August 5, 2012 10:46:57 PM
Jeff Clark - [email protected]
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It has been about seven months since the University of Alabama football team won one of the most controversial National Championship games since the Bowl Championship Series system was created, beating Southeastern Conference West champion LSU 21-0.
For sixth-year Alabama coach Nick Saban, the title game is ancient history. All that matters for him and his team is working through the first few practices of the season.
On Sunday at the team's annual media day at the Naylor Stone Media Suite, Saban stayed away from "p questions" -- questions about predictions, pressure, and possibilities. Alabama, which went 12-1 last season, is ranked No. 2 behind LSU (13-1) in the USA Today/Coaches preseason poll.
"I know you guys are going to have all of these comparison questions and 'where you're ranked' and 'how many games you're going to win' and 'what's going to happen to this guy' and 'which guy is going to make the biggest impact on the team' and all of the predictions you make. They hijack the game," Saban said. "All anybody worries about in college football is the BCS. Who's going to be in the final game? We have a lot of great games for our fans and our players. To answer your questions, I don't know who is going to be our quarterback in game six, and no one here can predict that. You go and vote in your polls and you want me to respond to it. Our focus is developing a synergy on our team. The goal of our team is to be relentless competitors -- to be a team that nobody really wants to play by the effort, the toughness, and the ability to be relentless and sustain for 60 minutes in a game."
With the loss of several key starters, including running back Trent Richardson, linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, and tight end Brad Smelley, Saban acknowledged he will coach a young team, a different team than in 2011.
Saban, who has the reputation as a perfectionist, said he hopes to see his players get more comfortable as practices continue.
"Our team is only going to do as well as the players can learn to develop an ability to execute on a consistent basis," Saban said. "This is especially challenging for young players who really want to do well and have high expectations coming in. Some of those expectations have been created by external factors. That also creates a risk aversive, an 'I don't want to mess up attitude.' It makes it more difficult for them to be free and go compete and play hard and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes because they just don't want to mess up. You go back to the old Nike commercial that says 'Just Do It.' In some cases, that's what we are trying to get our players to do. Playing fast, playing hard and being aggressive; that kind of mental energy is really important to being a good player. When you get risk aversive and you don't want to make mistakes, it actually can hinder your ability to learn and grow and perform like we would like you to."
There are other questions that will be addressed. One is how the offense will operate under new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who comes to Alabama from the University of Washington. Nussmeier replaced former offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who left earlier this year to become head coach at Colorado State University.
"I think he is a bright guy and a guy that a lot of people on our staff know," Saban said of Nussmeier. "He has called plays in circumstances here with us, whether it's a scrimmage or an A-Day game. He's got a lot of positive energy and a lot of good ideas that we've implemented into our offense. I think the players respond well to him. The players like him. I think the adjustments that we've made in the passing game are going to be beneficial to our offensive team being more explosive and creating more balance. I'm excited to have him. He's a good recruiter. He really fits in well with the other coaches on the staff. There are a lot of positives there."
Returning tight end Michael Williams, a Reform native and graduate of Pickens County High School, is someone Saban calls "an unsung hero." Williams e feels the offense has adjusted well to Nussmeier's directions.
"We know this is not the same team. We are moving forward," Williams said. "We are going out there to do our job. We are excited and having fun running around at practice. Adapting to coach Nussmeier hasn't been difficult. The offense is almost the same with different terminology. Most of the routes are the same they just have different names so we've been adapting to the terminology. The next game is the most important game and that game is Michigan. We are preparing for it every day. But we've only had two practices. We're just practicing trying to get our fundamentals together as an offense."
Another area of uncertainty is the defense. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who has been with Saban for eight years, said depth will be the key.
"There are a lot of good individuals on (the defense)," Smart said. "We're an athletic defense. We have a lot of depth on the defensive line. There's not a lot of great players, say like a Marcell Dareus, but we've got a lot of good players. We've got a lot of competition going on at every position. There is more competition going on this year than I can ever remember before, because there are so many even players. The 'two' is as good as the 'one'. Sometimes, the 'three' is as good as the 'two'. To me, I think that depth is a key. Also, creating a pass rush on the edges is key. We lost our two best edge rushers in Dont'a (Hightower) and Courtney (Upshaw). They were 'the guys' on the edges for the past two or three seasons. Now, who will those guys (edge rushers) be? We really don't know that yet. We haven't even had pads on yet. We'll find out a little more out today when we do some third down stuff, to give us a chance to find out who those rushers are outside."
While Smart didn't name a leader on defense, he said he has been impressed with the abilities of linebacker Adrian Hubbard.
"Adrian Hubbard is going to fit in that role," Smart said." He got to play a little bit last year during the Arkansas game. He kind of got thrown in the fire last year during the game when C.J. Mosley went down. We had to put Hightower in C.J.'s position, and we had to put Hubbard at Hightower's position, so Hubbard has been in the fire. We had packages the past couple of years that we never actually used, and he was a very integral part of those packages. We think he is a very talented pass rusher, and we certainly hope he can help us. As far as the rest of them, Xzavier Dickson has got to come on and rush for us. Anthony Orr has got to be a good pass rusher for us. We've got a couple of freshmen that we're going to find out a little bit about today, to see if they can be good pass rushers. D.J. Pettway is doing a good job in pass rush."
Alabama will open its 2012 season against Big Ten opponent University of Michigan, which is ranked No. 8, Sept. 1 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The game, which will be broadcast on national television, will be just another game, according to All-America center Barrett Jones.
"I don't think we focus on that," said Jones, who has family in West Point. "When you come to Alabama, you come to play in big games like these. I've personally played in some really big games, so I don't feel as much pressure. It's an opportunity for us to jump out on a big stage and show what we are all about."