Thursday Thoughts on Alabama Football
By: Larry Burton
When Urban Meyer got to Ohio State, he was shocked with the mindset of the players who were there. It was more like a country club atmosphere than a football team. First team players felt too comfortable in their positions and hard work, especially in the weight room just wasn’t there. Even though he went undefeated in his first season there, he told friends that his worst Florida team would have killed that Ohio State team. He further said that it would be a few years of him changing the mindset of the players to his process and running off the ones who were far too comfortable to have the kind of physically imposing team he would need to compete with conferences like the SEC. It was fortunate that they were on probation and couldn’t go to a bowl that year and that the world didn’t get to see that prediction come true.
Because last season, after having gone undefeated till the last game of the season, they played Michigan State, who runs an SEC type defense and everyone saw just what he was talking about. Everyone saw that Ohio State still has a way to go because the Spartans simply killed them in most aspects of the game and just physically manhandled them at almost every spot. They were then handed their second loss in a row by Clemson who put up 40 points on them and further embarrassed a team that thought they were better than they actually were.
Meyer said those two losses could be the best thing that happened to his team because now they see how hard they have to work to play real teams that work hard everyday. The other thing that will help Meyer will be that he is stocking the shelves like never before and that will make the number ones have to work really hard to keep their jobs, something that was not the case before Meyer’s arrival.
Which brings us back to Alabama. Nick Saban has stocked the shelves at Alabama for so long now to such an insane degree that no one had better be too confident in their job, because behind him is not just one man, but sometimes two or three who could fill their shoes in a heartbeat and the team would just keep on humming.
Some positions it is just down right crazy how much talent is waiting for their chance and that brings me to one of my most asked questions, which is, “Why isn’t Kenyan Drake getting more carries or starting?”
These are logical and observant people who ask this question and most of them ask the question because there is not one game that comes to mind, or any scrimmage lately, where Drake’s yard per carry total doesn’t blow T.J. Yeldon’s numbers out of the water. If you only go by stats, no one could, in any way shape or fashion have any argument that Drake is not the best running back on the Alabama team.
Well, that’s why math majors or statisticians don’t coach football and Nick Saban rules that job. In a Saban system, a running back must meet criteria in other areas that Saban deems much more critical than yards per carry average. They are:
1. What is their turnover rate? Fumbling puts you down in the pecking order.
2. Are they effective in their job and do they move the chains and help keep drives alive?
3. How do they pick up the blitz and do the other jobs they have to do when not carrying the ball?
4. Is their mind and body 100% immersed in the “Process”?
5. Are they doing right or wrong things off the field?
Any strikes against you in any of these areas, and Lord knows Drake has had issues with numbers 1 and 5, then the person that answers those questions with the most positive answers is going to be to be the leader of pack. While Yeldon may lack Drake’s yard per carry average, he has fewer fumbles per carry, is effective and moves the chains, picks up the blitz and is heady about all things when not getting a hand off, follows the process and stays out of the headlines for any wrong doing, unlike Drake.
Drake knows all this, understands why he’s not number 1 or perhaps even number 2 right now and he may have packed up his bags and left had we not not had Lane Kiffin on the staff to reassure him that he’ll get his opportunities if he can just stay on the straight and narrow. Kiffin’s offense is all about change of pace and Drake is that.
On Tuesday after practice Saban brought up two defensive linemen who had run afoul of “team rules” and emphasized very clearly that though they may have thought to be higher on the depth chart, defensive linemen Brandon Ivory, a usual starter, and Jarren Reed who was high on the charts before are now down, way down on the charts. “They’re on the third team, so they have to work their way up,” Saban said after practice. “I don’t think it’s real fair to the guys who have been out there for 14 days practicing on the first and second team, they need to beat them out,” Saban said with a slightly louder voice. “They aren’t entitled to anything. They’re working hard and they’re getting plenty of work. They certainly have to improve as football players but from a behavioral standpoint, they have done a very good job and I’m pleased with them.”
But what he’s really pleased with is that they got through being in his dog house for now and will start earning back the right to their former positions. He is pleased that they have apparently have seemed to have learned their lesson.
I recently explained this philosophy of Saban’s to a group of Alabama fans who followed up with the question, who is most comfortable people on the team and without a doubt, I’d have have to say number 1 is out punter, J.K. Scott, who looks to have a great leg and has no one really breathing down his neck and Adam Griffin, the place kicker, who may have gotten off to a rocky start, but is kicking lights out so far in practice. Everyone else had better work like the devil and not look back too long. Now THAT is thing that Nick Saban has done to Alabama that is making the difference.
And when I say difference, I mean not just the difference in wins and losses, but the difference in attitude, hard work and pride. Eddie Lacy told me a while back that he never regretted the years he mainly rode the bench at Alabama. He said he knew he’d be starting on almost any other SEC team, but it meant more to him to part of the best of the best than to be a leader and starter on just another team. He said he came here to compete with and play with the best and he knew before he left he’d be a starter and a leader and he accomplished both those things.
That is the mindset Nick Saban places on his recruits from day one. The only thing that they are assured of is that they can measure themselves against the best at Alabama, be part of the best and not just compete for championships, but for personal pride. There is no “country club” at Alabama, no comfort zone for starting players and certainly no sense of entitlement.
That’s my Thursday thought for this week and if you have questions you’d like answers for or ideas for future Thursday thoughts, then use the comment section below and let us hear from you.
Larry is an award winning writer whose work has appeared in almost every college football venue. Now he primarily writes for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter