"What people try to do is stop what you do well. We've seen that on film. MTSU has a way to get to an eight-man or nine-man front pretty quickly with their scheme. They'll bring their safeties up and play tight on us. But that enables us to have man coverage out on the ends. But it depends on the formation that you're in. They can still use zone concepts and get nine people down there."
Listing three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs, the Middle Tennessee defense has an unusual look. "Their defensive scheme is very similar to Southern Mississippi," Koenning explained. "They'll use a 3-3 stack and move around a bunch."
It's a plan built on deception, in which the Blue Raiders hope to confuse an opponent's pass-blocking schemes. Koenning commented, "They'll bring pressure from the edge. They'll bring pressure from the middle. They'll bring pressure from the secondary. They've got multiple ways to get to you. With the 3-3 stack, the big thing they try and do is create a four-man rush. They're playing with a three-man front, but one of those linebackers is usually always coming to create a four-man line.
"You've got to find out which one is coming, and you've got to be sound in every area of your blocking, in protections and also in run schemes."
Walking the safeties up to help with the run normally leaves a defense vulnerable versus the pass, but MTSU executes its scheme well. "Here's the thing about their defense," Koenning said. "With a 3-3 stack, they can drop everybody in coverage and they're only rushing three people. But that stack gives them so much diversity. They can rush as many as they want or drop as many as they want. Whereas with a four-man line, you pretty much know four of those guys are rushing."
But football schemes are very much a zero-sum game. What is gained on one end is inevitably lost on the other. "One of the things they give up is their physicalness up front," Koenning said. "They're losing a big guy and a point of attack. But they try and gain back with people moving around and rushing and blitzing. The (scheme's) advantage is that it tries to create confusion in your blocking schemes."
Despite playing with only four down linemen, MTSU actually handled the run fairly well last season. But the Blue Raider pass defense was porous at best. "They lost some kids in the secondary," Koenning said. "They've got one returning cornerback and a returning free safety, but they're replacing both of the other defensive backs. They do some things to help those new players out.
"Their coordinator, Steve Davis, does a great job on defense. I've known Steve a long time, and he does a really fine job. He'll put those (inexperienced) players in situations where they can be successful."
Much of the talk this off season has been about Bama's new ‘A' and ‘W' positions, and Tide fans are anxious to see how the new schemes will play out on the field. "We changed to multiple personnel groupings so that we can get our best players on the field," Koenning explained. "You'll see some differences in play calling. You saw some in the spring game with Shaud Williams. What we try and do is get the football in the hands of the players that can make plays. In that respect you'll see some differences in the play calling."
The details can be confusing, but the theory is based on the concept of training athletes at more than one position to hopefully prevent opposing coaches from calling defenses based on which players are in the game.
"We've got some kids that are playing multiple positions," Koenning said. "With Theo (Sanders) playing a tight end/fullback position, you're going to see him line up in different places. You'll see Shaud Williams line up in different positions. He'll play in the backfield and as a wide receiver. So there will be differences that fans will see.
"Will the whole scheme change? No, our protections and our run game will pretty much stay the same. But fans will see a different makeup."
As usual, many Tide fans are focusing on the backup quarterback, and Brodie Croyle should see action versus MTSU. But Koenning has confidence in senior starter Tyler Watts. "Tyler's arm has gotten stronger from last year. And his understanding of the offense has improved. Of course that's always been an advantage for him. He's a very smart, intelligent kid.
"He's getting to where he can now almost think like a coach. That year of experience under his belt is important in understanding coverages. Instead of ‘Coach, what do I do now?' It's ‘I see this. I see that.' That's part of the growth of a quarterback. I've been very pleased with that."
Close observers know that Alabama uses its backup quarterback to signal in the plays from the press box to the field. But Koenning explains that there is little chance of other teams stealing any signs. "We use Spencer (Pennington), Brodie and Tyler. All the quarterbacks can signal in plays. All three will be signaling, and we'll determine one of them ‘live.' And Brandon Avalos can help us, too. We have three kids that can signal for us, and we'll determine which one is live before the game."
Koenning has worked hard since last season, developing ways to improve the Alabama passing game. But with Freddie Milons and Jason McAddley departed to the NFL, do Bama's remaining wideouts have the ability to stretch the defense with the long ball?
"We're going to find out during the game," Koenning replied. "We're curious to see what our kids can do. Sam Collins is a veteran. He's really looked good the last couple of weeks. Early he was rusty, and he knew that. But he's worked himself into shape. He's as consistent as he was last season.
"But otherwise at the wide receiver position we've got some (inexperienced) kids there. Triandos Luke, Dre Fulgham--those guys can get vertical. I'm pleased with what they've done in fall camp. But we'll found out during the game. We'll try to put them in situations where they can be successful."