Saban Concerned With First Game

Practice has only just begun, but attention naturally falls to the next game, even if it is nearly a month away. Alabama opened practice last Thursday. The Crimson Tide will play its first game on Sept. 5 against Virginia Tech in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Sunday, Alabama Coach Nick Saban discussed Crimson Tide football, including that opener.

The Alabama vs. Virginia Tech game ranks among the very best national games and comes in the first week of the season. The Crimson Tide has been ranked fifth in the Coaches Poll, while the Hokies are rated seventh. Bama is favored to win the Southeastern Conference Western Division and Virginia Tech is expected to win the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"I'm concerned about each opponent that we play, one game at a time, and Virginia Tech has a very, very good team," Saban said. "I think that regardless of who you're opening with, you're always concerned about anybody who has to play in that (season opening) game who doesn't have a lot of experience and I would say that probably gets magnified a little bit at the quarterback position, although I think Greg (junior Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, who is expected to make his first start) has done a very, very good job not only this camp but also in the spring and I feel like he's done a lot to gain the respect of his teammates and he has done a good job of effectively executing what we like to do.

"Now, how he responds to a game-like situation? That's why we've got to play them. I'm not really concerned about it, we're just going to do everything we can to support him and help him grow and develop so he can manage it the best he can and our team can do the best that we can in that particular game.

"Virginia Tech will have an outstanding team and one thing that will be a challenge is you've got to match their toughness. They're a tough team, they play physical, they're very aggressive, they're a good defensive team, they are always really good on special teams. They pride themselves in scoring non-offensive touchdowns but probably have better guys on offense, skill wise, than most teams. Very good quarterback, really good tight end,10 starters back, the offensive line is back, they had young receivers last year and I'm sure they're going to grow and develop, two really good running backs. So it'll be a challenging game for every facet of our team."

Alabama will be in full gear for the first time in Monday's practice. The Tide was in shorts in helmets for its first two practices, then went into shells (the addition of shoulder pads) for Saturday and Sunday.

Saban called that transition "probably a good program to have the acclimation that we have right now from shorts to shoulder pads, especially in this part of the country where heat can be an issue. I was really pleased because when you go back and put shells on you can work a little bit more on the fundamentals of how to do things, especially anything that requires any kind of blocking, block protection, butting, which is sort of the pre-requisite to tackling, some of the things that make you a good football team.

"We made some good progress in that area. I think it was little more challenging for the players, as it will be (Monday) when they acclimate to having full pads on. Each one of these things is sort of, I think, is a good progression for them to get into it. I think it's smart that we do it the way we do it, and I'm not disappointed at all with the progress that our team is making."

He said there were no injuries of consequence going to Sunday's practice at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Saban said he's also pleased with his coaching staff, which includes two new members (linebackers coaches James Willis and Sal Sunseri). He said, "After a few days -- we had spring practice together -- but I'm really pleased with the coaching staff and the chemistry that we have on the coaching staff, and how that has worked out for us. I really feel like we have a lot of experience on our staff, and we have a lot of different personality types that sort of blend together to make a good team. Some are enthusiastic, some are good teachers, some are a little older and laid back, but the combination of all of the above sort of makes a good team. I think you need different personality types, not everybody to be the same, to sort of get that."

He was asked specifically about Kirby Smart, Alabama's defensive coordinator and secondary coach. Last year's defensive head coach, Kevin Steele, left Bama for Clemson. Smart had the title of defensive coordinator before Steele left. Saban said, "Kirby has been with us for a long time. He has a very good understanding of what we do. He was at LSU. He was at Miami. He's been here for a couple of years. You guys have got to know that I spend a little bit more time with the DBs than maybe other parts of the team, especially early in camp, especially when we're doing learning and teaching-type things. With five and six defensive backs in the game, it's hard for one guy to coach all those guys. And even though we have a graduate assistant in there, I am his graduate assistant. So that works out well and helps us develop some of those players.

"But Kirby, because we've been together like that for a long time, really has a lot of the knowledge and experience that I've been able to sort of pass along to him. His ability to apply in the game and be a good signal-caller, I think, is beneficial to us, and I think it was beneficial to us last year when he assumed a little bit more of that, because he was a coordinator and we had kind of a co-coordinator-type thing. Kevin Steele did a fantastic job, but Sal has a lot of experience. He's able to contribute in a different way."

Saban noted the contributions of the new coaches.

"Probably the one thing we needed was a really good pass rush coach on our team, and that's something that Sal's really good at," Saban said. "So the combination of him at outside linebacker and pass rush is good. James has been in our system before through Will (Will Muschamp, defensive coordinator at Texas, formerly worked for Saban at LSU and with Willis at Auburn), and has a good understanding of how we do things and understands the concepts of our coverages and pressures and things like that.

"Sometimes when we hire people, they have a hard time figuring it all out. And you've got to be able to figure it out before you can teach it. So I'm really pleased with where we are on the defensive staff.

"Coach Steele did a fantastic job here. We talk to him on occasion, and we wish him the best where he is right now, but I really feel good about the people we have in place here."

Saban was asked about the experiment at linebacker of Milton Talbert, a junior defensive end. "It's experimental," the coach said. "We move guys around. We're moving a lot of guys around at linebacker. Most really good players that we've coached in the past at linebacker could play inside or out. You certainly don't want to lose the continuity of the experience that you've developed, but you also want to continue to experiment and make sure that you're getting the best players on the field.

"We probably have a few more defensive linemen right now than maybe we had a few years ago, so this "Jack" position sort of is a combination of a defensive end and an outside linebacker. We just always look for any defensive line-types that may be athletic enough to play that. That's how (Brandon) Fanney ended up there. Just so we know. (Talbert) has done fairly well, actually, at that position. So it may be something that holds for us down the road, or maybe we'll move him back to defensive line. That probably won't be decided until after the first scrimmage."

On Friday, reporters had talked to sophomore wide receiver Julio Jones and learned that Jones had played most of last year with injuries (sports hernia, wrist, shoulder) that required surgical repair following the 2008 season.

Saban said, "He does have a tremendous amount of toughness. From my perspective, I don‘t think he did anything to overstate it, but there was never a time last year -- he was tough and he overcame a lot and he has a tremendous amount of toughness and is a great competitor and plays with a lot of physical toughness -- but he practiced all the time. I think the sports hernia things are things that are sort of debilitating but they sort of get worse over time. We were proactive in getting his taken care of it would not continue to get worse. He was still functional for us.

"The shoulder injury was a problem for him, especially late in the season, and he demonstrated a tremendous amount of physical toughness to overcome those things. The way he competed and played in the LSU game, for example, is unbelievable. It would be nice to have a lot of young players who watch some of that and see that effort and that toughness."

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