Florida Gators loom large for Alabama

By Hunter Ford

Alabama players understand the importance of this week’s game against Florida. It’s the conference opener for Crimson Tide.

“If they don’t, they don’t understand Alabama football and playing in the SEC,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

Saban said he believed his team improved a little bit in a 52-12 drubbing of Southern Miss, although its best effort came later in the game.

“We definitely played better as the game went on,” he said. “We started out tentatively for some reason.”  Alabama allowed Southern Miss to take a 3-0 lead on the opening possession of the game.  Alabama’s first offensive play was stopped by a penalty.  But Saban said the Tide became more confident and executed better as the game progressed.

The Tide will have to do “a little bit better job of preparing and executing” in the coming weeks, Saban said. He said Florida is a much improved team.  “They are always one of the top teams in our conference,” he said.  “It will be a real challenge for us.”

Florida’s head coach, Will Muschamp, was the defensive coordinator for Nick Saban at LSU. Saban described Muschamp as one of his favorite former assistants.  Saban said Muschamp’s Gators will play a style of defense similar to what Alabama runs, although Saban said Florida will probably play more “even” defenses.

Florida has an explosive wide receiver in Demarcus Robinson. Saban described Robinson as a “complete player” who has good competitiveness, good size and speed, and can run with the ball after the catch.

Robinson was a hero for the Gators last week in an overtime victory over Kentucky. Robinson caught 15 passes for 216 yards and two TDS.  One TD reception came on fourth down in the first overtime period.

New Florida offense coordinator Kurt Roper has brought his system with him from Duke. Saban said he expects Florida to essentially run the Duke offense, which he described as “a very effective system.”

Roper was offensive coordinator for David Cuttcliffe’s Blue Devils last season. Roper also coached for Cuttcliffe at Ole Miss during the Eli Manning era.

Saban said the Gators will have “tremendous balance” on offense. He said Florida has consistently been one of the best defensive teams in the SEC.  The Gators have a dangerous cornerback in Vernon Hargreaves, who Saban describes as a “very instinctive” player who excels at man-to-man coverage, and is a good tackler.

Speaking of his own defensive backs, Saban said they gave up passing plays to Southern Miss that could have been broken up.

“When players are in position to make plays, they need to make plays,” he said. “We need to do a better job, in that regard, of getting the ball out…getting the ball away from people.”

Saban said “missed tackles and mental errors will absolutely kill you,” but said he felt tackling was better last week.   He said it is dangerous to practice complete tackling on a daily basis.

“When you start tackling and taking them all the way to the ground in practice,” he said, it is puts a lot of wear and tear on both offensive and defensive players. He said the Tide defenders have been working on being in the right position to make tackles, and have shown improvement in game play.

The Tide’s Amari Cooper has received the majority of passes thrown this season, and Saban was asked to comment about that. Saban said that his offense has been successful with most of the things it has tried to do so far “and a lot has gone through Amari Cooper.”  Saban noted that Dee White caught six passes against Florida Atlantic and Christion Jones caught four passes last week.

Saban said “Coop” excels at having a quick release off the ball, and at breaking fast on his cuts, making him difficult to defend. He said many receivers only do one of those things really well.

Saban said several running backs have contributed heavily for the Tide, and there are several offensive players with abilities to make plays. He said it will be important to spread the ball around more so the defense “can’t zero in on one guy.”

Alabama has only suffered two quarterback sacks this year. Both times Jake Coker was the quarterback.  Saban said Blake Sims’ elusiveness has been one reason for that. He said Sims has a good feel of when to stay in the pocket, move in the pocket, or pull the ball down and run.

Saban added there has been good offensive line play.  However, Saban said he expects SEC teams to “challenge” the Tide a little more with blitzes.

Dee White will practice this week, but a decision on playing time will be made later in the week.  Safety Jarrick Williams is running drills, but is a “long shot” to play against Florida.

Overall, Saban said the Tide needs to continue practicing with focus.  He said Alabama could not afford to play well one week, and not well another week, and “expect to survive.”

“I don’t think we’ve become the team we can become,” he said. “We just have to keep working at it.”