FLORIDA DEFENSE IN-DEPTH
By: Mark McLeod
Turnovers usually play a key role when great teams collide. Florida is a team in need of a few loose footballs. They Gators have yet to recover a fumble. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide has committed only five turnovers on the season. First year Alabama sophomore quarterback John Parker Wilson comes into Gainesville having thrown only one interception.
The Gators enter the game -3 in turnover margin, ninth best in the Southeastern Conference. Alabama is tops in the conference and ranks among the best nationally (4th) with a +7 margin.
Free safety Reggie Nelson has accounted for three of Florida's five total turnovers.
What will it take for Wilson to float a pass into the arms of a linebacker or member of the secondary? Will an Alabama ballcarrier loose the handle on the football? I'm sure these questions were asked by Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring.
Florida has a wealth of experience, speed, and athleticism throughout their defense. That is not lost on opposing offensive coordinators who have adjusted by shortening their passing game. The two and three step drops by quarterbacks hitting receivers who run a bevy of quick slants, screens, and skinny posts have cut into the Gators ability to sack the quarterback. Make no mistake though, the pressure has been constant.
Defensive lineman Marcus Thomas (6-3 296) had begun the season like the kid who always had to sit in the back seat of the school bus…disruptive. Thomas sat out the first game of the year for failing a drug test, but came ready to play recording a pair of sacks and two tackles for loss as he manhandled the Central Florida offensive line. He continued his stellar play with three tackles, a sack, and tackle for loss against the Volunteers. Simply put- Thomas was having an All-American year.
However, the senior from Jacksonville won't be using his great quickness, speed, and athleticism in "The Swamp" this weekend against the Crimson Tide. Thomas failed a second test and is out indefinitely. His teammates must go forward without his help. Thomas' pain will go on for years. While I've personally never held a U.S. Treasury note with Salmon D. Chase's photo on it- chances are that Marcus Thomas just cost himself a wheelbarrow full of these.
Last week, senior Ray McDonald (6-3 280) dropped down from his defensive end position to take Thomas' spot. Coach Urban Meyer said that McDonald gave great effort, but made several mental mistakes in his first game at the position. He played the position in 2004. McDonald has returned from having both knees surgically repaired. He appears to have shaken off most of the rust and is fast approaching his potential. McDonald has 11 tackles, including two sacks, and three tackles for a loss. His leadership has been a boon for the defense.
Playing alongside McDonald is senior tackle Joe Cohen (6-2 296). Signed as a running back out of Palm Bay High School, Cohen has accumulated seven total tackles, a tackle for loss, and has broken up a pass. Reserve Steven Harris (6-5 285) is a former starter at defensive tackle. He was suspended by the coaching staff until he got life's priorities in order. He has met the challenge and made tremendous strides. Harris is now on course to graduate, where he can use his education to take care of his family. Harris has three tackles and has been credited with half a sack. Both Cohen and Harris possess great strength, athleticism, and speed. Junior Clint McMillan (6-1 285) plays a key reserve role. McMillan is a former middle linebacker at Oviedo High School who has good speed and runs very well.
The Gators have tremendous speed and athleticism at defensive end. You can't begin talking about tremendous quickness, speed, and potential without mentioning the name of defensive end Jarvis Moss (6-6 251). His first step off the ball is unreal. Moss' quickness is reminiscent of Georgia's Quinton Moses. Obviously, Moss hasn't yet produced to the level of Moses. Furthermore, the junior bulked up over the off-season and plays against the run very well too. Moss has 14 tackles, one sack, three for a loss and six quarterback hurries last week. Redshirt sophomore Derrick Harvey (6-5 252) had his first collegiate start last weekend at strongside end. He adds a nice blend of speed and quickness. He doesn't have Moss' first step, but he can run. However, his experience is even more limited than Moss. Harvey has eight tackles, two sacks, and three quarterback hurries.
Weakside linebacker Earl Everett (6-3 234) is one of the centerpieces to this extremely talented defense. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his monster play against Tennessee. He led the Gators with 11 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Everett can run, hit, and has a nose for the football as evidenced by his team leading 24 tackles, two tackles for loss, and two quarterback hurries. He should garner plenty of votes for the all conference team after the season.
Brandon Siler (6-2 235) is one of the Gators tremendously experienced linebackers. Describing Siler is rather easy. The All-SEC selection is simply a great football player who might even be a better leader. He had terrific game against the Volunteers with seven tackles, two for a loss, and a sack. He is currently second on the team with 23 tackles, including four tackles for loss, a sack, and two quarterback hurries.
Fifth year senior Brian Crum (6-3 235) mans the strongside linebacker position as a first year starter. Crum has seen significant action on special teams throughout his career, while playing as a reserve at tight end moved to linebacker in '03 where he saw very little action. He played pretty well against Tennessee. Crum has seven tackles and one and a half tackles for loss.
While there is plenty of talent playing behind the linebackers, experience is virtually non-existent. True freshmen Brandon Spikes (6-3 240) and Dustin Doe (6-0 215) have been impressive in practice and have seen limited playing time thus far. The Gators are in trouble if they lose Siler, Everett, or Crum.
Overview: The strength of an interior defensive front that was among the best in team history suffered a major blow with the loss of Thomas. Ray McDonald, Joe Cohen and Steven Harris are still very good football players that should make life difficult for the Crimson Tide offensive line.
The numbers certainly bear that out. Opponents are averaging just 1.8 yards per carry and 42 yards per game rushing against the Gators. That is tops in the conference and fourth best in the nation.
The speed and athleticism at the defensive end position blend perfectly with the inside game. The premier battle will occur between Jarvis Moss and true freshman sensation Andre Smith, who visited Florida a few months before signing with the Crimson Tide.
Siler (22 starts) and Everett (33 starts) are the only experienced linebackers at Florida. They must stay healthy. This team has been pretty good in the red zone, allowing three touchdowns and a field goal in eight opportunities. Alabama comes in fourth in the conference in third down conversions. The Gators are fourth in the conference in allowing third down conversions- 32.7%. The Vols had some success, converting on 6 of 13 (46.1%) attempts.
The Florida secondary has allowed an average of 220.5 yards passing in conference play. Both Erik Ainge of Tennessee and Andre' Woodson of Kentucky had solid passing performances against the Gators. The pair have combined for 44 of 71 (61.9%) for 441 yards and a pair of touchdowns. They have also thrown two interceptions.
Florida received a tremendous boost when cover corner Ryan Smith (5-10 165) graduated and transferred to Florida from Utah this summer. He has been a blessing in the wake of the Avery Atkins departure. There was no learning curve as he has a fine understanding of the defense. Smith has 15 tackles. However, he has not knocked down a pass or picked one off.
Playing the opposite corner is senior Reggie Lewis (5-10 196), who is best remembered for making the play of the game against Vanderbilt a year ago. Lewis has good speed, has improved his cover skills dramatically, and solid hands. Lewis is a former wide receiver who started several games in place of the injured Vernell Brown last year. He has an interception, which he returned for 35 yards. Lewis has also knocked down three passes.
Strong safety Tony Joiner (6-0 208) is third on the team with 22 tackles. He also has two tackles for loss, has broken up a pass, an interception, and safety to his credit. The junior packs a wallop. Joiner is a first year starter, who has seen quite a bit of time on special teams and as a reserve.
The most feared member of the Florida secondary is free safety Reggie Nelson (6-1 193). The junior is a fantastic football player who brings speed, quickness, football savvy, and hits like a brick. Furthermore, Nelson can do it all- play cover corner, strong, free, or nickel equally well. Nelson is tied for the Southeastern Conference with three interceptions.
Reserve safety Kyle Jackson (6-1 200) was a starter as a freshman, who struggled last season. However, he is playing well and figures to be the first man out playing safety when Florida goes nickel.
Overview: The Gators first team guys should be solid. Yet while they haven't played poorly, they certainly haven't wowed anybody the past couple of contests. They have dropped to eighth in the conference in pass defense and 60th nationally. Still Florida remains one of the best in pass defense efficiency. Much of that credit goes to a defensive front who has gotten pressure on the quarterback.
The Gators were pretty effective keeping Tennessee and Kentucky receivers contained in their short game passing attack. It will be very interesting to see how they fare against Brown and Hall, who have proven more effective runners after the catch. Florida's secondary faces one of the finest receiving corps in the country each day at practice. That provides a definite assist. There is no question that the Alabama receivers will get theirs, but how much depends on if the Florida defensive front can somehow rattle Wilson.
The Gators defense has allowed just three points in first quarter in conference play. Furthermore, fine adjustments by the staff, the second half fire of the defensive unit, and seemingly some tiring by opponents has allowed Florida to allow just 10 total points in the second half.
No Florida defensive player received nomination into The Champions Club, a weekly recognition for outstanding play. Their first half performance against Kentucky was enough to warrant the coaches' decision. The players admitted that they came out flat and made numerous mental mistakes. A bevy of mental errors in the coming month will cost them dearly. Dropping from 48th in pass defense nationally to 60th is not the direction the team wished to take. Expect the coaches to continue making the necessary adjustments to shore up problems taking away the short passing game.
Will the Crimson Tide opt for the short controlled passing attack with Wilson making two and three step drops to cut down on the pressure similar to that employed by Tennessee and Kentucky? Florida was able to adjust to that after limited success. Bama has an advantage over the Vols and ‘Cats because Brown and Hall are better than any tandem the Gators have faced this year. Furthermore, if the Crimson Tide can get running back Kenneth Darby on track or opt for Jimmy Johns they'll have guard against an actual running game.
When Kenneth Darby is running like he has demonstrated throughout his career, he is one tough customer. Sophomore Jimmy Johns has run very well and is quite a load to bring down. Florida has not faced a feature back other than Southern Mississippi's Damion Fletcher, who is currently seventh in NCAA rushing averaging 127. 3 yards per game. Fletcher gained just 89 yards on 18 carries for the Golden Eagles against the Gators.
The Gators are 8th nationally in total defense. They are currently fourth nationally in run defense. They have given up very few big plays, which was horrendous last year in Tuscaloosa.
The Gators will have to keep an eye out for those screens and an occasional trick play as well.
The Gators have beaten the Crimson Tide only once in Gainesville. Just once. They blasted Bama 35-0 in 1991. The Tide has rolled in for victories seven times.
It's my opinion that Paul "Bear" Bryant and Steve Spurrier are the best coaches in Southeastern Conference history. So, how does it shake out…
- Bryant faced the Gators eight times while at the helm at Alabama. He compiled an impressive 7-1 record against Florida.
- In the Post-Bryant era, the Gators lead the series 7-5.
- While at Florida, Spurrier had a 6-3 record against the Crimson Tide
ALABAMA OFFENSE IN-DEPTH
By: Mitch Dobbs
Alabama's offense has been a complete reversal of what preseason expert publications national, regional and local were expecting. Reality has simply failed to play along with the storyline that Alabama would rely on the run and struggle to pass with a senior tailback shooting for the career rushing record at Alabama and a sophomore quarterback with scant little playing experience at this level.
Despite our best inclinations to predict otherwise, it has been the passing game that has spurred Alabama's offense while the running game has struggled mightily. Passing has accounted for more than 60 percent of Alabama's 1524 yards, and while Alabama has moved the ball at a decent rate of 381 yards per game, points have been not as easy to come by in the first four games. Alabama leads the nation in time of possession, but is 58th in scoring offense at 25.5 points per game. Another amazing statistical oddity is that Alabama has obtained 85 first downs in four games, or 21.5 per game. A demonstration of the missed opportunities Alabama has had getting in the end zone can be found in Southeastern Conference kicking statistics, where true freshman Leigh Tiffin leads the league in field goals made as well as field goals missed.
Sophomore quarterback John Parker Wilson has exceeded everyone's expectations but his own in his first year as the Crimson Tide starter. He has completed 63 of 99 passes with one interception and seven touchdowns, including a 16 of 20 performance against Arkansas with three touchdown passes. Though sacked eight times, Wilson has also demonstrated more mobility than his predecessor Brodie Croyle, with 107 yards gained rushing and a net of 48.
Alabama has two receivers in the top 25 in the nation in receiving yards. That might be business as usual at a school like Florida, but it's unheard of at Alabama. Keith Brown is averaging 102.5 yards per game with 26 catches for 410 yards. Once considered a one-trick pony as a speedster who provides a deep threat, Brown has matured into a more complete receiver, running better routes and catching the ball in traffic. He's made the grab on 40 percent of Alabama's pass completions. Brown raised his level of play when his colleague DJ Hall was suspended for both the Cotton Bowl to end last year and the season opener against Hawaii. Hall has made up for lost time after sitting for the one game, with 11 catches for 243 yards – an average of 22.1 per catch. That includes a 78 yard touchdown last week against Arkansas, Alabama's long offensive play of the year. A dozen players have gotten into the action catching passes, although one of those was Wilson on a completion to himself for a loss of two yards. The other 11 have at least two catches on the year and are legitimate threats.
To the other storyline – Alabama's lackluster running game – the Alabama football team is one third of the way through the season and its presumed star Kenneth Darby has yet to surpass 100 yards in a single game this year. That's out of whack for Darby, who has 10 games with 100 or more yards in the previous two years, and it's a huge concern for the Alabama football team. Darby currently sits with 233 yards on the season on 77 rush attempts (3.0 yards per carry). Backup Jimmy Johns, who has 54 fewer rush attempts than does Darby, is averaging 5.2 yards per carry on 23 attempts (Johns also served a one-game suspension against Louisiana-Monroe).
There are all kinds of theories on Darby. A hip pointer bothered him in the first couple of games. A shot to the knee kept him out of contact for a part of fall training camp. He's offered that maybe he is thinking about too many different things. The muddy field at Arkansas slowed him down.
Darby has helped in other ways. In passing situations for John Parker Wilson there has been no better tailback at picking up blitzes. And Darby's reputation has led teams to focus attention on him even though he has struggled. That, in addition to stellar play from Wilson, has opened up the passing game to the extent that Brown would shatter David Palmer's single-season receiving yardage record (1,000 yards in 1993) if he continues at his 103 yard per game average.
The senior needs 767 yards to become the first player in Crimson Tide history to rush for 1,000 yards or more in three consecutive seasons, and he is now 844 yards short of the all-time career rushing record set by Shaun Alexander.
Alabama's offensive line returned four starters from last year's team, but shuffling has made that a moot point. The line has been better at times but not consistently above average. True freshman Andre Smith has started from day one at left tackle and has been amazing to watch. He is not as sound as center Antoine Caldwell, but is as spectacular as any lineman in the league. Justin Britt moved from defensive tackle where he's been the past two years to start at left guard, and B.J. Stabler is the only returning starter to stay in the same spot where he played a year ago. Chris Capps moved from left tackle to the right side to displace Kyle Tatum, who had started there two years prior. Alabama has depth on its line, but it is still looking for cohesiveness among the first group.
Despite a paucity of scoring touchdowns, especially in the red zone, there are signs Alabama's offense can be much better. Life for a quarterback in the SEC can be downright scary when a team is unable to run the ball to help keep a pass rush at bay. Backup tailback Jimmy Johns could see more carries for the Crimson Tide this week in an attempt to try to breathe new life into the running game. Wilson will see the fiercest rush yet and how he handles it will go along way in determining the outcome of the game.