State of the Hogs: Crumbs

The Hogs must wait a week before playing Alabama, but it's hard for fans to play it one game at a time.

The questions at media briefings can make you smile or gnash your teeth. There are some dandies. I loved the one Tuesday directed to Paul Petrino.

How does the team guard against thinking too much about Alabama this week as it prepares for Louisiana-Monroe? It was actually well delivered and timely.

Petrino answered it well. Perhaps he expected it. Coaches are paid not to be surprised, even by the media. I would not have handled this one so great.

The summary of his answer: We teach our players to focus on the little things. If you take it one play at a time, then everything falls in place. Look for the crumbs and you will have a cookie.

What would I have said? If you didn't ask all of my players about Alabama one week too early, I wouldn't have to worry about them thinking about Alabama.

Actually, there's nothing wrong with the media questions. Fans are discussing Alabama, not Louisiana-Monroe.

Most aren't just discussing Alabama, they are worried that the Hogs aren't nearly ready for the Tide. It's the way it is these days. No one plays them one game at a time.

I'm guessing that early in the Cover It Live Blog that you can find at HawgsIllustrated.com on Saturday night during the ULM game, a fan will tweet, reply or interject that this is not a team that can play with No. 1 Alabama.

That's the big picture right now. Can the Hogs improve enough by Sept. 15 that they have a chance against ‘Bama. But that's not really what the players are thinking about.

For example, wide receiver Brandon Mitchell wasn't thinking about any personal expectations ahead of the opener.

"I've learned after four years here that it's best that you worry only about the next play, not expectations for me for the game," he said. "If you do that, you'll meet the expectations and the goals. I was just trying to play the next play."

The thing that I've learned is that each individual game has its own set of unique matchups. What happens in one game does not always translate into the next, even once you get into SEC play. Where you have an advantage one week might disappear the next.

Sometimes it's style of play. Sometimes it's personnel.

Some have given up on great expectations after seeing the defense give up 24 points against Jacksonville State. I wouldn't. The goal was not to be clicking on all cylinders for the opener as far as the defense. That wasn't going to happen once Tenarius Wright, Alonzo Highsmith and Eric Bennett missed most August scrimmages.

No, they were going to have to play their way into peak form. There was a decision to take care with their return from injuries to make sure they made it to the heart of the season, not sustain a more serious injury by returning too fast.

No one is going to say this, but that decision was made with Alabama in mind, not Jacksonville State or Louisiana-Monroe. The goal is to peak in conference play, not for the season opener.

But you do that by making corrections after each play. You do that by looking for competition when a mistake is repeated.

I saw Darius Winston go to the bench when he gave up a pass along the sideline, failing to look for the football for the umpteenth time during his lackluster UA career. I saw him go to the bench in favor of former walk-on Kaelon Kelleybrew.

Winston was mentioned by head coach John L. Smith on Monday as a player who has to react favorably to competition to get back on the field. The goal is to correct that mistake or move on to someone who will play the ball.

I'm interested to see how Winston fights back. He had a decent camp and did seem to play the ball better. He was improved in coverage against the deep ball in most August scrimmages. But that play against the Gamecocks wasn't a good sign that Winston has figured it out. He must find the ball or his nice speed will be wasted.

I'm also interested to see where Jason Peacock fits into the puzzle in the offensive line. Is he at weak tackle where he started last season?

David Hurd has manned that spot all through spring drills and fall camp. He played almost every down in the opener. Or is it strong tackle, behind Brey Cook? Peacock was at weak tackle in the spring, but moved to strong tackle early in fall camp behind Cook.

I'm guessing Peacock can now play either side and provides solid depth and might challenge for a starting post. I'm not sure where he's needed most, but the goal might be to figure that out this week. He's still a little heavy. Perhaps it's better to watch those crumbs and keep them from turning into cookies.

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