Cornerback play improves

Coach Chris Thurmond doesn't live in a vacuum. He heard the pointed criticism directed at last year's cornerbacks, and he's also heard the recent talk that Bama's cornerback play won't improve with seniors starting and youngsters on the bench. <br><br>So you'll pardon him if he sees Saturday's opening-game victory as partial vindication. "The way (Hirchel Bolden and Gerald Dixon) performed showed that they were ready to play.

"And that they are the right two to play."

Both Dixon and Bolden came in for plenty of criticism last season, and more than a few Tide fans were anxious to see new starters at cornerback this fall. But it's Thurmond's job to evaluate his athletes. He explained, "I don't care what people say. I see them every day. Those people don't see them like I do. We know what our people can do. We evaluate every practice, every repetition. We know what they've done in the off season in the weight room. We see them in meetings. We know how they understand the system--all those things."

MTSU tested Bolden in Saturday's game, but he met the challenge.

Finally healthy after off-season surgery on his shoulder and knee, Hirchel Bolden started at right cornerback versus MTSU. On the day the senior played 63 snaps and was credited with two tackles and one pass break-up. "Hirchel played extremely well," Thurmond said. "He was our Defensive Back of the Week. (The MTSU coaches) tested him early. They wanted to see if he could make an open-field tackle. They threw a couple of ‘bubbles' at him. They threw a couple of ‘hitches' at him. He made those tackles.

"Then they said, ‘Okay, he's gonna make those plays. We'll take him up top.' They tried it three times and he made every one of those plays."

On one notable play, the Blue Raiders isolated Bolden one-on-one with a receiver on a post pattern down the field. But Bolden ran stride-for-stride with his man, turning to locate the football and knocking it down. Thurmond assessed his performance. "Hirchel played with great confidence. He played with a lot of stability. He got other people around him lined up well."

On the opposite side, Gerald ‘Smoke' Dixon also took 63 snaps. He finished with three tackles on the stat sheet. "Gerald played outside and inside, when he played nickel," Thurmond said. "We have a stat that we keep that we call ‘critical plays.' Smoke was 11-for-12 and Hirchel was 6-for-6 on critical plays that they were directly involved in."

Dixon had a very good game versus MTSU.

The season has barely begun, but so far Thurmond is happy with his two senior starters. "They met the challenge. They played well. It's nice to see two seniors do well. Anytime an athlete steps up and plays well, it's obviously good for his confidence."

Bolden and Dixon started and handled the majority of snaps, but reserve cornerbacks Roberto McBride, Anthony Madison and Charley Peprah also saw action. "We've got several guys that we can play," Thurmond explained. "Bert could be in the game, Anthony could, Charley Peprah could be in and (junior college transfer) David Scott is really making progress the last couple of weeks. We've got people that can go in the game and packages where you will see other people."

In what was a slight surprise, Roberto McBride returned punts in Saturday's opener. On defense he was in for 29 snaps. "Roberto played okay," Thurmond said. "He made a couple of plays. He made some tackles. He gained some experience."

Standing only 5-9, Anthony Madison is a dynamo on the playing field. Thurmond assessed the play of his redshirt freshman. "Great energy. Great energy. It's fun when Anthony goes out there. We tried to get him in the right spots where he could have some success. They tried to throw a ‘hitch and go' on him. He saw the route really well, and he made a play. He wasn't 100 percent perfect in his position, but he made the play."

Anthony Madison should be a future starter at cornerback.

Charley Peprah is Thurmond's other highly touted redshirt freshman. "Charley was really physical," Thurmond said. "He was in on several tackles. There are a couple of things we've got to work on, but that's as always."

Peprah did give up a long pass on a route on which he got turned around. "He got spun around on that one play; he spun to the outside," Thurmond explained. "Instead of just speed-turning and coming back like he's done a million times in practice, he just did not make it. That's part of being the first time in a game at Alabama."

Despite countless reps in practice, it's impossible to duplicate actual game conditions. "That's what you're trying to do with young guys," Thurmond said. "You want to put them in as many game-like situations as you can. But you can't simulate games."

Things can always change, but right now Alabama has two senior starters at cornerback with several talented youngsters providing depth. "That's what you always want," Thurmond said. "You always want to be able to bring your young guys along with older guys. It's like when you're a little kid and you go out with your older brother, that's just a good feeling. You know he'll look out for you and get you through some rough spots. We've got older guys that can teach the younger guys. It's a great situation for us."

Charley Peprah has excellent potential, but he's still got some developing to do.

The 2002 season is only Thurmond's second year with the Tide, and he sees good things ahead. "It's so much easier to coach each year that you're in a program, because the younger guys learn from the older guys. That's why the Florida States and the Nebraskas---those staffs have been in place for long periods of time, their systems have been in place for a long time. That's why they're successful.

"There aren't any quick fixes. There is only doing things right day after day after day after day. Your players hear the same thing every day. That's what we're working toward."

A graduate of Tulsa, Thurmond eight years coaching high school football in Oklahoma. His college coaching resume includes stints at the University of Oklahoma and his alma mater.

So Saturday's game between the Tide and Sooners will be something of a homecoming. "I'm from there; Oklahoma is a special place," Thurmond said. "I enjoyed coaching there. I've enjoyed coaching every place I've ever been. It'll be fun to go back there.

"These are the kind of games that you look forward to being in."


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