"I got to work with the first unit today," Pope said following Tuesday's practice. "I guess I proved myself to the coaches that I can be a good player."
The phantom fumble occurred during the Bulldog's first offensive series. After driving to the Alabama 25, the Georgia quarterback appeared to drop the snap from center. Pope related what happened. "I saw the ball pop out. I picked it up, and I was outrunning the linemen. As I picked it up I went around the corner. I saw (Tide cornerback) Gerald Dixon come along to block for me. I tried to push it to the endzone."
Displaying good running technique, Pope got all the way to the Georgia one-yard line before being tackled just short of scoring. "From watching the film, I saw that (the Bulldog tackler) had the angle on me," Pope said. "But at the time it felt like he grabbed me from behind. I guess I ran out of breath and energy. I'm just glad I had a chance to try and make a play."
"Try" was unfortunately the operative word, because the game officials ruled that Georgia was guilty of a false start, negating the play and Pope's outstanding effort.
Reportedly, one official blew his whistle. But to Pope at least, the situation was less than obvious. "I didn't hear anything," Pope stated flatly. "There wasn't a whistle. They said there was a whistle, but I didn't hear any whistle. I kept running. As the crowd got louder, you definitely couldn't hear anything. I didn't stop."
With the flag wiping out the play, officially Pope's 75-yard scoop-and-run never happened. But coupled with his 61-yard interception return the previous week at Arkansas, Pope is rapidly gaining a reputation as a big-play defender. "I'm just trying to make a place for myself on this team," Pope said. "If I become known for making big plays, then that's okay. I'm just trying to help the Crimson Tide out any way that I can."
A junior-college All-American last season while playing for Garden City Community College, Pope has obvious athletic ability. But SEC-level defensive schemes aren't learned overnight, and Linebackers Coach (and Defensive Coordinator) Carl Torbush brought him along slowly.
"Derrick has improved," Torbush said. "He's got all the skills. Every week he gets better."
In high school and junior college, Pope's job was simple: run to the football. And when you get there, hit somebody.
But manning the middle in a Torbush defense requires read and recognition skills. "It's a real big challenge," Pope admitted. "We have a lot of great senior defensive linemen. Kindal Moorehead, Kenny King---for us to make big plays I've got to get them lined up in the right position.
"It's tough on me, because this is my first year. I know the plays, but I try hard not to make mistakes in getting them lined up right. So they won't be mad at me."
Since fall camp Pope has made steady progress. Torbush explained, "He's got a better understanding of our defense. He understands better what we're doing, which is giving him a chance to just to turn loose and play."
A week and a day of practice remain before Bama's next game against Ole Miss, but for now Pope appears to have edged ahead of Freddie Roach at middle linebacker.
After six games Roach is credited with 34 tackles to Pope's 29. But when you factor in that Roach has taken 244 snaps on defense to only 129 for Pope, a performance difference emerges. Statistically, Roach is making a tackle every 7.2 plays, while Pope makes one every 4.5. All other things being equal (which of course they never are), Pope would have totaled 55 tackles to Roach's 34--given the same amount of snaps for each athlete.
For his part, Pope admires what Roach brings to the table. "Freddie has got a lot of athleticism," Pope said. "He's a great person as well. He's great-spirited. He's not letting the competition bother him. He's just taking it that he has to work harder.
"That's the same as me. I'll have to work harder to keep the spot where I'm at now."
"He and Freddie have got a nip-and-tuck battle going on," Torbush acknowledged, "which is good. I think it's going to make both of them better. We'll see how both of them practice this week and next before we make a decision on who will start."
If he maintains his current pace, Pope will make his first start for the Tide against Ole Miss on national television--the Tide's sixth televised game (out of seven) for the season.
"During recruiting a lot of people tried to tell me that we wouldn't get any TV time," Pope recalled, "but I knew better. I knew that we were going to be on TV. (The NCAA) hit us with no bowl game, but who cares? I'm having fun where I'm at. I love it.
"This is Alabama football."