Alabama has won three of the last four national championships. Chris Ash sees why. The Arkansas defensive coordinator hasn't seen anything that compares to the Crimson Tide in his coaching career.
"We played Ohio State when they were loaded," Ash said. "But they weren't Alabama. This is better all the way around. Great personnel. Great. They have NFL players everywhere."
Normally, defensive coaches talk about the opposition's offense, offensive coaches the defense. That's who you see on the tape in preparation.
Ash took a peak at Alabama's defense as he was preparing for Texas A&M, since that was the tape he used. He's seen other Alabama games on TV and over the summer studied some aspects of the Alabama defense.
"It's a personnel league, so you want to see what you are going up against," Ash said. "I wanted to see their personnel. It's not so much the scheme that I wanted to see. I've seen Nick Saban defenses before. But I wanted to see how well they ran, what they were about.
"It's about what I thought, very fine athletes. You see NFL personnel in this league, but you see more of them against Alabama. As I said, we faced good teams at Wisconsin. We did see Ohio State when they were No. 1, but they didn't look like this Alabama team, this kind of personnel."
How do you attack that? First, you stick to your basics. You work on your fundamentals, your technique and continue to clean up problems you've seen over the last three SEC games. You take care of the issues that caused the losses. I asked Ash to explain those issues?
"You want to know about our issues?" he said, then grinned. "Do you have enough time?"
The number one issue has to be linebacker where the Hogs have rotated players trying to get to the right combination. The best grouping might be what Arkansas puts on the field against Alabama. It would be Jarrett Lake at middle linebacker, Braylon Mitchell at weakside and Martrell Spaight at strongside.
That combination, because of injuries and shuffles, has been on the field only briefly. Spaight returns this week after going down with a knee injury against Florida. It was his first start. So his two collegiate starts will come at Florida and Alabama. That covers the inexperience in a nutshell. Also consider that Lake was a high school wide receiver and the bulk of his playing time last year was on special teams or as a nickel cover linebacker. He's now the team's best middle linebacker and has three starts there.
"You look at our defense and nine of the 11 have played their current positions all year," Ash said. "But we have two that are just learning those spots. That is the reason we continue to have problems understanding how to get lined up against different formations and getting our run fits right. Lake is our best in the middle, but we don't have a natural middle linebacker on the roster."
Simple is the answer.
"That's where we are right now," Ash said. "We've tried to limit what we give them and try to make it easy to get lined up. We do see new things each week in games than what we see in practice because teams add to their formations. But I don't think Alabama is going to add much. They keep it simple, too. They just have great personnel."
Offensively, the major key is to improve at quarterback and wide receiver. The timing between quarterback Brandon Allen and his receivers has to improve. Head coach Bret Bielema said there is hope for that now that Allen is throwing in practice all week. He had been limited by his shoulder issues to the point that Wednesday was the only major day of throwing. Not many quarterbacks miss Tuesday's throwing sessions. Allen also had been resting his shoulder on Thursday.
"It is what it is," Bielema said. "He's our best option right now. If we had another quarterback ready, we'd do that. I will play freshmen. I've said that all along. They are not ready.
"Brandon deserves a medal for playing through this. But he's better and I thought he threw it well Thursday night. It was our most spirited practice."
Allen downplays the shoulder injury, but it must have been an issue because Bielema brought up his ability to throw deep on Wednesday night during his radio show.
"When Brandon's healthy, he can really throw the deep ball," Bielema said, noting there should be a return to some of those plays this week.
But there are many more keys to victory. We'll cover some in this week's list:
1, FUMBLES -- The major cornerstone of Bielema's program is ball security. It's the same at Alabama. Which one flinches? It's clear that the Hogs went to physical practices and worked on ball security after two fumbles at the end of long plays against Carolina. Nick Saban's teams are 44-0 when winning the turnover battle. That should point to the major factor in pulling an upset at Tuscaloosa. Allen has thrown bad interceptions the last three weeks, two of them for pick six returns. The third came back inside the 10-yard line and set up the go-ahead score for Carolina.
2, PENALTIES -- This goes high, too, because it's a cornerstone of Bielema's program, too. Whether or not the Hogs win or not, they have to return to playing the way Bielema wants. Penalties have to go away. It's tough to communicate in front of 100,000 hostile fans, but the Hogs have to do better than at Florida when there were pre-snap penalties. Personal fouls have been a problem earlier, but they seem to be falling by the wayside.
3, ATTITUDE and FIGHT -- More than any other week, Arkansas fans have mentioned that it appeared there wasn't much fight in their team against Carolina. Coaches admit "the wind went out of our sails" after Allen's interception. Can they fight for 60 minutes against Alabama? That sounds simple, but it isn't. Teams like Alabama grind you down and take away your desire to fight. Arkansas is learning how to win. But they might need to learn how to fight until the end first. That might be a victory this week.
4, SCORE A TOUCHDOWN -- Yeah, that's another overly simplistic point. But, it's a big thing. Alabama has not allowed a touchdown in Tuscaloosa this season. They gave up a lot of points to Johnny Football in College Station, but the defense has been slowly coming together this season. The Tide blanked a decent Ole Miss offense, 25-0, a couple of weeks ago. The Hogs need to figure out a way to score one touchdown, then build on that. The Tide does not give up big plays. But, perhaps Alex Collins can pop one. If he does, you might see confidence return to an Arkansas offense that seemed to be out of gas by the fourth quarter last week.
5, FOURTH QUARTER -- There's been nothing in the fourth quarter for four weeks. The Hogs were blanked in the fourth quarter against Rutgers, Texas A&M, Florida and South Carolina. Frank Broyles used to say you remember what happens in November. For this team, it's been remembering the fourth quarter. The Hogs were good in the fourth quarter in the three opening victories, then it all disappeared with the Rutgers punt returns.
6, SPECIAL TEAMS -- The Hogs have shown some tricks in the punt game, but Alabama is terrific in special teams. The Tide has such great team speed and such depth that the Hogs will be over matched as far as talent in this area as much as any other. Sam Irwin-Hill boomed the 79-yarder last week to help convince the SEC office to make him special teams player of the week. He's turned into a weapon and there are some plays off punt formations that have been up and down this year. He said this week there are more variations. Could this be the week that they hit a big play there, or should they save them for the stretch run.
7, TACKLING -- Arkansas has not faced great backs much this year. Mike Davis was the best last week with South Carolina and he topped the century mark. Can they tackle a better class of running back this week. Alabama has a good stable. T. J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake seem to be the most dangerous, but the Tide is four or five deep at this position. They keep them fresh and try to punish defenses with a big offensive line. The Arkansas linebackers and safeties will have their hands full Saturday with these backs. Can they stay consistent with their tackling.
8, ALABAMA NATIVES -- Darius Philon makes his first start. He's one of three key Alabama natives on the Arkansas defense. Philon has been blossoming over the past four weeks, starting with two sacks at Rutgers. He'll be the man at defensive tackle with Robert Thomas out with a broken leg. Philon was an Alabama commitment until they ran out of scholarships in the final week of recruiting. He was asked to grey shirt, or walk-on for one year. He opted to join teammate JaMichael Winston, now a backup end at Arkansas, to take a scholarship at Arkansas. Trey Flowers is the starting end, another Alabama native. Those three have been excited all week to go home. The Hogs did not get much from their Florida natives at Florida. Alex Collins competed, but was held in check. Javontee Herndon disappeared. Hopefully, the Alabama guys do better on their trip home.
9, WIDE RECEIVERS -- Can the Arkansas wideouts make key plays? They haven't in a few weeks. Javontee Herndon was supposed to Allen's go-to man, but he's been a no-show in the last two games. He's had drops and has failed to make the big play like he did in spring and fall camp. D'Arthur Cowan is back after missing a month with a broken foot, but his play has not elevated yet. He was the receiver that Allen tried for on the critical interception last week. The quarterback and wideout were not on the same page. Allen thought he was running a shorter route and Cowan kept going instead of hooking.
10, HANDS -- An odd key, right? On both sides of the ball, Alabama's talented and big linemen are great with their hands. The offensive line -- listed at 310, 315, 302, 309, 315, but bigger -- may be the best in the league at using its hands. They legally keep their hands attached to their jerseys. Arkansas defensive linemen have to get off blocks and make plays. The same thing goes for the Bama defensive front. They play with their hands better than any front in the SEC. Charlie Partridge, the UA defensive line coach, has improved the way the Hogs play with their hands in the defensive front. It helps shed blockers. If you want to know how the game is going, zero in on the hand-to-hand combat in the trenches Saturday. It will probably tell the tale of what's happening in the battle to win the line of scrimmage. With the style of play for both teams, it's probably as big a key as there is after turnovers. And, it may lead to some violent tackles that create turnovers.
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