"They're going to watch Tennessee and Tennessee gave us fits in a three-man front but we're not the only ones who struggle with it," said Florida Coach Urban Meyer after Tuesday's practice. "There are some holes in it, however."
Alabama has steadily moved its defense to a three-man line this season to the point that the odd front has become the staple of a defense that is presently ranked seventh in the nation (Florida is ranked fifth), giving up 232.5 yards per game. Alabama is ranked number 19 against the run (87.8 yards per game) and number 14 against the pass.
The choice to go to a three-man front has been borne out of necessity but it has been quite effective.
"From what I heard they had a lack of depth on the D-line and they had plenty of linebackers so that's a big reason they went to the 3-3," said Meyer. "But, they're playing it pretty well and now they're about 75-80% of the time three-down."
Alabama plays a veteran corps of linebackers that is big, fast and athletic. DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach are in their fourth year as starters while Juwan Simpson is starting for the third year. Ryans is 6-2, 232, with 261 career tackles including 30 in the four games this season. Roach, 6-2, 248, has 223 career tackles, 17 of them this year. Simpson, 6-3, 220, has blossomed this year. He's got 20 tackles so far, 113 for his career.
Those linebackers added to one of the best secondaries in the nation makes the Alabama defense formidable. Safeties Roman Harper and Charlie Peprah head one of the nation's best secondaries. Harper and Peprah can cover like corners so Alabama doesn't have to substitute when teams spread the field.
Meyer said that wide receivers Coach Billy Gonzales said on Sunday that the Alabama secondary is "the best secondary we've faced. As far as across the board …Tennessee had some great players but as far as consistency and athleticism he thinks this is the best back seven we've played."
Getting a second straight outstanding outing from the offensive line will be critical for the fourth-ranked Gators in Tuscaloosa. Last Saturday in Lexington, the Gators had a 537-yard offensive output, their best of the season. The Gators threw for 350 yards and ran for 187 behind a line that graded out so well that seniors Mike Degory, Lance Butler and Randy Hand all made Champions Club for the week.
Because Tuesday is the hardest practice day of the week for the Gators, the offensive line was worked particularly hard but Meyer liked what he saw of an improving unit.
"The offensive line had a real good day ... one of their better days," said Meyer. "As long as we continue to get better, that's all that matters."
The improvement on the line against Kentucky was directly related to the best game of the season by the guards. Jim Tartt got his first start of the season at left guard and the redshirt freshman played very well. Tartt will likely start against Alabama although Tavares Washington, out for the Kentucky game with a sprained elbow, will be back. Make no mistake about it, though, the guards have to step it up against Alabama.
"Guards are integral parts of this offense," said Meyer. "They gotta change the line of scrimmage."
MORE ON LATSKO: Former fullback Billy Latsko, moved to linebacker in the spring, is back permanently on the offensive side of the ball. In the Gators offensive terminology, he's a U-back, same as Tate Casey. Casey is 6-6, 243 while Latsko is 5-10, 230. Latsko proved he could block last year as a fullback, but he's proven to Meyer that he's a capable offensive player in other areas besides blocking.
The move of Latsko has been made out of necessity but Meyer said that it's made easier because "Billy Latsko's a pretty good offensive player. He played well in the game (Kentucky) and he did some good things in practice today."
PROPS FOR SHULA: Consider Meyer a big fan of what Mike Shula has accomplished at Alabama. Shula became Alabama's coach when Mike Price was fired in the spring of 2003 before he ever coached a game. Saddled with scholarship restrictions from serious NCAA sanctions, Shula broke even (6-6) in his second year and has the Crimson Tide unbeaten (4-0) and ranked fifteenth in the nation in 2005.
Meyer said Tuesday that Shula has done a good job of handling the probation problems and now he has Alabama on the right track for the future, evident in the way the Tide is playing on the field.
"They're playing excellent in all three phases," said Meyer. "That's a credit to their coaching staff and more importantly, to their players."
CHAD JACKSON: It will be a homecoming for Florida wide receiver Chad Jackson, a junior from Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham. Jackson is the leading receiver in the Southeastern Conference with 32 catches for 401 yards and six touchdowns through four games. Jackson only had 29 catches in the entire 2004 season.
Despite the obvious improvement in terms of on the field production, Meyer says that consistency is still an issue with Jackson.
"Against Kentucky (nine catches, 105 yards, two touchdowns) he still didn't grade Champion and I'm not sure he's graded a Champion yet," said Meyer. "He's leading our team in receiving so it's every play, every down that he's got to be consistent blocking, running routes. He's not consistent."