)
Strongside Linebacker—Terrence Jones (43-3), Zach Schreiber (20-4)
Middle Linebacker—Matt Collins (16-2), Prince Hall (38)
Weakside Linebacker—Juwan Simpson (58-4), Demarcus Waldrop (2-4), Marcel Stamps (3-9)
Left Cornerback—Ramzee Robinson (60), Marquis Johnson (2-16), Lionel Mitchell (24-10)
Right Cornerback—Simeon Castille (59-4), Eric Gray (20-13)
Strong Safety—Jeffrey Dukes (61)
Safety—Marcus Carter (34-5), Rashad Johnson (40-12)

SPECIAL TEAMS
Punter and Holder—P.J. Fitzgerald (4 punts, 4 field goals, 2 extra points)
Placekicker—Leigh Tiffin (4 field goals, 2 extra points, 1 kickoff), Andrew Friedman (5 kickoffs)
Snapper—Luke Spaulding (4 punts, 4 field goals, 2 extra points)
Coverage and Returns—Roy Upchurch (9), Chris Rogers (8), Cory Reamer (15), Ali Sharrief (16), Javier Arenas (6), Terry Grant (6), Bryan Kilpatrick (8), Forress Rayford (5), Baron Huber (5), Sam Burnthall (1), Evan Cardwell (6)

Coach Mike Shula Says
By Kirk McNair


Alabama is one game into the football season, a win over Hawaii, and looking at the opening Southeastern Conference game, hosting Vanderbilt Saturday. On Tuesday, Crimson Tide Head Coach Mike Shula had his regular weekly briefing with sportswriters. He had good news on the running backs front.

Alabama star halfback Kenneth Darby did not seem to be at full strength for the Hawaii game, gaining only 25 yards in 16 carries in Bama's 25-17 win over the Warriors. Following the game, there were reports of Darby possibly having a hip injury. Shula has been vague about the injury situation, but said Darby practiced Sunday. "Is he 100 per cent today?" Shula said. "I'm not sure. But if we were playing today, he'd be playing."

Of the Hawaii game, Shula said, "We weren't quite as sharp overall, but I think we're going to be able to run the football. I think Ken Darby is going to do a great job. We got caught by surprise a couple of times when they didn't stack the box and we were throwing."

Shula said, "He ran hard. He didn't have his best day. Part of it was a couple of good runs got called back (by penalties). And then we hit some passes and didn't run the ball as much. And Kenneth did a good job in pass protection. He really played unselfish because he knew going into the game he was going to have to protect."

Shula also pointed out something of a falacy in statistics. Alabama tries to have a balanced attack, passing and running. But, Shula noted, if you are moving the ball well in the passing game, you might make 60 yards of an 80-yard drive through the air. That lowers the rushing statistics, but it could be that the ability to be balanced in the running and passing game made the passing game effective.

While Darby was obviously being keyed by Hawaii's defense, back-up sophomore halfback Jimmy Johns had a good game with 8 carries for 58 yards. Shula said, "This is his second year playing the position. Last year everything was new to him. He needs to keep getting reps and he's going to get better with experience. He needs to work on continuing to be disciplined with his footwork and running to the holes and not trying to cut back too soon. We keep reminding him that he's a big back (6-2, 227) and to keep running like a big back."

Another injury that bears watching this week is the ankle sprain announced as having been suffered late last week by wide receiver D.J. Hall. Hall did not play vs. Hawaii and Shula announced after the game that it was because of the injury. On Sunday Shula added that if Hall had been healthy, he would not have played for reasons involving discipline. On Tuesday he said if Hall is healthy he will play this week. He said Hall was able to practice Sunday night.

A new member of the Alabama coaching staff this year is David Turner, who coaches Bama's defensive ends. Last year Turner was coaching the defensive line at Vanderbilt. Shula admitted that Turner's input "helps a little on personnel and schemes, but we still don't know the play."

He said that Vanderbilt is a well-coached team. The Commodores are not similar to Hawaii, which plays a lot of blitz defense. Shula said Vandy defenders "rarely get out of a gap. They're disciplined, so we have to be disciplined and not get greedy. They will be wiating for us to make mistakes."

Shula said Vandy and Alabama are similar in that both have young quarterbacks "who have been successful." Vanderbilt's new quarterback is Chris Nickson of Brundidge. Shula noted that Nickson "runs a lot more than (Jay) Cutler did last year. That's probably whre they made most of their yards."

Although Nickson was not recruited by Alabama since the Tide signed quarterback John Parker Wilson that year, it was not because Shula and his staff did not recognize Nickson as a fine athlete. Shula added, "We're happy for him and hope he does well up there. We just hope he doesn't do too well this weekend."

Shula said some offensive areas where the Tide must improve is on moving the chains and in the Red Zone. He said, "Last week we had a chance to make first downs and keep the ball away from them, and we didn't do a good enough job of that. We could have executed better. There is a premium on every play. And the outcome of one plan can affect the next play."

As for getting into the Red Zone and not getting touchdowns, Shula said, "We spend a lot of time down there in practice and we'll continue to do that. We need to score touchdowns. But you can't just say you need to score touchdowns. You have to execute a plan–you have to get the ball out a little quicker to Keith Brown, and that's a touchdown. Protect a little better on one play and that's another touchdown to Keith Brown. Catch a slant pass on a third down play.

"It's like protecting the football. You work on the little things in practice and remind them on the field."

Shula was complimentary of first-time starting quarterback John Parker Wilson. "He needs to continue to work on fundamentals and learn to be consistent," Shula said. "A couple of his throws were a little off, a little high, and we know he's an accurate passer. Sometimes you get in a hurry. But these were things that are very correctable. Mentally, he played a very good game. He was going to the right place with the football. That might be the most important thing."

Shula said that placekicker Jamie Christensen, who missed last week with a hip injury, is still sore. In his absence Saturday, freshman Leigh Tiffin hit three of four field goal tries. Shula said, "We've got confidence in Leigh Tiffin because of the way he's handled things." The coach added that Andrew Friedman had done a good job on kickoffs, pointing out that because the kicking tee has been lowered from two inches to one inch that there will be fewer touchbacks on kickoffs.

Shula had praise for a number of new starters, including freshman offensive tackle Andre Smith. He also mentioned Zeke Knight, who moved from wide receiver to defensive end; Jeffrey Dukes, the starter at strong safety, and Marcus Carter, the starter at free safety; back-up middle linebacker Prince Hall, and young defensive backs Lionel Mitchell and Rashad Johnson.

He said he hoped freshman safety Justin Woodall would be able to recover from a pre-season injury and get involved, at least in special teams play. And he said halfback Glen Coffee is "getting close" to returning, although he admitted that Coffee could be redshirted considering Bama depth at halfback.

Scouting Report: Bennet is Commodores' Greatest Threat
By Mitch Dobbs

The Alabama football team should have the advantage over Vanderbilt in nearly every match-up Saturday when the teams meet for each team's Southeastern Conference opener, but just as a seemingly non-threatening stingray can kill The Crocodile Hunter, Vanderbilt could shock Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Saturday if the Tide lets its guard down. Vanderbilt did it in their conference opener last year against Arkansas, winning 28-24 on the road in Fayetteville, though it was their first win in a conference opening game since 1990.

There's extra motivation for a handful of Vandy players. Seven men from the state of Alabama are on the Commodores roster, including three of their very best players: quarterback Chris Nickson, receiver Earl Bennett and safety Reshard Langford. They could each take on airs of being slighted by the Crimson Tide in one way or another as motivation for Saturday's game.

Vanderbilt's 5-6 season last year, one of their best in recent memory which included wins over Tennessee, Ole Miss and Wake Forest and a near miss against Florida, was largely credited to senior quarterback Jay Cutler, who was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. Now that Cutler has departed for the NFL, it remains to be seen whether Vanderbilt will recess into the walkover opponent of old or continue to pose a real threat to the better teams in the SEC.

OFFENSE

Bobby Johnson, in his fifth year as the Commodores head coach, has turned to the redshirt sophomore Nickson at quarterback to replace Cutler. Nickson, from Brundidge, Alabama, is the high school teammate, friend and cousin of Bama tight end Nick Walker. Nickson was Mr. Football in Alabama, and he was offered a scholarship by Alabama as an athlete, but not as a quarterback. Walker and Nickson teamed up to win the class 3A state championship in 2003. Nickson is also very intelligent. He was the valedictorian of his high school. Nickson completed 11 of 25 passes against the Wolverines for 99 yards, and he fumbled twice. He was actually Vandy's leading rusher, with 16 carries for 22 yards. He was sacked six times, but Vanderbilt made use of the quarterback draw numerous times as its best running play.

Johnson said he was "pleased" with Nickson's debut. "I don't thing Chris was overly nervous or overly anxious. Obviously there are some things that we can do better."

Johnson might go to either of two backups at the quarterback position if Nickson flails, redshirt freshman Mackenzi Adams or junior Richard Kovalcheck.

Nickson's top target, and Vanderbilt's biggest offensive threat, is Bennett, a true sophomore from West End High School in Birmingham. He wasn't recruited much by Alabama, but set all kinds of freshman high marks on the receiving end of Cutler passes a year ago. The Dores only touchdown against Michigan last week came on a double pass trick play thrown by Earl Bennett.

His accomplishments as a freshman are astounding. He was a first-team SEC player All America by the Sporting News. He set freshman single-game conference records for receptions (16 versus South Carolina), receiving yards (204 vs. South Carolina), touchdowns (5 vs. Kentucky) and had freshman record 79 catches on the year. He was only the second player in league history with five touchdown receptions in a game and was the only player in Division I to do so last year. Bennett is a preseason Biletnikoff Award candidate, and was a preseason All-SEC first teamer. In his last four games of 2005, Bennett had 16, 6, 13 and 14 receptions respectively for a total of 49 catches and 545 yards with nine touchdowns.

Bennett, 6-1, 200 pounds, had six catches for 58 yards and a touchdown pass against Michigan. Vanderbilt's other receivers are George Smith, Sean Walker and Marlon White. They combined for four catches against Michigan. Fullback Steven Bright also caught two passes for 16 yards.

Running back Cassen Jackson-Garrison had his appendix removed less than three weeks before the season, but returned to play against Michigan. He had just eight runs for a two-yard net. Jared Hawkins had two carries for 18 yards. Aside from Nickson's runs on the quarterback draw, Vanderbilt had virtually no rushing presence against Michigan.

The offensive line was whipped against Michigan's front four. They weren't able to run the ball against Michigan, nor protect Nickson from the pass rush, allowing six quarterback sacks. Four juniors and a senior make up the Vanderbilt offensive line, and all but center Hamilton Holliday (6-3, 295) is over 300 pounds. The other four are all over six feet, five inches, too. Right tackle Brian Stamper has started 32 games in a row for Vanderbilt. Reserve offensive linemen Eric Hensley and Ryan Custer also saw their first career action against Michigan. Alabama's defensive tackles did not play much against pass-happy Hawaii, and should be much more of a factor on Saturday.

Vanderbilt converted just four third downs in 15 attempts, while allowing Michigan to convert 10 of its 18 third down tries.

DEFENSE

Vanderbilt Junior Middle linebacker Jonathan Goff racked up 14 tackles and blocked a field goal against Michigan. Goff, who is on the cover of the Commodores media guide, has 16 starts under his belt, more than any other player on the Vanderbilt defense. He's listed at 6-4, 240 pounds.

Vanderbilt's four-man defensive averaging six feet, three inches and just over 290 pounds, and defensive ends averaging 6-3, 253 pounds. End Curtis Gatewood made his first start against Michigan last week and had six tackles, including one for loss. Chris Booker, the other end, had seven tackles against Michigan.

These three players were credited with 39 per cent of Vanderbilt's tackles in week one. Tackles Ray Brown and Theo Horrocks have 15 combined career starts. The linebackers surrounding the experienced Goff are senior Kevin Joyce and junior Marcus Buggs, who have 16 career starts between them, and each had four tackles last week.

Reshard Langford is probably best member of the secondary. He is from Tanner, Alabama, and has started in all 12 games of his Vanderbilt career in the defensive backfield. Langford started every game last season as well as this year's season opener. He had three tackles including one for loss against Michigan.

Ryan Hamilton made his first start last week at the other safety. Senior Sean Dixon (6-0, 192) and Josh Allen (5-9, 182) have some experience in the secondary, but Vanderbilt was 86th in pass efficiency defense last year. Michigan threw for 135 yards and two touchdowns last week.

SPECIALISTS

Field goal kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt is in his second year with the job, and he converted an extra point in his only opportunity last week. Last year he made 12 of 17 field goals and 32 of 33 extra points as a freshman. He also handles kickoffs for Vanderbilt, but only got two tries last week. Brett Upson is the punter, and he had a 36.3 yard average on seven punts a week ago in his first collegiate action. Earl Bennett handled punt returns, and Josh Allen and Alex Washington return kickoffs. Washington had a 22.8 yard average and a long of 34 yards last week.

The Crimson Tide should also have the preparation advantage over Vanderbilt, or at the very least shouldn't be surprised by any hidden personnel. Mike Shula hired defensive ends coach David Turner away from Vanderbilt just before spring training, to replace Paul Randolph. Turner spent four season coaching under Johnson. Shula said that knowledge was put to use in learning a little bit about what plays Vanderbilt might call and what schemes they might employ, but mostly for purposes of evaluating Commodore personnel.


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